People stand next to the wreckages of the Malaysian airliner carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur after it crashed, near the town of Shaktarsk, in rebel-held east Ukraine, on 17 July 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Returning the gaze: everyone’s a war reporter in an always-connected world

The internet brings war and conflict into homes around the world more immediately than ever before, but with the torrent of data, images and videos comes confusion and propaganda. It demands a new kind of war reporting – one which can make sense of digital evidence, and use the decentralised web as a tool for undermining the enforced narratives of the powerful.

It’s taken 54 days for the first findings from the investigation into the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur to be released. The preliminary report by the Dutch Safety Board features several key points: “high-energy objects penetrated the aircraft from outside”; the plane broke up in mid-air; the pilots in the cockpit were talking normally until the plane was hit, indicating they were taken by surprise; the other black box, which recorded telemetric data, also showed normal data until the flight was suddenly hit.

This is all consistent with the Ukrainian government’s belief that pro-Russian separatists shot MH17 down with a Soviet-era Buk ground-to-air missile launcher, and it contradicts the Russian government’s insinuation that a Ukrainian figher jet was detected “in close proximity” to the plane just before it crashed. It’s also consistent with the work of users of a website called bellingcat, who have been cataloguing and analysing photographs of the MH17 crash site for almost every one of those 54 days. The consensus among them is that MH17 was hit by a Buk launcher with the missile exploding on the front port side of the plane, and the shrapnel causing extensive structural damage and near-instant decompression.

Anyone who disagrees with this assessment is welcome to try and debunk it – the possibility of being wrong is a key part of how bellingcat works. It is, in the words of founder Eliot Higgins – better know by his pen name Brown Moses – an “open source investigation”.

A typical verification thread on bellingcat’s Checkdesk site, with users discussing evidence of damage to the nose and cockpit of MH17.

For those who pay attention to the current conflicts in the Middle East, Brown Moses is likely a familiar name. Working from a laptop in his living room in Leicester, he has produced some of the most important journalism on the Syrian Civil War, and become a lodestar for an emerging kind of online citizen war reporting. His first big scoop came after the chemical gas attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August 2012, where he used video footage posted online to build a case that the Assad regime was responsible for the deaths of as many as 1,729 people. He cross-referenced the shapes of the canisters which had held the gas with those seen in earlier YouTube videos showing other attacks on rebel positions by regime forces – it was the kind of detail only he, having spent hours obsessively gathering such videos, would recognise.

He has no background in weapons or war – he used to work in finance – but he does have a fastidious, obsessive thoroughness about his work that has led New York Times war correspondent C J Chivers to call him “an indisputable resource”. Human Rights Watch cites his work as “among the best out there”. With the launch of bellingcat Higgins is turning his hobby into a profession, successfully raising more than £50,000 on Kickstarter to fund its launch in August.

“It’s my attempt to solve a problem I’ve seen quite repeatedly in the last couple of years,” he told me. “I’m in an unusual position because I’m outside the normal circles of journalists and NGOs and activists, and they all come to me with these different ideas, and I find these great projects and tools and techniques that have been developed, but they’re just not getting them out there. They’d really work well together, but they don’t know they exist. There might be something an NGO is working on that a tech company could help with, but they’d never communicate with each other because they’re not in that circle. So what I’m trying to do is bring that stuff together in one site.”

In his work, Higgins uses a variety of technological tools to discover and assess evidence. The bellingcat homepage is a rolling almanac of global conflict, where “citizen investigative journalists” collect and post information as it arrives. Social media sites like Twitter and YouTube, mapping software like Google Maps, collaborative tools like chatroom/archive Checkdesk – these are all useful tools in sorting fact from fiction.

“That’s quite important because there are so many reports of things being moved from the site and messed around with. It’s useful to have these photographs recorded somewhere just in case there are discrepancies”, he says. “If we have these discussions on Twitter, in a couple of weeks’ time it’s impossible to find that original discussion, so having a place where it’s recorded and you can see the process of verification is useful. Also, I recognise there are a lot of people out there who aren’t experts, but keen on a subject and who can provide some good, useful contributions to investigations. I want to give those people somewhere they can go to and read about the tools and techniques they can use.”

The Buk launcher which is suspected to have been used to shoot down MH17 was photographed and recorded at different times on the day of the crash by local residents - Higgins reconstructed its movements, creating this map, showing it was within range of the plane at the necessary time.

It feels like there’s a paradox in our understanding of conflict, in the internet era: we’re seeing more of it than ever before, but the more we see, the less we understand. This is about more than Islamic State jihadis tweeting about Robin Williams one day and sharing videos of executions on YouTube the next – it’s about the idea of narrative in conflict, and our understanding of blame, and justice. We are bombarded with primary sources from war zones, but the traditional means of making sense of that information – things like war reporting by media organisation, or investigations by international bodies - are too slow, or missing altogether. It can feel like watching a documentary without a narrator. We know that what we see is meant to mean something, but what?

