Strikers march on Sidney Street. Photo: Getty
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Winston Churchill in the New Statesman archive

A pre-war interview, “Should we hang Mr Churchill?” and how a wartime cabinet colleague fell under the Prime Minister's spell.

22 May 1926: Should we hang Mr Churchill or not?

By Clifford Sharp

In 1926, when Churchill was chancellor, British miners went on strike to demand improved working conditions. Churchill’s response – sending in the army – was tempered by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who insisted that the soldiers remain unarmed and who later called for reconciliation and peace. An extract from a commentary by the then NS editor.

By the spirit and manner in which Mr Baldwin ended the great strike he almost atoned for the way in which he precipitated it. For there is no longer any doubt that it was precipitated by the action of the Government, and, what is more, quite deliberately precipitated. It is, of course, a matter of common knowledge now that the strike need not have occurred . . .

What actually happened, it seems, was this. The Prime Minister, Lord Birkenhead and Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland were fighting desperately for peace, whilst a section of the Cabinet, led by Mr Winston Churchill, Mr Neville Chamberlain and Mr Bridgeman, were itching for a fight. The peace party succeeded in arranging terms based on the Royal Commission’s Report, upon which the strike would be called off and the miners left, if they would not agree, to fight alone. With these terms they returned in triumph to the Cabinet room only to find Messrs Churchill and Chamberlain in charge and a clear majority in favour of war at all costs. When the Prime Minister proposed nevertheless to go forward with the negotiations and avert the strike, he was faced with the immediate resignation of seven of his colleagues—Churchill, Neville Chamberlain, Bridgeman, Amery, “Jix”, Cunliffe-Lister, and one other of whose identity we are not sure. So he gave way. He ought not to have given way, of course, but excuses may perhaps be found for an utterly exhausted man who, having fought the Trade Unions for days and nights, found himself called upon at the last moment to fight his own colleagues.

Mr Churchill was the villain of the piece. He is reported to have remarked that he thought “a little blood-letting” would be all to the good. Whether he actually used this phrase or not there is no doubt about his tireless efforts to seize the providential opportunity for a fight.

So much for the way the strike began. When it ended Mr Baldwin had regained control of his Cabinet and had acquired so enormous a personal popularity in the country that he could afford to let all his colleagues resign if they wanted to. He took charge of affairs without consulting anybody, and without any Cabinet authorisation—which would certainly not have been forthcoming from the fight-to-a-finish section—he insisted upon peace. Thereby he atoned for his previous surrender. “Victimisation” was being attempted in almost every industry. Men were being asked to return to work as new hands, at much lower wages, under humiliating conditions. The Prime Minister stopped all that within twenty-four hours, by his insistence upon the necessity of forgetting the past and looking only to the future. Some of his colleagues and many of his supporters railed at him for his “weakness”; but this time he stood firm—and gave us peace. His atonement, we think, should be accepted. He blundered on that Sunday night in agreeing to war, but ever since then he has fought for peace, and fought with an extraordinary measure of success.

We do not know whether there is anybody left who still honestly believes that the strike was a “revolutionary” attempt to subvert the British Constitution. Its real nature, at any rate, was shown clearly enough by the actual course of events. It was a strike “in furtherance of a trade dispute”, and nothing more; and in so far as it secured for the miners—if they would but have seized the chance—a better hearing than they would otherwise have had, it may not unreasonably be claimed to have been a successful strike, despite the inevitable, and in our view timely, “surrender”. Not only was it not a strike against the Constitution, it was not even a strike against the Government. If it had the appearance of a strike against the Government, that was only because the Government had intervened—and rightly, though very ineffectively, intervened—in the struggle between the miners and the mineowners. If it had not intervened the strike would have taken place just the same; but then the truth would have been clear to everybody—namely, that it was a strike against the inefficiency and grasping obstinacy of the mineowners—nothing more and nothing less. The Constitution was never threatened either by word or by deed.

The general result of the strike is not unsatisfactory. It has shown that an industrial upheaval can take place, in this country at any rate, without the loss of a single life. But what is far more important, it has shown that the weapon of the General Strike is practically worthless in the hands of those who are not prepared to go to all lengths of revolutionary violence. It is a weapon which revolutionaries (being a tiny minority) could never wield; yet unless it is they who wield it, it is blunt and ineffective.

