From the Work Programme to the bedroom tax, there is a lot this government has got wrong. Photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty
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The Disability Audit: the eight coalition policies that have hit disabled people

After looking in detail at all the changes to the benefits system in the last five years, it’s only possible to come to one conclusion: the coalition’s attitude towards disabled people has been pointlessly cruel.

Listen to the Conservatives promise the electorate £12bn of social security cuts and you have an insight into the thinking that has plagued the last five years. Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith have ended this parliament as they began: demonising disabled people and the chronically ill as expensive drains on the rest of society.

The coalition’s cuts have fallen 18 times harder on severely disabled people in poverty than on the average citizen. Disabled people are losing £28bn of support – with individuals hit by up to six different cuts.

It says something about the scale of this that what you’re about to read does not cover every measure this government has taken against disabled people – there are simply too many to list. Think disappearing respite care for families with severely disabled children, the failing Work Programme, or proposed student allowance cuts that stop young disabled adults being able to go to university.

From the “fit to work” tests to the onslaught of benefit sanctions, the last five years has witnessed the dismantling of disability care, work, and housing support. 

Here are eight coalition policies that have hit disabled people:

1. Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)

Ask a member of the public if they are aware of any of this government’s disability policies and it’s likely one name will come up: Atos. By the time last March the private firm had quit its £500m contract administrating the coalition’s now infamous “fit to work” test – the assessment used to determine if a disabled or chronically ill person is eligible for the unemployment benefit, Employment and Support Allowance – it had become the recipient of unprecedented protests by disability campaigners and an avalanche of slating media headlines: from assessors asking an amputee if his arm would grow back to judging people “fit to work” only for them to die a few weeks later.

But it would be to miss the core of the past five years to think Atos – rather than the government itself – created this crisis. Atos – and its replacement, Maximus – are the private sector monkey to the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) organ grinder. It was the DWP that designed the Work Capability Assessment and it’s the DWP who despite a committee of MPs calling the test not fit for purposehave continued to defend it.

Last year, it emerged that people with degenerative conditions – conditions that, by definition, are only going to get worse – were being judged by the WCA as likely to “recover” enough to look for work. A third of people with disabilities such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis are being denied the full version of ESA and pushed into “work-related activity” – the group expected to be well enough to work, that gets less money, and is routinely sanctioned.

This is an assessment that is now quantitatively proven to inflict damage to disabled people’s bodies and minds. Over 60 per cent of disabled people going through the work capability assessment report being in pain afterwards. Others say their condition was made worse or their recovery delayed. One claimant surveyed by Leonard Cheshire Disability, who has progressive rheumatoid arthritis, said she left her appointment “feeling absolutely awful and suffered a lot of pain in the following days”. She went on to have a stroke a few weeks later.

Keep this in mind when noting that the change the government decided to make to ESA was to reduce the support many going through the process could receive. By mid-way through the coalition’s time in government, the DWP had added “time limits” to how long some chronically ill or disabled claimants could claim benefits. This was part of a wider attempt to enact conditionality to the benefit system (see number eight). As I reported in 2013, 700,000 people with long-term sickness or disability had their ESA taken as a result. The means test brought in was only £7,500 for this change, leaving someone earning barely eight grand a year having to support themselves and their ill partner.

Asked on the election trail where the Conservatives would get their £12bn “welfare savings” from, David Cameron has pointed to “getting people off” ESA. “Part of this is continuing with a programme that we’ve had…,” he told the BBC. “We’re going to continue with that, successfully reducing welfare…” Pain, scandal, and poverty is apparently “success”.  

2. Personal Independence Payments (PIP)  

At the same time as the crisis with ESA, the government decided to scrap a second key disability benefit: Disability Living Allowance (DLA), replacing it with the “tougher” Personal Independence Payments (PIP).

As of 2012, 3.2 million disabled people were receiving DLA to help pay for their additional care or mobility needs. It does not take a genius to predict that re-testing millions of disabled people is an enormous undertaking – and one that, by nature of being a benefit that people use to feed themselves or leave the house, would need to be done carefully and competently.  

A year into the reform, parliament’s public spending watchdog was calling the government’s handling of PIP “nothing short of a fiasco” – with widespread delays and reports of claimants being hospitalised due to the stress of the process.  