The crash of MH17 claimed 296 lives, and their fate was a miserable illustration of this. For more than 24 hours a grey train sat idling in the station of the small eastern Ukrainian town of Torez, waiting for permission from someone – it wasn’t clear who – to begin the journey of transporting the victims’ remains to Kharkiv, in government-controlled territory. We, elsewhere, could see the train. Wire agencies carried pictures of it, and those correspondents who were allowed near it noted that it was effectively unguarded. Nearby, the crash site was left open to journalists and rubberneckers to interfere with wreckage and the personal belongings of passengers alike – it was five days before the Dutch investigation team was allowed on site. The chaos of war and the breakdown of judicial authority was made immensely obvious, and it was heartbreaking.

It’s often said that the privilege of living in an always-connected world is that it has lead to the decentralisation of power. We’re no longer beholden to newspapers for news, record companies for music, Hollywood for movies, physical strength for ability, or governments for truth, and in its simplest form that’s a win for everyone who hates feeling like they’re being lied to by someone who knows more than them. Yet it’s damaging, too, to assume that all our new information sources are inherently better or worse than what came before just because they’re new – what we need, more than anything in this situation, is a decentralised way of dealing with a decentralised media environment.

With the crash of MH17, there was a surfeit of photos, videos and social media chatter directly from or about the crash, but very little in the way of clarity, little in the way of truth. What the conflicts of the current era show us is that developing new ways to handle the data we experience is as important as access to it.

“With MH17, the first photographs were taken two or three weeks ago, before the inspectors could get there,” says Higgins. “We’re documenting what’s there, and we can spot things which may have changed, which wouldn’t be obvious if you were an inspector arriving a few weeks later. For example, we’ve got five or six photographs of the missile launcher on the trailer, and we were able to find exactly where those were taken and what time they were taken and show that it travelled through 75km of rebel-held territory to the launch location, and then another 75km out towards the border, and that’s not something people on the ground could maybe piece together. 

“[And] once we’ve established that, journalists on the ground could then follow that up. I think newspapers and news organisations need to be aware that there’s a lot of value in having this kind of intelligence work done for people on the ground, because then they can then be directed to more worthwhile stories.”
 

***
 

“She was kind of obsessed with a fan. It was initially on the ceiling, and she moved it, she moved it to the left, to the right. We didn’t understand why she was so obsessed with this fan. Until she recalled, when we did the walkthrough reconstruction, it was on the blades of the fan that she found human flesh.”

Israeli architect Eyal Weizman is showing me a video of a woman trying to remember the deaths of her family. She’s directing objects within a house – her home – in some off-the-shelf architectural 3D rendering software, the same software used to mock up the posters that hide empty construction pits from the sidewalk in cities around the world with images of laughing couples standing around island units in white marble kitchens. The aesthetic in this instance, however, is decidedly less upwardly-mobile – dirt floors, clay bricks and cheap furniture. There’s a fridge in the living room.

She lived with her family in Mir Ali, a town in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region, when the US drone attack took place in October 2010. Her husband and two-year-old son, and three other people, are now dead, and the building no longer exists. The trauma of the event has left her memory incomplete, and her ability to act as a witness has been compromised.

When the render is complete she “enters” it virtually, and her spatial memories revive other, hidden ones. The BBC’s Sherlock uses a stylised “memory palace” as a gimmick to explain Holmes’ exceptional powers of recall, but the idea has its roots in antiquity – classical orators could remember long speeches by imagining a walk through a vast mansion, with the objects in each wing representing specific memories. “When we are building the space where everything happened, in detail, every element – every piece of furniture, utensil, anything – in there, somehow you see how memory kind of re-emerges through these objects and returns through these objects,” Weizman explains.

A still from Forensic Architecture’s Mir Ali report.

This is the work of Forensic Architecture (FA), a research and activist group made up of artists, architects, cultural theorists and legal experts, all seeking to use the evidence of space and structure in the investigation of conflict. Weizman is its leader, having founded it with a grant from the European Research Council in 2011. He’s professor of spatial and visual cultures at Goldsmiths, and something of a notorious figure within his field. In 2002 he presented settlements as his choice of the best of Israeli architecture at the International Union of Architects Congress in Berlin, attracting the ire of the Israeli establishment. His work since then, in books like Hollow Land, has looked at the ways in which violence is conducted with the built environment, with particular attention paid to the West Bank and Gaza. He was a fitting choice of subject for Al Jazeera’s recent series of short films, Rebel Architecture.

