Stitch-up

Britain's US ambassador leaves after four years dogged by Iraq. David Manning talks exclusively to J

David Manning greets me warmly as he strides into the ornate drawing room of his Lutyens residence. This is known as the decompression chamber, the room where he would sit down with Tony Blair and other aides at the end of a prime ministerial visit to Washington. I have known Manning for nearly two decades, since Moscow and the collapse of communism. Since then his career has taken him to Israel, to Blair's right hand and to the Iraq war. He is now leaving the diplomatic service after four years in the most coveted post of all.

I ask him what he has learned about his time in the United States. Does he agree with a recent article by David Miliband in the NS, in which the new Foreign Secretary talked of a shifting balance of power, with America on the wane as China, Russia and India grow more assertive? Manning suggests rumours of the death of America have been greatly exaggerated. "It's very easy to underestimate the power of this country to reinvent itself. There is still an extraordinary energy here. If you want something done, America is still the place to come and look for the pioneering new technology, the capital formation, the people who will take the risks."

As for the so-called special relationship, he says it remains special "at all sorts of levels", notably through economic ties and intelligence-sharing. But he is also keen to point out the differences. "One has to be careful not to say that the United States is the UK on steroids. We are different societies. It's very important to understand where we're different as well as where we see things the same." He talks of a "profound difference in the view of the role of the state, role of religion, and social mores such as gay marriage". Then he brings up the "p" word. "All the time I have been here we have seen the poodlism charge. It's a very simplistic view of the political and broader relationship. We have a natural affinity and a natural friendship, but we're very different, too. It doesn't help either of us to pretend that it isn't true."

He cites areas of diplomatic divergence. "We don't see eye to eye on the importance of a multilateral approach. We want to live in an international system that is predictable, that is very clearly rules-based. We join every club that's going." The Americans, by contrast, talk about coalitions of the willing. "There is much more of a debate here about 'why don't we do this unilaterally?'," he says. Each country has "a different approach to engagement" towards countries such as Cuba and Iran. "We feel you have to engage with people you disagree with profoundly. [Here] there's much more likely to be a view which is 'keep these people at arm's length'." On climate change: "When I came here there were pretty profound arguments about the science. Those have changed. But it's still very difficult here to get people to accept our line of argument that you can't solve this on new technologies alone; you can't do this alone on a voluntary basis. You're going to have to have mandatory emission caps, a carbon-trading system."

Testy exchanges

Manning was at Robin Cook's side when, as foreign secretary, Cook earned the opprobrium of the Israelis, and the more muted displeasure of the Americans, by meeting Palestinians at a planned Jewish settlement in Jerusalem in 1998. Manning has rarely concurred with the White House on Israel, but has been far too discreet to let his views be known in public. Even with Blair there have been spats. Last summer, Manning was in despair, as were a number of cabinet ministers, over the prime minister's refusal to criticise Israel for invading Lebanon. Eventually, after some testy exchanges, he helped to alter the British position with the call for an immediate ceasefire.

"We've never hidden the fact that we take a different view [from that of the Americans] about Palestine. We think this is a dispute about land, not just about terrorism. We have tried hard to push this in ways that have not always been welcome here." The outgoing ambassador makes the following appeal to those who will follow him, using language US politicians would not dare utter: "It is vital to signal to the Palestinians themselves that we care about justice for them. It is vital that we say to the Israelis we absolutely accept that you've got to have a guaranteed right to exist; we've got to show the Arab world that we really care about this problem. It's very important in the overall relationship we have with Muslims around the world, because this is, naturally, a completely neuralgic point for them. That affects our discussions about terrorism, radicalisation, whatever you want."

A diminutive, soft-spoken man, Manning seems haunted by the failure to shift the US approach (see Andrew Stephen's article on why America is afraid of the Israel lobby). "Is it a sadness to me that I sit here, 12 years after I went to Israel, and we are still stuck where we are? You bet." Blair's attempts to engage Bush on Israel-Palestine are well documented, but he took the view that disagreements should be kept in private. Given the differences that Manning talks of, I suggest the public may have been misled about the state of the relationship. "I think that's true," he says. "I don't have a ready remedy for that." He adds: "If you accept my thesis that it is better for both sides to be clear where we disagree, then I'm perfectly happy with that. I don't think the relationship will diminish . . . if we are clear about where we have differences. I don't think there's been much of an interest in the UK in highlighting difference. The story has been: we're poodles. It's hardly as if we've been sitting here pretending that we're some kind of echo chamber for American policy."