The DWP have been forced to delay the national rollout (many areas of the country are still on DLA), as well increase predictions for how long people would have to wait for support or even to get an assessment. Currently, almost 200,000 disabled and chronically ill people in “reform areas” are stuck in a backlog waiting to be assessed. Guess who the government outsourced the job to for £400m? Atos (and second private firm, Capita).  

What is particularly troubling with PIP is that – due to the flaws in the assessment itself – these backlogs are essentially a long wait to nowhere. Unlike DLA, Personal Independence Payment is a points-based assessment, awarded on “descriptors” on a range of activities (such as washing and bathing, or communicating verbally) and only has two rates (DLA had three). Campaigners warned from the offset that, just like with ESA and the Work Capability Assessment, this would mean a crude, inaccurate assessment. Disabled people are now finding themselves waiting a year for help, only to be told they are not eligible for the new benefit, despite having severe – and blindingly obvious – needs.

Paula Ranking*, 61, from Runcorn, Cheshire, applied for PIP back in October 2013. She has fibromyalgia and depression, leaving her with chronic fatigue, poor memory, and severe muscle pain. It took her until June 2014 to be given an assessment and two months later, she was told she had been rejected for the benefit entirely.

After requesting a copy of her assessment report four times in order to appeal the decision, she tells me she saw it was “full of lies and omissions”.  

“I couldn’t believe what I was reading… The assessor made out I was fit and athletic,” Paula says. “She said she watched me walk 60 meters to the office with no problem but I was in absolute agony. It was early morning and my painkillers hadn’t kicked in.”

“She pointed out in her report that I crossed my leg at one point. I did because my calf muscle felt like it was having a knife twisted in it. I let out a yelp when I grabbed my leg but she didn’t mention that. I could go on and on.”

Rather than being a necessary reform, the scrapping of DLA – and introduction of PIP – was brought in on the (false) premise that vast numbers of disabled people were making unnecessary and “fraudulent claims”. Before anyone had actually been assessed, Iain Duncan Smith was announcing an estimated half a million people would lose their entitlement under PIP – making a “saving” of around 20 per cent, or £2bn, of the current scheme. Instead of an anomaly or a horrible accident, there is a lurking feeling that benefit rejections like Paula’s are exactly what was intended.

I think of this as Paula tells me she is “terrified” that she has no one to go with her to her appeal – and again, a few weeks later, when she emails me, upset to say she arrived at her appeal only to be told it was the day before. Due to the memory loss and fatigue that are symptoms of her illness, she had got the dates mixed up. There was no support in place to her help, despite the fact her illness leaves her cognitively unable to deal with the process and physically needing up to eighteen hours sleep a day.

A month later, Paula emails to tell me she’s finally been awarded the benefit – at the standard rate.

I missed out on the rest due to the poor help I received filling the form in,” she tells me. “The judge did say he had gone on my doctor’s reports and disregarded the Atos report.” 

It’s hard to imagine this is much of a reprieve. Paula’s been £190 short on her mortgage each month for the last year. 

“Don’t believe all you hear about everything getting paid for on benefits,” she says. “I could lose my home.”   

3. Bedroom tax

Even in the anti-benefits climate that has developed, the image of a disabled person being evicted does not sit well with the public. The bedroom tax – which cut the housing benefit of social tenants deemed to be “under-occupying” their home – saw what was a flagship coalition policy of “fairness” and “cost-cutting” turn into arguably the most unpopular measure of the parliament.    

Almost two thirds of the tenants hit by the policy are from households that contain someone who has a disability – that’s over 400,000. It didn’t take much to realize that a policy penalising people for needing extra space would end up hurting the disabled and chronically ill. The government’s own impact assessment told them.

Back at the start of 2013, before the policy came into force, I reported the reality of cutting benefits for having a so-called “spare room”: parents of grown disabled children losing money for storing oxygen cylinders and adult sized nappies, to wheelchair users told to leave a home with twenty years’ worth of adaptations.

What has followed in the two years since has been a lesson in how not to conduct social security. Only 6 per cent of people affected by the bedroom tax have “downsized”, largely down to the fact there was never enough smaller properties for them to move to. Local authority Discretionary Housing Payments – held up as the safety net to protect disabled tenants – have actually ended up more likely to be given to non-disabled tenants.  Savings have been nominal – and have only come off the back of pushing some of the most disadvantaged people in society into debt, rent arrears, and worsening health.

The bedroom tax has produced a sense of “hopelessness verging on desperation”, research in the Journal of Public Health found last month – that sort of widespread, every day pain that has the deepest effect.