The Architecture of Violence, dir: Ana Naomi de Sousa.

There’s a philosophical framework to Forensic Architecture’s work. It’s about “turning the gaze against the state”, using methods of spatial analysis as forensic tools in an “inversion” of the normal judicial process. He calls this forensis, not forensics. (It’s also the title of the Forensic Architecture project book, subtitle: “The Architecture of Public Truth”.)

“There is a feature that is a constant in working against the state with technology, and that is an inversion of the most important and basic forensic principles – that states, ie the police, should see in high resolution, see better than the criminal,” Weizman explained to me over coffee in his east London home. “Because otherwise you have a space of denial, or negation, in which the criminal can always mobilise. Now what happens in forensis, rather than forensics, is an inversion of the forensic gaze. It’s no longer the state and its institutions that are investigating citizens or non-citizens, but society, organisations, individuals and political groups. They are inverting the forensic gaze and looking up to the state, for state crimes. But you’ll always be in epistemological or visual inferiority. You’ll always have less of a resolution.”

He points to drone strikes as an example, where targets are chosen with cameras which have resolution of perhaps a few centimetres, or even millimetres, per pixel. By comparison, commercial satellite imagery has a metre (or maybe only half a metre) per pixel. For anyone trying to use satellites to keep tabs on war zones – be it an individual with Google Maps, or even the UN – the evidence is unavailable because of technological limitations. “What you see is that unlike cases in Darfur, or Gaza, where you can take before and after [images], the UN can take before and after images and see what has been destroyed, [but] in drone strikes the rocket goes through the roof, and leaves a hole in the roof which is smaller than the size of the pixel,” Weizman said.

“A before and after would not show you any difference. That is an example of an epistemological visual inferiority that you have to invert – you have to think, what access do we have? What information do we have? What new modes of thinking allows us to undo that space of denial between the few millimetre pixel and half-millimetre pixel? That’s the space of denial. This is why the state can say it cannot see it – they can say, we neither confirm or deny.”

Forensis is a method of forcing the state to admit to the existence of a crime, even if it won’t admit to culpability. Weizman points to the etymology of the word forensics, meaning “before the forum”, and how physical evidence demands a judicial response. If there’s no evidence, or the evidence is in an inaccessible form, then violence goes unchecked. “Our work happens in frontier zones. Forensis is forensics where there is no law, and in international law, the forum comes after the evidence, and evidence would call forth a forum. The graves of Srebrenica called forth the ICTFY [International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia] to gather around the evidence, for example. This is why the entire universe of international law is very, very fragile.

“It’s being formed around the type of violations that are happening, and it continuously changes as the nature of war is changing and the nature of violations change. New types of weapons, drones for example, or semi-robotic weapons. It requires a different way of evidence gathering, and a different way of presentation.”

FA’s case files show what this means. There’s the “left-to-die boat”, where 63 migrants died in adrift in the Mediterranean in 2011, within an area under the observation of Nato as part of the then-revolution in Libya. Satellite images of the area were used to establish boat movement patterns, and commercial boating data was used to remove the boats with known identities from the picture. Mobile phone signals were used to triangulate the migrant boat’s drift, establishing its presence near many other boats – and therefore providing evidence for the charge that the crews of those boats committed a crime by failing to aid a vessel in distress.

A reconstruction of the drift of the migrant boat, with other vessels charted in the area. Image: Forensic Architecture.

In another example Weizman shows me (as part of a work-in-progress, for a case being prepared for submission to the UN), a shaky handheld video leaked to MSNBC of the aftermath of a drone strike is broken down into a series of still frames. “We build a panorama,” he explains. “So now we have the entire ruin, we look at different features – we see a bend in the road here, we see a high tower here – which are then pieced together to create a full image.” The exterior features place the video in a specific place in Waziristan, while the shadows reveal the time of day the strike happened. The end result is a 3D render of the interior and exterior of the building, down to the locations of the shrapnel holes in the living room walls.

“And then you see here, two shadows where there are less shrapnel,” he points out. “We think that this is the shadow of the people, their body would have absorbed that shrapnel. They have been photographed onto the wall, no? Architecture and the dead body kind of combines here.” These kinds of sources, whether from traditional or social media, are enhanced and turned into evidence with technology – and, in turn, that evidence compels a national or supranational legal authority to listen to a case brought before it.

There’s a kind of cat and mouse game at play here, Weizman says, as every time the public learns to outpace the state, the state teaches itself new methods to reinstate the gap in resolution. “I think that [the state] shouldn’t have the upper hand, and I think social media mobilisation is something that could close that gap. But I think actually it’s never in the technology because the state could scan social media too. It’s in the aesthetic sensibility, or ingenuity in which you mobilise it. This is why our forensic agency is organised with artists, filmmakers and architects. There are no scientists – we are trying to think like artists, and trying to think about it with the aesthetic sensibility of art.”

