France’s feeble Napoleon

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has been playing rough and tough again, targeting immigrants

In late July, I spent a week with my family, as I do several times a year, in a small flat in the 11th arrondissement in Paris. Fifteen years ago,
I lived in the same neighbourhood in the east of the city when I was a graduate student at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

Today, the quartier is much as it was back then, scruffy and boisterous, and still more or less a "citadel of tolerance", as Richard Cobb, the great English historian of Paris, said of the neighbouring district of Belleville, which lies a mile or so to the north. This is where Sephar­dic Jews and Muslims of North African origin live among immigrants from West Africa and "bourgeois bohemian" refugees from more prosperous milieux.

Writing in 1985, Cobb predicted the imminent death of this "traditional Paris", of areas such as Belleville or Ménilmontant, with their mixed populations of "poor Jewish tailors, Algerians and long-limbed Sénégalais". The "middle-class armies" were on the march, and soon, he thought, the capital would become a monoculture reserved for the "very affluent and the very ambitious". As for the traditional "Parisians" themselves, those Jewish tailors and Africans from north and west, they would be banished to Alphaville, Cobb's Godardian shorthand for the vast suburban agglomerations that proliferated beyond the périphérique from the late 1960s on.

He may have underestimated the tenacity of the esprit de quartier in the north-eastern areas of Paris, the combination of familiarity and gossip that was the social glue of these urban villages (it's still there if you know where to look). But Cobb was certainly right about the dystopia that was being assembled beyond the boundaries of Paris proper. He wrote despairingly of the sprawling housing project to the north of the city at Sarcelles, with its "rectangular blocks", "concrete coils" and forbidding walkways. The social cost of this and other grands ensembles was obvious to him: "What can one expect of [them]," Cobb wrote, "other than inarticulate despair, vandalism and teenage violence?"

It was on these same estates that the accu­mulated frustrations of young men, mostly descendants of North African immigrants, excluded by geography, culture and religion from mainstream French life, exploded into violence in the autumn of 2005.

Many of the suburbs or banlieues that burned five years ago were products of administrative fiat. Sarcelles itself, Cobb pointed out, was an "initiative of the Prefecture of Police", while "prefects" (local representatives of central government appointed by the president of the republic himself) were created for several neighbouring areas where tower blocks now adhered to what had previously been small, ragged jumbles of houses - as if, by doing so, new towns could simply be willed into existence.

A "very 18th-century concept", Cobb observed. (The prefectoral corps was created in 1800 by Napoleon Bonaparte, after the coup of the 18 Brumaire the previous year.)

I was reminded of this when, still during our stay, President Nicolas Sarkozy gave the now notorious speech at Grenoble discussed by Nabila Ramdani in her Letter from Paris on page 25. It is worth remembering that the occasion of this address, in which Sarkozy launched a "war on delinquency", was the appointment of a new prefect in the department of Isère, in the south-east. The previous incumbent, Albert Dupuy, had been summarily stripped of his functions after rioting in the Grenoble suburb of Villeneuve earlier that month. He was replaced by Éric Le Douaron, a former head of the French border police who, as Sarkozy put it, had "exercised the highest responsibilities in the area of security".

In April, the president had done the same in the department of Seine-Saint-Denis, north-east of Paris, where he appointed as prefect Christian Lambert, a former director of the CRS (the national riot police). In both cases, he said, the aim was to take "targeted action to ensure that conditions of republican order were restored".

These were provocative appointments, not least because, until now, senior policemen have seldom become prefects. Usually the appointees are chosen from the ranks of the administrative elite, the graduates of the École Nationale d'Administration or the École Nationale de la Magistrature, say. This is because a prefect's responsibilities do not lie solely in the domain of "security" but, as Article 72 of the French constitution puts it, extend to the protection of "national interests, [the carrying out] of administrative checks and [ensuring] respect for the law".

Bonapartism

The day after the Grenoble speech, Le Monde devoted the cover story in its weekend magazine to the role of the prefect and the way Sarkozy exploits it. The president's "natural Bonapar­tism", the paper declared, made him particularly adept at "manipulating this [prefects'] army invented by Napoleon". Sarkozy expects "total commitment" from his prefects, and, as the experience of Dupuy showed, if he doesn't get it, the consequences are severe.