If the policy’s architects needed something more graphic, they could perhaps look to the case in the Liverpool Echo this week: a 32 year old who had all his toes amputated after being forced to spend last winter sleeping in a tent. Mitchell Keenan, from Skelmersdale, in West Lancashire, was evicted from his four-bed house because the bedroom tax meant his family could no longer pay the rent. He was diagnosed with frostbite six weeks ago when his family noticed his toes had turned black. His 62-year-old father, Keith, also evicted, has malnourishment, scabies and dementia.

4. Council tax

The bedroom tax may have grabbed the headlines but it came at the same time as another, equally appalling hit on the ability of the so-called “vulnerable” to pay the rent. From April 2013, the government slashed funding for council tax benefit by £500m, leaving cash-strapped local authorities to decide how the remainder should be distributed. The result? 2.3m families previously exempt now have to pay at least a portion of their council tax – that’s the poorest, the disabled, and carers. 

Almost 300,000 of these people have also been affected by the bedroom tax. That’s the added kick of the coalition’s cuts: they have been arranged in a way that means disabled people have lost multiple strands of support at once.

The consequences of a policy decision like cutting council tax support are devastating and they are fast. Council tax is one of the few debts that carry a threat of prison. Miss a payment and the arrears mount quickly. Before you know it, a court summons has arrived at your home and there is talk of eviction and re-possession.

Susan Smith, 50, has council tax arrears of over £1,300. She’s lived in her flat in London for fourteen years and tells me she had never had to pay council tax before the cuts to support came in last year. Susan is an example of the sort of person the state used to protect: she has mental health problems – what she describes to me as “chronic mental and emotional fatigue” – severe enough to result in repeated hospitalisation. She was already struggling to keep a roof over her head before the month dubbed “Black April” kicked in, with rent arrears of almost £5,000 and an ongoing eviction threat. The council tax changes have piled on more debt and more psychological pressure.

“I know at times like this I’m vulnerable to episodes,” she tells me. [I’ve been] detached, incapable of going to the shop, and neglected eating properly for days, feeling the need to stay in bed and rest my brain.”  

Her council, Haringey, employed an “enforcement agency” to “remove and sell off” her goods unless she pays them £10 a week from her Disability Living Allowance – the benefit awarded to help her with the additional needs that come with her illness.  

“I’ve experienced relapses through [the] stress and anxiety [of it], where I’ve not been able to function properly,” she tells me. “[So I haven’t been able to] respond effectively to threatening letters and gather the information they require.”

Despite Susan agreeing to pay them £40 of her disability benefit a month, the council is continuing to threaten her with legal action. Susan shows me the letter she received on Monday – asking her with almost quaint politeness to “please pay £115.58 within seven days” or “legal action will be taken after a further seven days for the full amount of £1,150.38.” 

It is unclear where someone dealing with mental illness with set, low income is expected to get over a thousand pounds from in less than two weeks.

5. Independent Living Fund (ILF)  

Crucially, the coalition’s cuts have been a two-tier threat to disabled people keeping their home: not only through the ability to pay the rent but to live independently at all.

For its users, the Independent Living Fund (ILF) – the standalone fund that helps 18,000 of some of the most severely disabled people to live in their own homes – is the difference between living independently as an adult or a toss up between clock-timed care slots and going into residential care.

The government’s much-fought decision to, from June 2015, close the ILF has come to symbolise perhaps the most devastating message of austerity: disabled people’s dignity is now too costly. 

Helen Johnson, 43, has cerebral palsy – meaning she uses a wheelchair and has minimal movement – and has used ILF since she was 18.  Talking from her bungalow just outside Doncaster, she tells me that, added to her own financial contributions, the ILF has allowed her to stay in the home she grew up in. Three rotating personal assistants help her with basic care needs: going to the toilet when she wants, washing, and putting medicated cream on her fragile skin. But, like every ILF user I’ve spoken to, what’s striking is how the fund also means Helen’s been able to have what most of us would say constitutes living rather than existing: to study, work part-time when her health allowed, enjoy music festivals and go to comedy shows with friends.

Listen to a politician talk about the decision to close the ILF and they will tell you that any disabled person currently being supported by the fund will simply be transferred to local authority care provision. What they don’t tend to say is that the money won’t be ring-fenced, meaning local councils – already shredding social care (see number six) – will have no obligation to spend it on current recipients. 