And so from henceforth we may hope that it will be discarded by the Trade Union movement. It has been tested and broken, and we all know where we are far more clearly than we did a month ago. The Trade Unions of Britain stood by their comrades in the mines, and perhaps by their wonderful solidarity they achieved something for them; but certainly the majority of them will never again wish to resort to so desperate a measure.

We have bought experience at a pretty high price, but we have got it; and no section of the community, we suppose, is more satisfied with the bargain than the “constitutional” leaders of the Labour movement. The irrepressible left-wingers are silenced; their dreams are dissolved; they must set about the Sisyphean task of converting the Trade Unions of Great Britain to revolutionary ideas, or admit failure.

For having so notably helped to teach us all this, ought we to thank Mr Churchill or ought we to hang him on a lamp-post for the incorrigible “blood-letter” that he is? We are really not quite sure what is the proper answer to that question; but probably—to be on the safe side—it would be best that he should be hanged. 

Photo: Captain Horton/IWM via Getty Images
 

7 January 1939: “The British people would rather go down fighting”

By Kingsley Martin

The Second World War was still eight months away when Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman from 1931 to 1960, interviewed Winston Churchill, yet again on the Conservative back benches, about democracy and fascism, the necessity of rearmament and the British attitude to war.

A famous journalist once told me of an alarming interview that he had with Mr Churchill some years before the last war. Mr Churchill happened to be in full Privy Councillor’s uniform and emphasised his points with finely executed passes and slashes of his sword. Mr Churchill himself declares that this is a fairy tale; and certainly, when I went to see him the other day, he was wielding nothing more ferocious than the builder’s trowel with which he was completing an arch in the house that he has built with his own hands this summer. He was not, however, too much absorbed to discuss very fully the problem of Democracy and Efficiency.

Kingsley Martin The country has learnt to associate you with the view that we must all get together as quickly as possible to rearm in defence of democracy. In view of the strength and character of the totalitarian states, is it possible to combine the reality of democratic freedom with efficient military organisation?

Mr Winston Churchill The essential aspects of democracy are the freedom of the individual, within the framework of laws passed by Parliament, to order his life as he pleases, and the uniform enforcement of tribunals independent of the executive. The laws are based on Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, the Petition of Right and others. Without this foundation there can be no freedom or civilisation, anyone being at the mercy of officials and liable to be spied upon and betrayed even in his own home. As long as these rights are defended, the foundations of freedom are secure.

KM One point people are especially afraid of is that free criticism in Parliament and in the press may be sacrificed. The totalitarian states, it is said, are regimented, organised and unhampered, as the Prime Minister suggested the other day, by critics of the Government “who foul their own nest”.

WC Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, a fatal distemper may develop.

KM Do you attribute the slowness in preparation of which you complain to any inherent defect in democratic institutions?

WC I am convinced that with adequate leadership, democracy can be a more efficient form of government than Fascism. In this country at any rate the people can readily be convinced that it is necessary to make sacrifices, and they will willingly undertake them if the situation is put clearly and fairly before them . . . It may be that greater efficiency in secret military preparations can be achieved in a country with autocratic institutions than by the democratic system. But this advantage is not necessarily great, and it is far outweighed by the strength of a democratic country in a long war. In an autocracy, when the pinch comes, the blame is thrown upon the leader and the system breaks up. In a democratic country the people feel that they are respon­sible, and if they believe in their cause will hold out much longer than the population of Dictator States . . .

KM May I go back now to the question of pre-war preparation? We should all agree on the necessity for many restrictions in war-time, but what about conscription and the compulsion of labour and capital in time of peace? Captain Liddell Hart has remarked that to have conscription to combat Fascism is like cutting our throats to avoid a disease.

WC I see no reason why any essential part of our liberties should be lost by preparations for defence. I do not think we need a great conscript army on the continental model, but we should have besides our regular professional army a considerably larger body of Territorials available for home defence or foreign service in an emergency. In case of war a great army could be built up around such a skeleton. I would not hesitate to fill up the gap by ballot among all the young men of the country of the appropriate age, allowing no substitute whatsoever.