This is characteristic of the Sarkozy system of government more generally. It is his style to govern by patronage and to surround himself with those who are indebted to him. As the commentator Bernard Girard points out, the appointments of Le Douaron and Lambert show the importance that Sarkozy attaches to having advisers and collaborators who "owe him everything", and in whom he places the kind of trust he rarely, if ever, shows to his ministers.

In this arrangement, the adviser plays courtier to Sarkozy's prince. But while it certainly allows the president to delegate with confidence (even a politician as hyperactive as Sarkozy cannot be in control of every brief and issue), it also means that his advisers cannot disagree with him without endangering their position. This often leads to grave errors of policy. Girard suggests that the recent victimisation of and punitive measures taken against the Roma are a case in point.

The dismantling of Roma settlements and subsequent deportations of hundreds of them to Bulgaria and Romania, not to mention Sar­kozy's threat to deprive French citizens of "foreign descent" of their nationality if they are found guilty of certain serious crimes, were desperately populist measures intended to shore up the president's waning popularity (a recent Sofres poll put his approval rating at 30 per cent, down from a historic high of 60 per cent). The aim was to shift media attention away from the stories that were dominating the front pages of the newspapers when we arrived in Paris in July: the Liliane Bettencourt affair, in which Sarkozy's labour minister Eric Woerth had been implicated, and the fallout from the mutiny of the French football team at the World Cup in South Africa (a squad, it should be remembered, comprised largely of young black men born and brought up in the banlieues).

However, Sarkozy's wager appears to have failed. As well as attracting predictable criticism from the left, his gamble on "security" has alienated his more conventional constituencies on the right: the Catholic Church and Jewish organisations, previously supportive of the president, have come out in opposition, as have several leading right-of-centre politicians.

The former prime minister Alain Juppé declared that reasonable anxieties about law and order did not legitimate "exaggerated responses barely compatible with our fundamental values", and Dominique de Villepin, foreign minister during the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003 and an old rival of Sarkozy's, pointedly reminded the president of Article 1 of the French constitution. This guarantees equality before the law, "without distinction of origin, race or religion". To distinguish, as the president has done, between "French citizens" and "citizens of foreign origin" is to offend against "the republic and against France", said de Villepin.

The terms of de Villepin's rebuke are significant. Earlier this year, when Sarkozy proposed a bill to ban the wearing of the burqa and the niqab in public places, he drew explicitly on the very "republican" conception of citizenship and nationality that he is now accused, by left and right alike, of betraying. This is an idea of "civic", as opposed to ethnic, citizenship that has in fact been in crisis for some years, since long before Sarkozy's attempts to manipulate the electoral cycle by starting a "national debate" on French identity.

“Culture wars"

These arguments over what it means to be French - France's very own "culture wars" - extend back as far as the early 1980s. This was when Cobb was composing his lament for the old Paris, and when the historian Pierre Nora (himself the descendant of North African Jews) began editing Les lieux de mémoire, a multi-­authored work on national memory that was also a defensive effort on behalf of forms of French self-identification that he believed were beginning to unravel.

According to the political theorist Cécile Laborde, this long-running dispute has pitted proponents of the "classical" republican model of citizenship, which entails "integration in a common national culture" (one grounded not in blood or soil, but in the universal values of liberty, equality and fraternity), against those who insist that the model has historically been undermined by ethnic and racial discrimination. The critics reject a republican ideology of "assimilation" that dates back to the Revolution, when the attempt began to create a nation from a fissiparous collection of different peoples, each with its own language. The problem, they argue, is that this ideology leaves no room for any formal, public recognition of the status of ethnic and cultural minorities.

Sarkozy's unwitting achievement this past month is to have united in opposition against him both sides in this long-running intellectual and political dispute. And, with the rentrée politique, his problems will only deepen. On 4 September, tens of thousands of people marched through Paris to protest against the president's security policies. Three days later, there were strikes and demonstrations across France against the government's proposed pension reforms. "Power," Napoleon once said, "is my mistress. I have worked too hard at her conquest to allow anyone to take her away from me." Whether Sarkozy will be able to protect his conquest between now and the election in 2012 remains to be seen.

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

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Losing Momentum: how Jeremy Corbyn’s support group ran out of steam

Tom Watson says it is destroying Labour. Its supporters say it is a vital force for change. Our correspondent spent six months following the movement, and asks: what is the truth about Momentum?