It gives some insight into what is to come for Helen that she tells me that, before the decision to close the ILF was announced, she asked her local authority to “top up” her care hours (her elderly mum helps her with her nighttime care) – and was told to go back to apply to the ILF as the process “would be easier and a lot less complicated”.

Perhaps the darkest part is that none of this could be called news to the government. The DWP's own research says it's "almost certain that closure of the ILF will mean that the majority of users will face changes to the way their support is delivered, including the real possibility of a reduction to the funding they currently receive". This could mean "the loss of a carer or personal assistant".

According to a series of freedom of information requests by Disabled People Against Cuts, over half the local authorities that responded to the government's ILF consultation said the move would either result in significantly reduced care packages that would affect people's ability to enjoy any quality of life, or in more admissions to residential care homes.  

It might be worth taking a moment to imagine the reality of that.

Helen is a “group 1 ILF recipient” which means, as an original user of the fund, she has never had any involvement with social services before. She tells me that her local authority – nor anyone else – even contacted her when they started talking about closing the ILF and that communication throughout has “so far been non existent.”

“I contacted social services myself in early January, because they hadn't been in touch,” she says. “A social worker visited me but admitted that although they knew changes would happen, she did a basic assessment but then said she was due to go on a training course as the paper work was due to change… I’ve not heard anything else as yet.”

The feeling of a lack of control over her own life is evident.

“I do feel very ignored and totally in the dark regarding the future,” she adds.  

6. Social care  

It may give a hint to the government’s approach to protecting disabled citizens that the ministers pointing to social care as the solution to ILF closure are the same ones who have cut the system to the bone.

Social care has had over £3.5bn taken from its funding by the coalition over the past four years, according to Adass, directors of adult social services. The result has been councils forced to reduce the number of disabled people dubbed as eligible for it – essentially abandoning adults with severe disabilities to live without even basic help. It has made few headlines but two out of five disabled people in this country are now unable to eat, wash, dress or get out of the house due to underfunded services in their area.

Kenneth Fletcher, 23, has cerebral palsy and is partially sighted. In 2011, he moved out of his family home and into a shared bungalow with three other disabled people and what was said to be 24-hour on-site support. At the age of 19, what he says he was looking forward to are the basics of independence any of us want as we form a life: socialising with friends, maybe going on holiday with his new housemates. He says that after a few weeks in his new home, he realized “something didn’t feel right”.

“Everyone was in bed by 8.30pm. Why would you go to bed so early every night?” Kenneth explains. “It turned out my new housemates had no choice – they were being ‘put’ to bed early, even if they didn’t want to go.”

Kenneth says he remembers coming home to find one of his housemates, who he describes as a girl who uses a wheelchair, sitting at the kitchen table with nothing to do.

“She’d just been left there on her own,” he says. “Another time I came home to find two of my housemates with their wheelchairs facing the wall. I don’t know how long they had been like that – hours maybe.”   

Despite intervention by Kenneth’s mum and social worker, he tells me nothing changed. After a year, he was able to move into another supported-living bungalow that he describes as “not perfect” but better.

It says something about the standard of independent living for disabled adults in this country that, when discussing his expectations with disability charity Scope, Kenneth says he hopes for the ability to “choose what time to get up in the morning” and “what to have for lunch.”

Treating disabled people like cattle is the cheaper option. By the end of the decade, the Local Government Association and Adass estimate there will be a £4.3bn funding “black hole” in adult social care. Scope’s report, “The Other Care Crisis”, puts it clearly: “Austerity has pushed the system to crisis point...turning back the clock on disabled people’s independence.”

7. Access to Work

For a government obsessed with “hardworking families” and “making work pay”, changes like PIP or social care have not only been immoral but counterproductive. Cutting the support disabled people need to get dressed and leave the house tends to make it difficult for them to be able to turn up to work.

Cuts to Access to Work – the fund delivered through Jobcentre Plus that pays for practical support for disabled people at work – is the most blatant example of this. Or it would be, if the government were not trying very hard to bury them. (The Department for Work and Pensions only agreed to publish the guidance that shows who is even eligible for support after campaigners threatened legal action.) Go a bit deeper and we know that limits have been placed on the amount of help available – resulting in a “climate of suspicion” around claims, payment delays, cuts in support hours, and risk of disabled people losing their jobs. 