KM How much coercion of industry is implied in a Ministry of Supply with special powers? Will it involve state control of raw materials, and compete with the methods the Nazis have so successfully employed in South-East Europe and South America?

WC As you know, I have long pressed for a Ministry of Supply. In my view this should have powers, if necessary, to compel industry to give priority as required to Government contracts for rearmament purposes, and to devote or turn over any necessary portion of its plant to such work.

KM May I pass on to another related subject – ARP [Air Raid Precautions]? People say that the problem of defending London and other big cities in itself involves regimen­tation on an enormous scale. That you have to set up an army of petty officers with undefined powers.

WC I think a great mistake has been made in spreading our ARP efforts over the whole country, instead of concentrating on what I should call the target areas. I do not believe any enemy will waste his bombs and effort on killing ordinary citizens just out of spite, when he could obtain a much greater military result by bombing docks, factories, Government offices and the like. I am certain that in the villages the risk will be infinitesimal. Our main effort should be to protect workers in the central parts of London, in the ports, and in the manufacturing districts which will be subject to attack. I should be inclined to consider the building of great underground roads, leading out of London and branching off to various points in the countryside, which would not only serve to evacuate the Capital in time of danger, but could be used as dormitories and refuges for those who were compelled to remain behind. That some steps should be taken to prepare the population for the ordeal of bombing which would probably overtake it on the outbreak of war, seems to be essential. If everybody knows that preparations have been made, and what to do, it seems to me there is less likelihood of inhabitants of the East End believing they will be left in the lurch while the rich look after themselves.

KM People who are not necessarily pacifist are horrified at the idea that we may go into another war with the same kind of generals who were responsible for Passchendaele and other horrors in the last war. They say that they might be prepared to fight for democracy if they were democratically led; but that they are damned if they will be sacrificed again for the Camberley clique that was so horribly inefficient and wasteful in the last war. Do you think it is possible to democratise the army?

WC It is quite true, I know, that many people consider that the cadre of officers is selected from too narrow a class. I have always taken the view that merit should be rewarded by promotion in the army as in any other profession. I support this not only from the point of view of democratising the army, but mainly because I think it leads to efficiency such as no other system can achieve.

KM May I ask one more question of a more general character? Most of us feel that if there is a war it will be so destructive that the very substance of our civilisation, let alone our democracy, is likely to be destroyed. Clearly the great object is to prevent war. Is it possible in your view still to regard these military preparations, not as
the acceptance of inevitable war, but merely as a necessary complement of a policy which may keep the peace?

WC I fear that failure to rearm Britain is bound to lead to war. Had we strengthened our defences earlier, the arms race need never have arisen. We should have come to a settlement with Germany while she was still disarmed. I think it is still possible, with a strong Britain and France, to preserve the peace of Europe.

KM Is it not true historically that an armaments race leads to war?

WC To say that an arms race always leads to war seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse. A government resolved to attain ends detrimental to its neighbours, which does not shrink from the possibility of war, makes preparations for war, its neighbours take defensive action, and you say an arms race is beginning. But this is the symptom of the intention of one government to challenge or destroy its neighbours, not the cause of the conflict. The pace is set by the potential aggressor, and, failing collective action by the rest of the world to resist him, the alternatives are an arms race or surrender. War is very terrible, but stirs a proud people. There have been periods in our history when we have given way for a long time, but a new and formidable mood arises . . .

KM A bellicose mood?

WC A mood of “Thus far, and no farther”. It is only by the spirit of resistance that man has learnt to stand upright, and in-stead of walking on all fours to assume an erect posture.

KM Do you think it possible to concentrate mainly on defence with the idea that we should be less afraid of attack and therefore able to stand up for ourselves without preparing to bomb other people?