So why did Blair act the way he did? The answer is part calculation, part personality. "You have to be aware there's also the danger that if you go round trumpeting that you've changed people's views then there's a backlash." He cites the British presidency of the G8 in 2005. "I doubt very much people around here were thrilled that he chose climate change and Africa as the themes." Blair, he said, pursued his priorities, but did not advertise the differences. "Do we think that shouting loudly will make it work better? On the whole, British politicians don't do it that way."

Few people saw Blair more frequently, more intensely, than Manning during his two years as his foreign policy adviser, a period that began in the week of 11 September 2001 and ended a few months after the Iraq war. "You have to understand Blair the person before you get into this. A lot of what he was doing with Bush, he was doing with Clinton. Blair was very clear about the doctrine of liberal interventionism. This was not something . . . invented to justify close relations with George Bush. You have to understand he believed very strongly."

How is it that Manning, whom many consider to be one of the wisest and most decent men in public life, was party to the greatest foreign policy catastrophe of modern times? I never imagined he would succumb to Blair's Manichaean world-view, but even now some of that slips in. "It's a curiosity that people have lost the memory of the fact that the Labour Party has very strong views about dealing with dictators, fascists and people who trample on human rights. And Saddam was a monster. We tend to forget this," he says.

Even though he signed up to the theory, Manning was careful to point out the dangers from early on in 2002. What of Blair and the intelligence that led to war? "He believed the WMD story. It's not true that it was made up and that he always knew it was made up. Was it wrong? Yes. But the idea that he somehow sat down and confected this story and that was the justification for the policy he opted for is not true." By his own admission, Manning, "as a consumer", was just as enthusiastic about the information being processed by the Joint Intelligence Committee. Yet he makes a curious admission. "Were we wrong about WMDs? Yes, but we don't have a very good track record on intelligence on Iraq." This dates back to the first Gulf War, when nobody was prepared for Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. "That was a pretty bad mistake," he says. If that was the case, why was the intelligence not treated with more circumspection this time around? "The tendency had always been to underestimate what Saddam was up to."

I ask Manning to confirm that Blair signed up in principle to Bush's war aims when they met at the presidential ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002, a full 11 months before the war began. Manning denies this. "If he did, he didn't do it in my hearing." He concedes that prime minister and president dined alone that night, but says that when Blair gave him a read-out afterwards, "He didn't talk to me as a prime minister saying to me, 'I've made up to mind we're going to war with Iraq.'" Indeed, he says that even in late 2002 Blair suggested to Bush that if WMD searches by the UN's chief inspector Hans Blix suceeded, military action might be unecessary - except that it would transpire that Blix would not find anything, because there was nothing to find.

Make peace, not war

Manning then makes a remarkable claim. Blair was desperate for a second resolution at the UN Security Council, not just to give him cover for war, but because, in his heart of hearts, he did not want military action. "Until very late he hoped there would be an international coalition that would work through the UN." He hoped pressure would be applied, so that either Saddam would quit of his own accord or neighbouring countries would help push him out. Blair "was always in favour of regime change, but that did not mean he always wanted regime change through military means. He must have known it might come to military action, but I have always believed he hoped and probably believed there was a way of getting there by using the UN to put pressure on Saddam. I don't think he ever wanted to go by the military route." In the end he had no choice. He was boxed in, worried about transatlantic splits. "He knew what the stakes were. He accepted it might come to this, but he always wanted to do it in a different way. I've always believed he would much rather it hadn't taken place."

This story is one of tragedy, rather than lies or hubris. Manning provides one more example to support his case. Blair, he suggests, was in effect deceived by the White House and the neoconservatives over plans for the reconstruction of Iraq.

In summer 2002, Blair sent Manning for a rare one-to-one with Bush to express his misgivings. There were, as Manning wrote in a leaked memo, no plans for "the morning after". Bush assured the British that he was on the case. The state department was entrusted with the task of preparing for postwar nation-building. Blair put great faith in the moderate secretary of state, Colin Powell. Neither man was a match for Dick Cheney, the vice-president, nor for Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary.

Even as the defence department (DoD) prepared to take over the running of Iraq, using Rumsfeld's infamous "invasion-lite" idea, Blair and Manning were being assured by Bush that the state department would take the lead role and that he was "very confident" about the postwar plans. They believed him. "We now know that the preparations were all blocked. There were plans made and deployed in the state department, but in the end the state department wasn't allowed to take the job."

I suggest to him that Bush and the neocons had pulled a fast one on Blair, and he provides a less-than-fulsome denial. "Was it a double-cross? I don't think they set out to double-cross the prime minister. I don't think that is true. I think what you see here is confusion. I've never entirely understood what happened, but I assume that, in some kind of inter-agency discussion, Rumsfeld's DoD said: 'We're going to do this.' I did not know that the DoD was going to take over the running of the country. We didn't have any sense that that was about to be the way postwar Iraq was going to be run."