Bernie Vincent, who uses a wheelchair and has cognitive impairments, works as a training manager at an independent living centre. Her disability means she needs help to process and interpret information and for the last twenty years she’s relied on the Access to Work scheme to help fund a support worker. From May 2014, she had her funding cut by 60 per cent. There had been no change in her disability and she had been given no new assessment – only filling in what she describes as a review form.   

“I’ve always had support from Access to Work. Without funding, [working for the past twenty years] wouldn’t have been possible,” she tells me. “Now it’s all under threat.”

The first thing Bernie heard about her funding being cut was when her office manager told her they hadn’t been paid. She tells me she then had to start “chasing things up”.

“[When I called them,] the person on the other end of the phone was robotic, as if she was reading from a script,” she says.  “I couldn’t take in what I was being told. I kept asking for an explanation only to be informed that Access to Work only fund 20 per cent of support needs.”

“There I was telling this stranger I’d never spoken to before that I’d likely lose my job, that I wouldn’t be able to pay by mortgage. Nothing made a difference.”  

Bernie tells me she made “numerous” phone calls, sent emails, and made an official complaint but the DWP went ahead with her funding cut.  This is not surprising. The DWP has been warned by the work and pensions select committee that the process by which people could challenge decisions made about their support funding needed to be “clearer and more transparent”.

The cuts in her funding mean Bernie now has to spend two days at work without her support worker. On the days she still has support, she leaves early in order to “make best use” of the funding and ends up making up her contracted hours at home without help.

Left without her support worker, Bernie tells me she becomes “anxious”, her “mind swims with information”, and everything she does “takes longer”.

“I worry can I make my targets, how this will impact on the others in my [office] team,” she says. “If I don’t have adequate support at work, I can’t continue to do my job.” 

“Society sees disabled people like me going about our lives and think we just jump out of bed, get on with our lives, perhaps in the same way as they do,” she adds. “What people don’t see is the stuff that goes on behind closed doors to make this happen…how critical it is we have the funding and services to just get on with an average day.”  

8. Benefit sanctions

This myth that it is shrinking government – loss of support or added conditionality – that helps workers has propped up much of the coalition’s employment thinking. It gave birth to one of the worst developments of the past five years: the benefit sanction system.

There are no legitimate grounds to remove the money people need in order to eat, whether that person begins as the picture of health or is sitting in a wheelchair. But it gives some insight into the mentality of the system that as of last year, the number of benefit sanctions against disabled and chronically ill people had risen by 580 per cent. Like the 23-year-old pregnant woman who the recent MP-led inquiry heard was receiving employment and support allowance for mental health problems following the stillborn birth of her first baby eight months earlier. She had missed one work-focused interview because on that day she had found it too difficult to leave her flat – so they stopped her money, and left her to walk two miles to a food bank after going without a hot meal for a fortnight. Or the young man with learning difficulties who had his benefits stopped for being four minutes late for the JobCentre – despite the fact he couldn’t tell the time. He was later found sitting in his flat in the dark with no electric, gas, or food.

Listen to Esther McVey or IDS and they will tell you these cases are ‘vulnerable’ claimants who have “fallen through the cracks,” as if what has happened to these people happened by magic. It didn’t. The Coalition brought in measures to increase the amount of money they were able to take from sanctioned disabled and chronically ill people. The application for hardship payments – the emergency fund meant to, essentially, keep people alive during their sanction period - have been designed in a way that is too difficult for vulnerable people to understand. A fact that the MP’s inquiry into the sanction system said means: “the people potentially most in need of the hardship system were the least likely to be able to access it”. Cameron chose to ignore this point when Andrew Marr questioned him this month on the death of David Clapson – the diabetic who died because a sanction meant he couldn’t afford to keep his insulin in a fridge. Or that JSA claimants aren’t even allowed to use the hardship fund for 15 days after being sanctioned. It is worth noting that this group will include disabled and ill people, falsely judged as “fit to work” (see number one) and put on JSA.  

This is a system that is morally rotten. Jobcentre managers routinely put pressure on staff to sanction claimants’ benefits – and even have league tables for job centres to compete against each other. Clapson is not the only one to die as a result. The DWP have been forced to admit they’ve investigated 49 deaths since 2012 “associated with a DWP activity”.  

It is telling that the sanction inquiry found there is limited evidence that benefit sanctions actually help people find work. It is a message that could sum up the coalition’s entire catalogue of disability policies: pointlessly cruel.

*Some names have been changed

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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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