1. The Bus

 The bus to the Momentum conference in Liverpool leaves at seven on a Sunday morning in late September from Euston Station, and the whole journey feels like a parody of a neoliberal play about the failings of socialism. We depart an hour late because activists have overslept and we cannot go without them. As we wait we discuss whether Jeremy Corbyn will be re-elected leader of the Labour Party this very day. One man says not; a young, jolly girl with blonde hair cries: “Don’t say that on Jezmas!” She is joking, at least about “Jezmas”.

A man walks up. “Trots?” he says, calmly. He is joking, too; and I wonder if he says it because the idea of Momentum is more exciting to outsiders than the reality, and he knows it; there is an awful pleasure in being misunderstood. Momentum was formed in late 2015 to build on Corbyn’s initial victory in the Labour leadership election, and it is perceived as a ragtag army of placard-waving Trots, newly engaged clicktivists and Corbyn fanatics.

We leave, and learn on the M1 that, in some terrible metaphor, the coach is broken and cannot drive at more than 20mph. So we wait for another coach at a service station slightly beyond Luton. “Sabotage,” says one man. He is joking, too. We get off; another man offers me his vegan bread and we discuss Karl Marx.

A new coach arrives and I listen to the others discuss Jeremy Corbyn’s problems. No one talks about his polling, because that is depressing and unnecessary for their purpose – which, here, is dreaming. They talk about Corbyn as addicts talk about a drug. Nothing can touch him, and nothing is ever his fault. “There are problems with the press office,” says one. “Perhaps he needs better PAs?” says another.

One man thinks there will be a non-specific revolution: “I hope it won’t be violent,” he frets. “There have been violent revolutions in the past.” “I stuck it out during Blair and it was worth it,” says another. “They’ve had their go.” “We don’t need them [the Blairites],” says a third. “If new members come in, it will sort itself out,” says a fourth.

I have heard this before. Momentum supporters have told me that Labour does not need floating voters, who are somehow tainted because they dare to float. This seems to me a kind of madness. I do not know how the Labour Party will win a general election in a parliamentary democracy without floating voters; and I don’t think these people do, either.

But this is a coach of believers. Say you are not sure that Corbyn can win a general election and they scowl at you. That you are in total agreement with them is assumed, because this is the solidarity bus; and if you are in total agreement with them they are the sweetest people in the world.

That is why I do not tell them that I am a journalist. I am afraid to, and this fear baffles me. I have gone everywhere as a journalist but with these, my fellow-travellers on the left, I am scared to say it; and that, too, frightens me. MSM, they might call me – mainstream media. What it really means is: collaborator.

The man beside me has been ill. He talks sweetly about the potential renewal of society under Corbyn’s Labour as a metaphor for his own recovery, and this moves him; he has not been involved in politics until now. I like this man very much, until I mention the Jewish Labour MP Luciana Berger and the anti-Semitism she has suffered from Corbyn supporters and others; and he says, simply, that she has been employed by the state of Israel. He says nothing else about her, as if there were nothing else to say.

We listen to the results of the leadership election on the radio; we should be in Liverpool at the Black-E community centre to celebrate, but the solidarity bus is late. Corbyn thanks his supporters. “You’re welcome, Jeremy,” says a woman in the front row, as if he were on the coach. She nods emphatically, and repeats it to the man who isn’t there: “You’re welcome, Jeremy.”

In Liverpool, some of the passengers sleep on the floor at a community centre. The venue has been hired for that purpose: this is Momentum’s commitment to opening up politics to the non-connected, the previously non-engaged, and the outsiders who will attend their conference in a deconsecrated church, even as the official Labour conference convenes a mile away. But never mind that: this is the one that matters, and it is called The World Transformed.

 

2. The Conference

Later that day, outside the Black-E, a man comes up to me. Are you happy, he asks, which is a normal question here. These are, at least partly, the politics of feelings: we must do feelings, because the Tories, apparently, don’t. I say I’m worried about marginal seats, specifically that Jeremy – he is always Jeremy, the use of his Christian name is a symbol of his goodness, his accessibility and his singularity – cannot win them.

“The polls aren’t his fault,” the man says, “it’s [Labour] people briefing the Tories that he is unelectable.” I do not think it’s that simple but it’s easy to feel like an idiot – or a monster – here, where there is such conviction. As if there is something that only you, the unconvinced, have missed: that Jeremy, given the right light, hat or PA, could lead a socialist revolution in a country where 13 million people watched Downton Abbey.