The mood in Downing Street changed early on during the occupation, when the looting began. "That was the moment I remember having real feelings of disquiet. Then we got very concerned when we heard the army was being disbanded and when we heard that de-Ba'athification was going ahead on the scale it was." It was in these critical weeks that the long-term aims of the war were undermined. "Was a key period mishandled and opportunities lost? Yes. I don't think anybody can see that the immediate postwar situation was anything other than a failure. We had hoped that rapidly the situation would stabilise, that it would be possible to introduce reconciliation, get the economy moving quickly and rebuild society. Did it happen quickly? No, we failed. We were over-optimistic, as we perhaps were after the collapse of the Soviet Union, about the powers of this place to regenerate itself."

Iraq has left its mark on Manning. He does his best to defend the decision, suggesting that "the story isn't over yet" and that it may not be a failure in the long term. He is similarly protective of his former boss. "Iraq casts a very long shadow for him," he says, and hopes that Blair's legacy will take into account achievements such as Northern Ireland. "I admired him. He did not blow with the wind."

The Bush administration, he says, has shown more dex terity post-Iraq. He points to its readiness to use diplomacy in dealing with North Korea. On Iran, the Americans "have come in behind the Europeans" and "it is wrong to say they have only one mode of operation". Will it come to military action against the Iranians? "I don't see any intention on their part to use hard power on Iran . . . Of course there are pressures, but there is no sign for the moment that that is where the president is." He also says: "I would like to see a bolder effort by all of us to engage with Iran more broadly, so that the nuclear file becomes just one area of the dossier."

New man

Manning will be replaced in early October by Nigel Sheinwald, an altogether different character. After Christopher Meyer's showmanship and Manning's earnestness, Britain's interests in Washington will be represented by more of a bruiser. Perhaps that will be in keeping with Gordon Brown's cooler, more pragmatic dealings with the White House. Manning says both Bush and Brown described their first meeting at Camp David to him as "fine" - hardly a ringing endorsement.

Certainly, I find the mood in Washington more testy than at any recent time. Just as the British withdraw from Basra, much to the fury of the White House, so the Americans - from their military chief in Iraq, David Petraeus, to Bush - proclaim that their "surge" is working. The split could not be more pronounced. "You're right, it's not as close yet," Manning admits. "Personal relations of that kind don't develop in the same way, but you'll find a regular pattern of consultations. Life dictates they'll have to get close."

I ask Manning what has changed in his three decades in the service. When he started, Britain was "really struggling. In 1975 doing this job involved trying to explain why the lights had been switched off." Then, the Cold War was in full swing. Now, he points to a Europe "whole and free" (to use a phrase coined by George Bush Sr), the re-emergence of China and a flourishing Indian democracy. "Many more people have been taken out of poverty. Eastern Europeans don't get the knock on the door at midnight. By any measure there are a lot more democracies." This is, he says, "a better world".

He sounds several warnings, however. The west remains poor at handling post-conflict reconstruction; it has failed to deal with energy security, or with Islamic radicalisation and terrorism. Russia, he says, has become a dispiriting example of big money meets nationalism. During Vladimir Putin's first years in power, Blair took pains to win him over - tea with the Queen in London and visits to a beer bar in Russia. Wasn't this a classic case of Blairite charm over substance? "I don't think it was naive," Manning says. "There were serious attempts to engage. It just hasn't worked out. The mood has changed," he says, pointing to the rise in the oil price. "It is easier to be nationalistic when you're rich than when you're poor." The real mistakes were made during the early 1990s. On privatisation, "We were too dogmatic. We were in too much of a hurry. That sort of change, in a system that has been totalitarian for 75 years, takes time to work itself out."

One of Manning's projects on his return to London is to push for a World Education Bank. This would be a global fund to create opportunities in developing countries, but not through the World Bank or other institutions that carry so much baggage. "We must be able to provide access to funds without our fingerprints on them." Perhaps, like Blair with his peacemaking efforts in the Middle East, this, too, is atonement for all that has gone wrong in Iraq.

Manning: the CV

Born 5 December 1949. Public school at Ardingly, followed by modern history at Oriel College, Oxford, and Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Bologna

Joined Foreign Office in 1972. Has also served in Paris, New Delhi, Warsaw and at Nato

His wife, Catherine, writes thrillers under the nom de plume Elizabeth Ironside

Was in charge of Moscow embassy on first day of 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev

Foreign policy adviser to Tony Blair, 2001-2003

UK ambassador to the US, 2003-2007

Research by Matt Sandy

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How the Americans misled Blair over Iraq

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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