The erosion of the advantage social media gives us is also a persistent worry with the work of Higgins and bellingcat, and why so much effort is spent on both verifying information and making the process of verification clear for anyone to check. There have been multiple reports of “cyber armies” funded by nations around the world – be they the hackers of the Syrian Electronic Army, the botnet legions of Russia,  or Chinese Twitter accounts spreading anti-Free Tibet propaganda. (This is not something confined to geopolitical opponents of the West, it must be emphasised – intelligence agencies in the US and Europe are also “plugged in” to social media, sifting through it for relevant information, and it would be a surprise if they also were not running their own accounts to influence the online perception of breaking news.)

Higgins places his trust in the open source verification process as a way of eliminating the possibility of manipulated information, working in tandem with those who have proven themselves to be trustworthy gatekeepers. “These are individuals who build up a reputation, like myself, for being reliable,” he said. “People are collaboratively reviewing stuff, but you have the gatekeepers who do the final review, to make a judgement as to whether it's reliable. If you’re a gatekeeper and you start putting out stuff that's wrong, then you very rapidly lose your reputation. That’s the structure that’s developed, organically – the huge amount of information needs lots of people checking it, but also someone trusted to say it’s OK information. For example, if we’re looking at all this metal and the direction of the shrapnel, if we suddenly saw the shrapnel was coming in the other direction then we'd immediately be thinking ‘why is that different?’ That would be highlighted.”

He points to the last year’s work on the gas attacks in Damascus as an example of how “investigating all the things that it’s possible to investigate” creates a stronger case that’s more difficult to undermine with false information. “That involved tonnes of video footage, images, statements from people on the ground. When the White House published their map of who controlled the site on 21 August, the one area which was the likely launch site for the attacks was left blank – I was able to figure out, based on about 25 videos posted by a Russian-language news channel, where the government forces were. Then I was able to find footage from the opposition side attacking government forces in the area, which meant I could establish where the front lines were, and once I’d established the impact locations of the rockets that were fired we had a rough idea of what the range was, and we could say these rockets were in range of this government-controlled area.”

Another potential weakness in decentralised investigations is that their incompleteness can give a misleading impression – an example here being the attempts by users of reddit to identify the person responsible for bombing the Boston Marathon in 2013. It quickly became a witch hunt directed at brown-skinned men wearing backpacks in pictures of the crowd by the finishing line of the race, and fed into a larger panic over domestic terrorism which was eagerly encouraged by the tabloid press. One suspect in particular, a student named Sunil Tripathi, had been reported missing a month before the attack, and his family was distraught that their son was being named as a terrorist on the basis of one user mistakenly saying that they had heard his name mentioned on a police radio scanner. When Tripathi was found dead a week later, an apology from those who had jumped to conclusions did little to assuage their grief.

“It feels like there’s this frustration people have when they see this information on the internet and they don’t see it being reported in traditional news media, or if their government seems to be aware of it,” said Higgins. “It was interesting to see the response after the White House published their report on the 21 August gas attacks – the gap between what was coming out of the White House and what was coming out of my blog was absurd to a lot of people, especially when the UN report went on to agree with what I had.” He praises larger news organisations for “erring on the side of caution” when it comes to publishing source material that has been crowdsourced, and for limiting the loss of nuance as information gets passed from organisation to organisation.

The model for bellingcat isn’t just collaboration between individual armchair investigators, but also collaboration between traditional gatekeepers of information and those who are working outside of that framework – and Higgins believes traditional investigatory bodies will “really need to start engaging” with decentralised, crowdsourced methods of finding and analysing evidence.

Weizman, for his part, is keen to stress that architecture, like all technology, “can be used for good or bad things”, and finding ways to change the direction a piece of technology points is crucial part of his intellectual mission. Maybe – after all, the internet began as a military research project – we can see the work of crowdsourced conflict research as a kind of mob, storming the gates and turning something repressive into something liberating.

“The liberating is how you use it, and it usually happens at the moment of transformation,” he explains. “It happens in the first moment when you storm, or gain hold of, or enter a building that was used as a prison, a settlement, a military base and turn it into something else. I remember when the Palestinians first entered the military base in Beit Sahour [in the West Bank, where Weizman’s practice Decolonising Architecture has a studio] the first thing they wanted was to just smash it, there was something liberating about it. It was an incredibly powerful moment. The Palestinian police were trying to protect it and I thought it was wrong, because you need to let this spontaneous moment happen, that was the moment of transformation. And into those ruins we entered and we tried to convert it into something else.”

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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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