But the man does say something interesting which I hope is true. “This is not about Jeremy, not really,” he says. “It is about what he represents.” He means Momentum can survive without him.

There is a square hall with trade union banners and a shop that sells Poems for Jeremy Corbyn, as well as a Corbyn-themed colouring book. When I am finally outed as a journalist, and made to wear a vast red badge that says PRESS, I attempt to buy one. “That’s all journalists are interested in,” the proprietor says angrily. That is one of our moral stains, apparently: a disproportionate (and sinister) interest in colouring books.

I go to the Black Lives Matter event. A woman talks about the experience of black students in universities and the impact of austerity on the black community. Another woman tells us that her five-year-old son wishes he was white; we listen while she cries. I go to the feminism meeting and change my mind about the legalisation of prostitution after a woman’s testimony about reporting an assault, and then being assaulted again by a police officer because of her legal status. Then I hear a former miner tell a room how the police nearly killed him on a picket line, and then arrested him.

This, to me, a veteran of party conferences, is extraordinary, although it shouldn’t be, and the fact that I am surprised is shameful. Momentum is full of the kinds of ­people you never see at political events: that is, the people politics is for. Women, members of minority communities (but not Zionist Jews, naturally), the disabled: all are treated with exaggerated courtesy, as if the Black-E had established a mirror world of its choosing, where everything outside is inverted.

When Corbyn arrives he does not orate: he ruminates. “We are not going to cascade poverty from generation to generation,” he says. “We are here to transform society and the world.” I applaud his sentiment; I share it. I just wish I could believe he can deliver it outside, in the other world. So I veer ­between hope and fury; between the certainty that they will achieve nothing but an eternal Conservative government, and the ever-nagging truth that makes me stay: what else is there?

There is a rally on Monday night. Momentum members discuss the “purges” of socialist and communist-leaning members from Labour for comments they made on social media, and whether détente is possible. A nurse asks: “How do we know that ‘wipe the slate clean’ means the same for us as it does for them? How on Earth can we trust the likes of Hilary Benn who dresses himself up in the rhetoric of socialism to justify bombing Syria? The plotters who took the olive branch offered by Jeremy to stab him in the back with another chicken coup?” I am not sure where she is going with that gag, or if it is even a gag.

The next man to speak had been at the Labour party conference earlier in the day; he saw Len McCluskey, John McDonnell and Clive Lewis on the platform. “Don’t be pessimistic, folks,” he cries. “On the floor of conference today we owned the party. Progress [the centrist Labour pressure group] are the weirdos now. We own the party!”

A man from Hammersmith and Fulham Momentum is next. “The national committee of Momentum was not elected by conference,” he says. “It’s a committee meeting knocked up behind closed doors by leading people on the left, including our two heroes.” He means Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. This is explicit heresy, and the chair interrupts him: “Stan, Stan . . .” “I’m winding up!” he says. “We need a central committee of Momentum elected by conference,” he says, and sits down.

The following day Corbyn speaks in the hall in front of golden balloons that spell out S-H-E-E-P. It may be another gag, but who can tell, from his face? This is his commitment to not doing politics the recognisable way. He is the man who walks by himself, towards balloons that say S-H-E-E-P. (They are advertising the band that will follow him. They are called, and dressed as, sheep.) The nobility of it, you could say. Or the idiocy. He mocks the mockers of Momentum: is it, he was asked by the mainstream media, full of extremists and entryists? “I’m not controlling any of it,” he says calmly, and in this calmness is all the Twitter-borne aggression that people complain of when they talk about Momentum, for he enables it with his self-satisfied smile. “It’s not my way to try and control the way people do things. I want people to come together.” He laughs, because no one can touch him, and nothing is ever his fault.

I meet many principled people in Liverpool whose testimony convinces me, and I didn’t need convincing, that austerity is a national disaster. I meet only one person who thinks that Momentum should take over the Labour Party. The maddest suggestion I hear is that all media should be state-controlled so that they won’t be rude about a future Corbyn government and any tribute colouring books.

 

3. The HQ

Momentum HQ is in the TSSA transport and travel union building by Euston Station in London. I meet Jon Lansman, Tony Benn’s former fixer and the founder of Momentum, in a basement room in October. Lansman, who read economics at Cambridge, lived on the fringes of Labour for 30 years before volunteering for Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership.

