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Leaving Afghanistan: is it finally time to be positive about this blighted nation?

The Afghan presidential election has been declared a success – but as the west finalises its pull-out, what the country's prospects?

There is seldom an excess of good news coming out of Afghanistan, but until the triumphant success of the presidential election on Saturday 5 April, optimism was in notably short supply among the Kabul-based foreign press corps. There were good reasons for this. As the election drew closer and the number of attacks by the Taliban increased, Kabul was particularly badly hit and institutions associated with foreigners or the foreign-backed government were targeted with remorseless precision. In January, a suicide attack on a popular restaurant, the Taverna du Liban, killed 21 people, 13 of them foreigners. The Serena Hotel was hit on 20 March, killing nine; and, in what could have been a bloodbath of about two dozen foreign (mostly American) aid workers and their children, an attack apparently aimed at a guest house followed on 28 March. The Independent Election Commission was attacked the following day, just two weeks after four of its staff had been kidnapped in the eastern Nangarhar Province. The interior ministry was hit by a suicide bomber on 2 April, killing six more.

In all, three foreign journalists have been shot in the past month alone: Nils Horner on 11 March and, on the day before the election, Anja Niedringhaus and Kathy Gannon. Many expats in Kabul fled, the government closed several restaurants and guest houses used by foreigners, and the foreign press corps seemed understandably and uncharacteristically rattled. Their reporting at times reflected that sense of panic.

The steady crescendo of attacks added to the growing sense of exhaustion with the apparently interminable conflict: 13 years after the west went in to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, to destroy al-Qaeda and oust the Taliban, the troops were now withdrawing with neither objective wholly achieved. What remained of al-Qaeda had moved to the Pakistani borderlands and elsewhere, while the Taliban now control swaths of rural southern Afghanistan. Casualties among Afghan regiments on the front lines are reaching levels that are said to be unsustainable: as many as 800 police and army are being killed every month and some regiments have lost 50 per cent of their fighting troops; a few in Helmand have desertion rates approaching a similar level.

If the Afghan troops were exhausted, their American backers increasingly seemed to have lost any remaining interest in the bloody complexities of the Afghan conflict that they had fought so long and with so little obvious gain. “No one is talking about Afghanistan in Washington any more,” says Mark Mazzetti, the Pulitzer-winning New York Times security correspondent based in the US capital. “There is deep fatigue in DC and across the US over America’s longest war. It is no longer high on anyone’s priorities and in addition the White House feels a deep animosity against Karzai.”

This all matters very much, because the western-installed government in Kabul relies almost entirely on western financial support: without sustained backing it can’t pay for elections, the army, the civil service, medical and educational facilities or tele­communications. If the funding stops, or is significantly reduced, the government is unlikely to be able to defend itself – just as happened to Mohammad Najibullah’s regime, which fell to the mujahedin in 1992 after Mikhail Gorbachev cut off the money and the arms supply from the Soviet Union. “The changes which have taken place in Afghanistan since 2001 may be irreversible,” says Barnett Rubin, who recently stepped down as an adviser to Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “But they are also unsustainable.”

There were many other fears – the stuttering economy, the increasing reliance of the economy on aid and narcotics, government corruption, the poorest and most illiterate population in Asia – but looming over them all was what one Afghan official described, mixing two English metaphors, as the white elephant in the room: Afghanistan’s age-old ethnic divisions, which many observers feared could be exacerbated fatally by an indecisive election outcome.

If no one succeeds in gaining a 50 per cent majority in the election (as seems likely) there will be a run-off on 28 May, and in all likelihood it will be between a Pashtun and a Tajik candidate. That could in turn put huge stress on the principal fault line that has divided the country ever since it assumed its modern borders under Dost Mohammad Khan from the late 1850s onwards.

Afghanistan has always been, like Lebanon, a country built less on any geographical or ethnic logic, and more on the contingencies of 19th-century imperial politics. Indeed, considering its ancient history, Afghanistan has had only a few hours of political unity. More often it has been “the places in between” – the fractured and disputed stretch of mountains and deserts separating its more orderly neighbours.