WC I cannot subscribe to the idea that it might be possible to dig ourselves in and make no preparations for anything other than passive defence. It is the theory of the turtle, disproved at every Lord Mayor’s Banquet. If the enemy can attack as and when he pleases without fear of reprisals, we should become the whipping-boy of Europe. We need shelters and tunnels, but crouching in a tunnel is not a fighting posture. Quite apart from the fact that we could never defend our dependencies on such lines, we should be exposed to inevitable defeat. Every nation of the world would have an incentive to have a free cut at the melon. War is horrible, but slavery is worse, and you may be sure that the British people would rather go down fighting than live in servitude. 

29 January 1965: The Great Outsider

Unsigned editorial

The week Churchill died, the NS ran a front-page editorial in which it praised “the greatest man of action of his age”. Not everyone agreed. “I read your front-page article on Churchill with my now accustomed regret,” one reader wrote in a letter. “I have taken the New Statesman for some 35 years and I am still astonished that a team of intelligent people can be so out of touch with ordinary human beings . . . whenever you touch human grandeur, be it Churchill or de Gaulle, it crumbles into grit between your fingers.”

Winston Churchill’s formal education was a failure; he left school ignorant and unawakened. To his grief, his brilliant father largely ignored him and declined any course of instruction in politics. Thus, though born to a great historical tradition of public service, he was largely self-taught and self-formed, a process he accomplished as a lonely subaltern on the frontiers of empire. It is not surprising, therefore, that he never developed a coherent political philosophy, and in several respects his approach to politics was unsophisticated, even immature.

This led him into many errors and mis-judgments. Though a good House of Commons man, he could not adapt himself to the party system. His lighthearted change of party and his brash approach to the problem of coercing Ulster laid the foundations for the deep distrust in which he was held, through most of his life, by orthodox Tories. He allowed himself to be out-manoeuvred over Gallipoli, the one stroke of strategic genius which could have shortened the war; instead, the incident confirmed his reputation for folly. Free trade made him join the Liberals. But he despised their anaemic Nonconformity and they, in turn, feared his belligerent view of life. At the same time, his unthinking imperialism, his eager acceptance of the class-war (as during the General Strike), his taste for direct action and his failure to comprehend the basic aspirations of British socialism made him anathema to the Labour Party for many years. There were deeper shortcomings. Most of the mass-movements of his time left him unmoved and uncomprehending. He tried to stifle communism at birth and was puzzled by its resilience – until it presented itself to him in the person of Stalin, a conventional power-figure he could understand.

But his unawareness of system and cyclical change gave him great strength as an empiricist. In moments of crisis he was unburdened by preconceptions or rigid beliefs. This made him the greatest man of action of his age. He saw 1914 not as the end of an epoch, but as a moment when the Fleet ought to be ready and at sea. Unlike the appeasers, he regarded Hitler not as a complex phenomenon to be placed in an elaborate historical context, but simply as a menace to civilisation – and he reacted accordingly. He was the first to scrap the ideological barriers when the Nazis invaded Russia, the first in the West to restore them – at Fulton in 1946 – when Hitlerism had been destroyed. He offered union with France in 1940 as a straightforward alternative to imminent defeat; but turned his back on Europe in 1951, when the opportunity to create a rationalised structure presented itself. He was a great internationalist: but mainly in the interests of national self-survival. He was thus able to prolong Britain’s existence as a leading power by an entire generation – perhaps two – and to preserve the freedom of countless millions to propagate political and social ideas he detested.

Many more sober statesmen saw his immense appetite for unregarding action as dangerous. This was to misunderstand the man. Churchill was rash, but incapable of using power evilly. For a politician he had exceptional magnanimity, his flashes of anger yielding swiftly to the lure of comradeship. He loved battle but detested persecution. Underlying these characteristics was the one salient principle of his life: his passionate regard for British parliamentary democracy. This may seem paradoxical in a man who was an aristocrat by birth and an outsider by temperament. Churchill, indeed, was not a skilful electioneer and frequently found himself rejected. But this never dimmed his conviction that the British people, as a whole, formed a mature and wise corporation, who could be trusted to exercise their constitutional rights responsibly. He saw it as his duty and function to use his matchless courage, oratory and powers of leadership to extract from our people the best they had to give. By a grandiose accident of history, he was privileged to discharge that role in full measure.