The terms are these: I can ask whatever I want, but afterwards James Schneider, the 29-year-old national organiser (who has since left to work for Corbyn’s press team), will decide what I can and cannot print. ­Momentum HQ wants control of the message; with all the talk of entryism and infighting reported in the mainstream media, the movement needs it.

There is a civil war between Jon Lansman and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) and other far-left factions, which, I am told, “wish to organise in an outdated manner out of step with the majority of Momentum members”. Some of the Momentum leadership believe that the AWL and its allies want to use Momentum to found a new party to the left of Labour. Jill Mountford, then a member of Momentum’s steering committee, has been expelled from Labour for being a member of the AWL. It screams across the blogs and on Facebook; more parody. We don’t talk about that – Schneider calls it “Kremlinology”. It is a problem, yes, but it is not insurmountable. We talk about the future, and the past.

So, Lansman. I look at him. The right considers him an evil Bennite wizard to be feared and mocked; the far left, a Stalinist, which seems unfair. It must be exhausting. I see a tired, middle-aged man attending perhaps his fifteenth meeting in a day. His hair is unruly. He wears a T-shirt.

The last Labour government, he says, did one thing and said another: “Wanting a liberal immigration policy while talking tough about refugees and migrants. Having a strong welfare policy and generous tax credits while talking about ‘strivers’ and ‘scroungers’ unfortunately shifted opinion the wrong way.”

It also alienated the party membership: “Their approach was based on ensuring that everyone was on-message with high levels of control.” It was an “authoritarian structure even in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party]. Even in the cabinet. It killed off the enthusiasm of the membership. They never published the figures in 2009 because it dropped below 100,000. We’ve now got 600,000.” (The membership has since dropped to roughly 528,000.)

And the strategy? “If you have hundreds of thousands of people having millions of conversations with people in communities and workplaces you can change opinion,” he says. “That’s the great advantage of ­having a mass movement. And if we can change the Labour Party’s attitude to its members and see them as a resource – not a threat or inconvenience.”

That, then, is the strategy: street by street and house by house. “We can’t win on the back of only the poorest and only the most disadvantaged,” he says. “We have to win the votes of skilled workers and plenty of middle-class people, too – but they are all suffering from some aspects of Tory misrule.”

I ask about polling because, at the time, a Times/YouGov poll has Labour on 27 per cent to the Tories’ 41 per cent. He doesn’t mind. “It was,” he says, “always going to be a very hard battle to win the next election. I think everyone across the party will privately admit that.” He doesn’t think that if Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham were leader they would be polling any better.

Upstairs the office is full of activists. They are young, rational and convincing (although, after the Copeland by-election on 23 February, I will wonder if they are only really convincing themselves). They talk about their membership of 20,000, and 150 local groups, and 600,000 Labour Party members, and the breadth of age and background of the volunteers – from teenagers to people in their eighties. One of them – Ray Madron, 84 – paints his hatred of Tony Blair like a portrait in the air. He has a ­marvellously posh voice. Most of all, they talk about the wounds of austerity. Where, they want to know, is the anger? They are searching for it.

Emma Rees, a national organiser, speaks in the calm, precise tones of the schoolteacher she once was. “A lot of people are sick and tired of the status quo, of politics as usual, and I think trying to do things differently is hard because there isn’t a road map and it’s not clear exactly what you’re supposed to do,” she says. She adds: “It is a coalition of different sorts of people and holding all those people together can sometimes be a challenge.”

Is she alluding to entryism? One activist, who asks not to be named, says: “I don’t want to insult anyone, but if you rounded up all the members of the Socialist Workers Party [SWP] and the Socialist Party and any other ultra-left sect, you could probably fit them in one room. Momentum has 20,000 members.”

The SWP were outside at The World Transformed in Liverpool, I say, like an ambivalent picket line. “Well,” James Schneider says pointedly, “they were outside.”

Momentum, Emma Rees says, “is seeking to help the Labour Party become that transformative party that will get into government but doesn’t fall back on that tried and failed way of winning elections”.

They tell me this repeatedly, and it is true: no one knows what will work. “The people who criticised us don’t have any route to electability, either,” says Joe Todd, who organises events for Momentum. He is a tall, bespectacled man with a kindly, open face.

“They lost two elections before Jeremy Corbyn. It’s obvious we need to do something differently,” he says. “Politics feels distant for most people: it doesn’t seem to offer any hope for real change.