For much of its history its provinces formed the warring extremities of rival empires. Only very rarely have the parts come together to attain any sort of coherent state in its own right; and as the more gloomy commentators have pointed out, it need not take much to rip the country apart again and exacerbate tribal, ethnic and linguistic fissures in Afghan society: the old rivalry between the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Hazaras and the Durrani and Ghilzai Pashtuns; the schism between Sunni and Shia; the endemic factionalism within clans and tribes and the blood feuds within lineages. After all, Afghanistan briefly splintered in a patchwork of warlord-controlled ethnic fiefdoms in 1993-94, between the collapse of the mujahedin regime and the rise of the Taliban.

Just before this month’s election, some of the more perceptive observers noted that despite the bomb attacks there were huge queues forming to register voters across the country and excitement at the well-attended rallies; but still, caught up in the fear generated by the Taliban assault on Kabul, few predicted what was to come on election day. For, in just 12 hours on 5 April, the general mood changed from anxious and frightened to jubilant and triumphant. The scale of participation in the election was unprecedented – so vast, that all over the country ballots began to run out as early as midday.

More than a third of all Afghan provinces reported shortfalls, so unstoppable was the enthusiasm of the electorate. Despite heavy rain, nearly twice as many people – an extra two and a half million Afghans – voted in this presidential election as in the previous one in 2009: seven million out of a total electorate of 12 million. There were the odd attacks on remote polling stations and 1,200 complaints about fraud. But this was nothing compared to the mess that had been predicted, or the fraud that took place in 2009. For the first time in its history, Afghanistan was going to witness a relatively peaceful transfer of power by the ballot box in a remarkably unflawed election.

By the evening of 5 April, few could disagree that the political landscape had changed in a fundamental way. “Despite the cold and rainy weather and possible terrorist attack, our sisters and brothers nationwide took in this election and their participation is a step forward and it is a success for Afghanistan,” said a relieved President Karzai in a televised official statement.

Most excited of all were the Kabul elite, who had worried that all they had built up was about to disappear. “Huge huge day for Afghanistan,” tweeted the media mogul Saad Mohseni, owner of Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s biggest channel. “A historic event ends peacefully with millions casting their votes. A massive victory for our people . . . and a massive kick in the face for the Taliban . . . Politically, this is the beginning of the end for [them].”

One reason for the unprecedented turnout at election rallies and in the election itself was the exceptional quality of the presidential candidates. They are, by any standards, an unusually smart and talented group. According to all the opinion and exit polls, there are three front-runners among the eight candidates who have just stood for president. The most brilliant is Dr Ashraf Ghani, or, as he renamed himself for the election, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. The new nomenclature is important: Afghanistan is still a semi-tribal society where clan and ethnic allegiance means a great deal and can bring in block votes from rural areas.

The Ahmadzai are one of the two leading clans of the Pashtun Ghilzai tribe; their only rivals are the Hotaki Ghilzai, among whom the Taliban leader Mullah Omar is the clan elder. The Ghilzais as a whole are the rivals of the Durrani Pashtuns, whose two leading clans are the Popalzai and the Barakzai. Hamid Karzai is the chief of the Popalzai and his preferred successor – and Ashraf Ghani’s main rival for Pashtun votes – is Zalmai Rassoul, who is a Barakzai from the royal family. Behind the sophistication, sharp suits and cosmopolitan CVs of all three leading candidates for president lie the tribal blocks that have defined Afghan politics for a century and a half: Ahmadzai Ghilzai v Hotaki Ghilzai; Ghilzai Pashtuns v Durrani Pashtuns; Pashtuns v Tajiks.

According to the polls, at the time of writing, Ashraf Ghani leads the race; and there is little doubt that he is the best qualified of the three contenders. A PhD from Columbia University, former World Bank official, former chancellor of Kabul University and minister of finance, Ghani has a quick wit and a formidable brain. When I was researching my book on the first Afghan war, Return of a King, Ashraf was one of the first men I visited in Kabul and the hours I spent with him in his austerely beautiful library house, filled with books, good rugs and Nuristani furniture, were probably the most revelatory of any in the whole five-year research project.

Although his specialisation in history lies well down his list of interests, coming far behind anthropology and economics, in a two-hour tutorial he gave me a long list of all the principal Persian sources for the war, many of which he was able to take down from his own shelves.

On my subsequent trips to Kabul, Ghani sent round any other books or snippets he had found, always refusing any sort of payment. Yet the same straightforward frankness and lack of dissimulation that makes him such a generous host and dedicated scholar can also cause him to be irritable and irascible. When he disagreed with some remarks I had made at a lecture in Delhi last year, he steamed straight up to the podium at the end and told me I was talking “bullshit! Bullshit!”

A Farsi video of him describing the writer and Tory MP Rory Stewart as the “son of a donkey” is still doing the rounds in Kabul. It dates back to a feud Ghani embarked on a decade ago when he accused Stewart’s Turquoise Mountain Foundation of lifting furniture designs from those developed by his wife, the Begum Rula Ghani, a formi­dable figure in Kabul society and a force in her own right.

An old friend of Ghani’s told me he feared his temper almost as much as he admired his mind. “I’m very fond of him – he’s a smart guy,” he said, “but he can be super-temperamental and is capable of totally losing the plot. I can’t even count the number of times he has thrown me out of his house. I can understand how frustrated such a bright man must be by all the idiots in Kabul – but it does worry me. If he doesn’t have the right handlers if he gets to power, he is the sort of man who could easily order an execution in a fit of anger one evening, and deeply regret it when he calms down the following morning – by which time it will be too late.”

When Ghani first stood for election in 2009, he lost so badly that the media dismissed him almost as a joke candidate. But he learned from his campaigning errors and has worked hard to make himself more appealing. As he already had strong support among the new urban youth, he concentrated on winning over rural areas. As well as adding the tribal suffix to his name, he has made himself look more tribal and less of an urban technocrat: he has grown a rather elegant salt-and-pepper beard and in his campaign photographs is usually seen wearing a mountainous Ghilzai turban.

Ghani’s most controversial – and arguably cleverest – move was to form an alliance with the Uzbek warlord and alleged war criminal General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who controls huge vote banks in the north. In 2009 Ghani had denounced Dostum as “a known killer”. This time he offered him the chance to become vice-president. “We need to come to a politics of inclusion, not exclusion,” he explained to Christiane Amanpour of CNN. “We must have people in the system who fought each other; without bringing these elements to genuine reconciliation and peace, we will not move towards stability.”

Like Ghani, his Tajik/Pashtun rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah is fluent, sophisticated and intelligent; but he is a smoother, suaver, less academic figure than Ghani. Ghani wears immaculately pressed white shalwar kameez; Abdullah Abdullah prefers bespoke Savile Row suits. Ghani’s home is full of low Afghan wooden chairs; Abdullah has beautiful Italian furniture. He also owns an extremely rare and valuable collection of Company School paintings of life in Afghanistan by the Delhi artists brought to the country by the British Elphinstone mission from 1808 onwards. His most recent wife, a gifted young analyst, half his age, is described by those who have met her as “the Penélope Cruz of Kabul – only much more beautiful than Cruz”.

Of the three candidates, Abdullah is the most engaging company: witty, charming and irreverent. When I last paid him a visit, he expressed irritation that Tom Ford, the then creative director of Gucci, had declared Karzai to be “the chicest man on the planet”. “I liked what Tom Ford did at Gucci,” he said, brushing a speck of dust off his cuffs. “But I would dispute that judgement.”

Abdullah rose to power as the adviser to the Tajik war hero and “Lion of the Panj­shir”, Ahmed Shah Massoud, and his house and election posters are covered with images of his former boss and hero. In the winter of 2000, a few months before Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda on 9 September 2001, Abdullah Abdullah was part of the secret meeting at which Massoud and the then almost unknown Hamid Karzai met on an island in the middle of the Oxus river to discuss how they could co-ordinate political action against Mullah Omar and the Taliban.

At the International Afghanistan Conference in Bonn, which followed the US defeat of the Taliban in December 2001, it was Abdullah and his Tajiks who supported Karzai for the post of provisional president. “Never before had someone from one part of the country asked someone from another part to rule in their stead,” Abdullah remembers. “It was a historic moment. I played my part. But I was very naive. I thought under his leadership we would build Afghanistan into a modern state, step by step. It was
doable, had we not missed so many opportunities. Many of those opportunities will not be repeated.

“For me, it is even more sad that I was part of this from the beginning. We had so much hope for a new start, and so many worries today. Now a new generation is looking
forward rather than looking to the past. But the great golden opportunity of 2001 will never be recovered.”

Abdullah was Karzai’s minister of foreign affairs from 2001 to 2005. They soon fell out and have had a difficult relationship ever since, especially after Abdullah withdrew from the 2009 election when it became clear that the polls were hugely rigged in Karzai’s favour. Abdullah chose not to take part in the run-off, citing his lack of faith in the ability of Karzai’s administration to hold a “fair and transparent” second round. “I have great respect for his father,” Abdullah told me, “but Hamid? Let’s just say he is one of the greatest actors that Afghanistan has ever produced.”

It was partly to thwart Abdullah that Karzai encouraged a third major candidate to stand. Zalmai Rassoul is a bespectacled former nephrologist who was chief of staff to his cousin Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, when he was exiled in Rome. Rassoul was fast-promoted by Karzai to be his minister of foreign affairs. A nephew of the great king Amanullah Khan (1892-1960) and a senior member of the royal family, which the Karzais have served faithfully for three generations, he is described by one of his friends as “a shy, moderate, blue-blooded, cigar-smoking, wine-drinking aristo”. He is widely said to be Karzai’s preferred choice as successor.

Rassoul is the oldest, greyest and least charismatic of the three presidential front-runners: on the two occasions I have met him – once at an audience in President’s Karzai’s office and the other at a dinner party thrown by the French ambassador – he was almost completely silent. On campaign, he reads prepared speeches and looks ill at ease having to kiss babies and perform all the usual idiocies of electioneering. Yet he is also said to be intelligent and urbane, an able administrator, and fluent in French, Italian and English, as well as most of the regional languages. It is also said he warms up slightly over a glass of cognac at the end of dinner.

The intelligence and polish of the candidates, and the enthusiasm with which Afghans have embraced them, are not the only reasons for the uncharacteristic optimism in Kabul. The election took place without accusations of large-scale rigging or any Taliban “spectaculars” to disrupt voting. This reflects the fact that security, though far from perfect, has not collapsed since Nato troops withdrew from front-line combat roles at the end of last year. For nearly a year, Nato has been doing almost none of the actual fighting in Afghanistan and its role has been limited to training; yet there has been no clear change in the battle lines between the government and the Taliban: security may have got worse in northern Helmand, where few from the government now venture at all, and also in Badakhshan; but to balance that it has improved notably in and around Kandahar. In July last year I travelled in complete safety to the Karzais’ home village of Karz, several miles outside Kandahar, a journey that would have been impossible a year earlier.

Moreover, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Afghanistan has changed beyond recognition since 2001. It is the fastest-urbanising country in Asia. Its cities have grown exponentially – Kabul alone has 20 times the population it had in 2001 – and people are travelling much more widely. Television, the internet and an ebullient media have opened many minds. Schools are opening everywhere, and while there is much that still needs to be done, literacy is growing fast. The Taliban may be capable of causing widespread disruption but few believe they can roll back over the country and retake Kabul or the north. They remain a rural Pashtun force, with few supporters north of Kabul.

Afghanistan’s regional relations are also a cause for some optimism. Karzai success­fully balanced the role of its important neighbours and manipulated India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China, as well as the US and UK, to advance Afghanistan’s geopolitical and economic objectives. Just as the Ottoman empire survived for a century because none of the powers that surrounded it could allow any of their rivals to benefit from its collapse, so Afghanistan is likely to survive intact because a stable and peaceful Afghanistan is in the interests of all of its neighbours.

The one anxiety is Pakistan, whose army has long been fixated on the idea that it cannot allow a pro-Indian government in Kabul and, because of that, has long turned a blind eye to the Taliban operating from bases in its territory. Nevertheless British diplomats in Islamabad take the view that the Pakistani army has changed its views and policy in the past couple of years and now fears internal jihadi instability more than it fears India.

Certainly Pakistan’s terrible self-crucifixion seems to be consuming the country at the moment, and there is hope that who­ever wins the election in Afghanistan may be able to improve relations and persuade Pakistan finally to crack down on the Quetta Shura and take out the Afghan Taliban bases within Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

What then of Hamid Karzai? There were many predictions that he would never give up power without a fight, and would find some pretext to delay or rig the election. But Karzai is acutely aware of his pivotal role in his country’s history and has become much more concerned with his legacy than anything else. He lived up to all his promises to oversee a peaceful transition of power.

However much he may be disliked by US officials, he remains popular as a unifier in Afghanistan and he will be remembered as a historic figure.

At our last meeting, I was able to ask him about his rule and hopes for the future. It was Ramadan and we were sitting at the desk in his office, eating our way through a huge platter of Afghan fruit: melons, grapes, figs and mountains of tiny Afghan cherries. Due to the fast, most business in Kabul had come to a halt and Karzai, having more time on his hands than usual, had agreed to spend three evenings with me talking about Afghanistan’s future.

I asked him first if he had any regrets.

“No,” he said. “I think I’ve done well. I stood up to foreign powers. Which I would do again. I did my best with the neighbours. Which I would do again. I established good relations with India, China, Russia, the Arab world. Managed, against all odds, relations with the west.”

And what of his own future?

“I will stay here. I am building a place just over the wall, near the French embassy. I am looking forward to taking a few days off. To have my own time. To relax. So I can recuperate fully.”

You feel this has aged you?

“People tell me it has aged me a lot. Just today, during the prayers, a friend of mine told me I look like an old man.

“I do look like an old man. I look much older than 55.”

So what was he most looking forward to, leaving the prison of this palace?

“I don’t feel imprisoned – not at all. I feel responsible, not imprisoned. And when I no longer have this responsibility, I’ll be free like a bird to go around this lovely country. I will visit people, go to bazaars . . .”

Could he really do that?

“Security is a fact of life all over the world, not just Afghanistan. The US president has much more security than I do when he goes out on to the streets of America.”

Did he really think he could stay in Kabul safely?

“Why not? I am optimistic.”

Wasn’t it delusionally optimistic to be so hopeful? Didn’t he think civil war was a possibility?

“This idea is just part of the American psychological warfare against me,” he replied, launching into what is now an obsession of his: the ill-intentions of the US “Deep State” to weaken and fragment Afghanistan.

“They keep telling the Afghan people that if they are not here after 2014, Afghanistan will collapse, Afghanistan will go into civil war, and all that. It’s complete rubbish.”

And he thought the future was bright? Even with the Taliban controlling so much of the rural south? Even with the economy in such a bad way?

“I am very optimistic,” he repeated. “Let me be clear. As long as the west has nothing bad up its sleeve for this region, Afghanistan will do very well. Mark my words.”

Afghanistan has been through so much in the past 40 years – the 1973 coup d’état, the 1978 Saur Revolution, the 1979 Soviet invasion, the 1.5 million deaths and six million refugees in the decade of resistance that followed, the collapse of the mujahedin government and the civil war of 1992-96, the seven long years of Taliban medievalism and Arab Afghan/al-Qaeda encroachment, and most recently the 100,000 casualties of the past 13 years of fighting between Nato and the resurgent Taliban. In that war, the US alone has already spent more than $700bn, enough to build every living Afghan a luxury apartment serviced by world-class health and education facilities – and to throw in a top-of-the-range Land Cruiser for each and every citizen, too. Instead, at the end of this, Afghanistan remains the poorest country in Asia, the joint most corrupt country in the world, boasting the highest illiteracy rate and worst medical and educational facilities outside a few war zones in sub-Saharan Africa. Even in the best-case scenario, it will take it several decades even to approach the living standards of Pakistan or Bangladesh.

Against this background, it may seem mad to share Karzai’s optimism. Certainly, there are many reasons to hesitate to do so. Every Afghan I know well, however patri­otic they may be, has an exit strategy in place: a second passport, a secret bank account far away, a small apartment somewhere safe and relatively peaceful, just in case Kabul does go belly up.

Equally, there are a million things that could still go wrong: the withdrawal of US military and civilian aid; Indo-Pak rivalry leading to renewed support by Inter-Services Intelligence for the Taliban; the collapse of the fragile Afghan economy; or a growing Pashtun/Tajik fracture following a disputed election run-off in May.

But this month, for the first time in many years, it has been possible to suspend disbelief and to imagine a happy ending to this long and tragic tale. With foreign troops in Afghanistan, it was always possible for the Taliban to portray themselves as a legitimate, patriotic resistance movement fighting for freedom from foreign rule. With those foreign troops now either withdrawn, or locked up in their barracks, and with a free vote having taken place across the whole of Afghanistan, without systematic rigging, and with unprecedented public support and swaths of the population standing up to be counted as democrats, that legitimacy of resistance is now over. It is possible to hope that a new era of Afghan history might have just begun.

William Dalrymple’s “Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan” is published by Bloomsbury (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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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