29 January 1965: “What panache! What guts!”

By Hugh Dalton

A Labour colleague in Churchill’s wartime cabinet remembers how he fell under the prime minister’s spell.

It is finished. “Now,” as was said of Lincoln, “he belongs to the ages.” I offer here no profound appreciation nor compressed life story of Winston Churchill, but only some personal memories and judgements. I served with him in the House of Commons for close on 30 years; and in his War Coalition, as a minister of cabinet rank, for more than five years; for two years as Minister of Economic Warfare and “Special Operations” – “Minister of Ungentlemanly Warfare”, he used to call me – then for three years as President of the Board of Trade. But for more than 50 years he fascinated me by his personality and style.

At Cambridge, from 1906 to 1910, I was a Fabian socialist while he was a Liberal minister. Obviously he was much more interesting to us young men than most old cabinet ministers. Stories about him circulated among us. Some reached me through Rupert Brooke from Eddie Marsh, who
accompanied him, as private secretary, on an East African tour. A colonial governor spoke of the regrettable spread of venereal disease among the natives. “Ah,” said Winston, “Pox Britannica!” And late one night, on this same trip, reflecting on the wide disparities of fortune, not least between these Africans and the Europeans: “I don’t think much of God,” said Winston; “he hasn’t put enough in the pool.”

I first met him in October 1908 at dinner with the Webbs. He was President of the Board of Trade, and they had just persuaded him to set up labour exchanges. Now they wanted to sell him the staff to run them. Beveridge was there, of course, and some younger people. That night Winston talked much, diffusely and overpoweringly, and listened little. But he engaged Beveridge, as the Webbs had planned.

Churchill put himself wrong with the Labour Party on many issues and occasions: at Tonypandy in 1910 when he used troops against miners on strike; in his return to the gold standard in 1925, though [Philip] Snowden agreed with him on this; in the General Strike in 1926, when he gaily abandoned the Treasury in order to edit the British Gazette; in his persistent military intervention in Russia in 1919 and 1920 against what he called “the foul baboonery of Bolshevism”; in his rebellious resistance in the early Thirties to even the slow and cautious advances of a Tory cabinet towards Indian self-government. But, as the Thirties wore on, many of us, especially the British rearmers in the Labour Party, felt ourselves drawing nearer to him.

I was in touch with him and other Tory dissenters around the time of Munich. For a moment a big Tory breakaway from Chamberlain seemed possible. This dream soon faded then. In May 1940 it came true.

From 1940 to 1945 we Labour ministers worked with him, on the whole, well, but watchfully. He had a double nature. Bevin once said to me: “One day he’s a great national leader; next day he’s just a Tory political crook.” I was never intimate with him. But he gave me good support while I was one of his ministers, and we had no serious quarrel. Often, in cabinet conflicts, he took my side, sometimes most decisively. But I was sometimes discontented because I could not gain his full interest in projects which I thought important.

In May 1940, when I first joined his government, I fell completely under his spell. What panache! What guts! In those tense days I would have followed him anywhere. We had no other leader, no other saviour. “I felt,” he said when he became Prime Minister, “as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”

On the political side of the war Churchill had prejudices, not always helpful. Thus he was too fond of kings, in Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia; just as, some think, he stuck too long to our own Edward VIII and leaned too far, as a historian, towards Charles and away from Cromwell. In home politics in 1943-5 he aimed at preventing disruptive disputes within his government. On 28 May 1945, after the Coalition government had broken up, he was At Home at No 10 Downing Street to those who had served in it. Standing behind the familiar green baize cabinet table, now draped as a buffet, he addressed us with tears streaming down his cheeks. He said that we had all come together and had stayed together as a united band of friends in a very trying time. History would recognise this. “The light of history will shine on all your helmets.”

In his last years he frequented the House of Commons, but more and more as a ghost. He walked along the corridors with a severe arthritic limp. He had determined never to try to speak in the House again. He seldom smiled. He missed his dead or stricken friends, Cherwell or Eden. He now wished to die. A conservative who had been a close cabinet colleague told me that he had tried in vain, dining alone with him in recent years, to arouse his interest or to give him pleasure. But “I am hoping,” he had said, “that I shall be sent for soon.”

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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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