“The left has been timid and negative. More and more people are talking about how we can transform society, and how these transformations link to people’s everyday experience. Build a movement like that,” Todd says, and his eyes swell, “and all the old rules of politics – the centre ground, swing constituencies to a certain extent – are blown out of the water.”

Momentum sends me, with a young volunteer as chaperone, to a rally in Chester in October to watch activists try to muster support for local hospitals. They set up a stall in the centre of the shopping district, with its mad dissonance of coffee shops and medieval houses. From what I can see, people – yet far too few people – listen politely to the speeches about austerity and sign up for more information; but I can hear the hum of internal dissent when an activist, who asks not to be named, tells me he will work for the local Labour MP to be deselected. (The official Momentum line on deselection is, quite rightly, that it is a matter for local parties.)

We will not know what matters – is it effective? – until the general election, because no one knows what will work.

 

4. The Fallout

Now comes the result of the by-election in Copeland in the north-west of England, and the first time since 1982 that a ruling government has taken a seat from the opposition in a by-election. Momentum canvassed enthusiastically (they sent 85 carloads of activists to the constituency) but they failed, and pronounce themselves “devastated”. The whispers – this time of a “soft” coup against Corbyn – begin again.

Rees describes calls for Jeremy Corbyn to resign as “misguided. Labour’s decline long pre-dates Corbyn’s leadership.”

This produces a furious response from Luke Akehurst, a former London Labour ­councillor in Hackney, on labourlist.org. He insists that Labour’s decline has accelerated under Corbyn; that even though Rees says that “Labour has been haemorrhaging votes in election after election in Copeland since 1997”, the majority increased in 2005 and the number of votes rose in 2010, despite an adverse boundary change. “This,” he writes, “was a seat where the Labour vote was remarkably stable at between 16,750 and 19,699 in every general election between 2001 and 2015, then fell off a cliff to 11,601, a third of it going AWOL, last Thursday.”

And he adds that “‘85 carloads of Mom­entum activists’ going to Copeland is just increasing the party’s ability to record whose votes it has lost”.

But still they plan, and believe, even if no one knows what will work; surely there is some antidote to Mayism, if they search every street in the UK? Momentum’s national conference, which was repeatedly postponed, is now definitively scheduled for 25 March. Stan who complained about a democratic deficit within Momentum at The World Transformed got his way. So did Lansman. In January the steering committee voted to dissolve Momentum’s structures and introduce a constitution, after consulting the membership. A new national co-ordinating group has been elected, and met for the first time on 11 March – although, inevitably, a group called Momentum Grassroots held a rival meeting that very day.

I go to the Euston offices for a final briefing. There, two young women – Sophie and Georgie, and that will make those who think in parodies laugh – tell me that, in future, only members of the Labour Party will be allowed to join Momentum, and existing members must join Labour by 1 July. Those expelled from Labour “may be deemed to have resigned from Momentum after 1 July” – but they will have a right to a hearing.

More details of the plan are exposed when, a week later, a recording of Jon Lansman’s speech to a Momentum meeting in Richmond on 1 March is leaked to the Observer. Lansman told the Richmond branch that Momentum members must hold positions within the Labour Party to ensure that Corbyn’s successor – they are now talking about a successor – is to their liking. He also said that, should Len McCluskey be re-elected as general secretary of Unite, the union would formally affiliate to Momentum.

Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the party, was furious when he found out, calling it “a private agreement to fund a political faction that is apparently planning to take control of the Labour Party, as well as organise in the GMB and Unison”.

There was then, I am told, “a short but stormy discussion at the away day at Unison” on Monday 20 March, where the inner circle of John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry “laid into” Watson, but Shami Chakrabarti made the peace; I would have liked to see that. Watson then released a bland joint statement with Corbyn which mentioned “a robust and constructive discussion about the challenges and opportunities ahead”.

Jon Lansman, of course, is more interesting. “This is a non-story,” he tells me. “Momentum is encouraging members to get active in the party, to support socialist policies and rule changes that would make Labour a more grass-roots and democratic party, and to campaign for Labour victories. There is nothing scandalous and sinister about that.” On the Labour right, Progress, he notes, does exactly the same thing. “Half a million members could be the key to our success,” he says. “They can take our message to millions. But they want to shape policy, too. I wouldn’t call giving them a greater say ‘taking over the party’” – and this is surely unanswerable – “it’s theirs to start with.”

Correction: This article originally named Luke Akehurst as a Labour councillor. Akehurst stood down in 2014.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution