Pregnancy is one of life’s most untouchable, personal experiences. Photo: Tomer Neuberg/AFP/Getty
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The feminist history of surrogacy: should pregnancy give a woman rights over a baby?

Surrogacy rates are rising in the UK, and 95 per cent of these births are taking place overseas. Glosswitch looks at decades of feminist thinking on surrogacy to see how women’s labour and female lived experience can be incorporated in this complex ethical debate.

Surrogacy is not a new idea; indeed, there is a precedent in the book of Genesis, with the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, the slave who bears Abraham’s son Ishmael. There have always been people (usually men) who have sought to continue their bloodlines while circumventing the social structures and sexual taboos set up by others (again, usually men). Right now, however, a combination of factors – improvements in embryo transfer technology, changing family structures, the rise of global capitalism – have created expectations and possibilities the likes of which we simply have not seen before.

Surrogacy rates are rising in the UK, with over 2,000 babies born by surrogates on behalf of British couples each year, and 95 per cent of these births taking place overseas. International surrogacy is described as a booming business and restrictions on the use of eggs, embryos and wombs are facing legal challenges at home. We no longer live in biblical times. We can do things differently – better, faster, and with greater choice. While the story of Hagar and Sarah might have once served as a cautionary tale, it seems that now we have the technology and the moral sophistication to make surrogacy a part of how we transform contemporary family life.

For feminists it can be tempting to see these changes in wholly positive terms, as challenges to both social norms and reproductive determinism. Henceforth the continuation of the species need not be tied to compulsory heterosexuality and innate biological functions. But this only tells half the story. For the consumer, it seems, anything is achievable. For the supplier, on the other hand, pregnancy remains what pregnancy always has been: a risky, unpredictable, deeply personal experience. Embryos can be created in laboratories but human beings take shape – where? In wombs? In mothers? In families? Such distinctions matter but it takes more than scientific progress and legal reform to make them clear. 

Neither the physical reality nor the emotional aftermath of pregnancy fit into our neat little categories for how society is organised. It produces something of immeasurable value yet it has no immediate monetary worth. It is hard, dangerous work yet it involves no skill and can be endured by even the most reluctant of participants. Whether or not one can gestate is not decided by any moral or physical examination; we may talk of “blessings” but what we really mean is “luck”. Pregnancy creates something from one’s own flesh, with lasting physical aftershocks, yet one does not own it. A baby is not one’s own self. Yet in the twenty-first century we have started to behave as though something so complex can be traded on a market whose very foundations rest on global inequality and the unpaid labour of women.

Feminists first started to express concerns about the development of reproductive technologies and the associated commoditisation of pregnancy during the 1980s. It was in some ways a natural continuation of feminist critiques of the medicalisation of childbirth found in works such as Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born and Suzanne Arms’s Immaculate Deception. It was not, however, an anxiety shared by all. Indeed, perhaps to many such concerns sounded luddite and paranoid, the fearful imaginings of women unwilling to let go of outdated beliefs in maternity as women’s only source of power. Three decades on, much of what was feared has come to pass. Proof that feminist doom-mongers were right? Or that human beings can adjust to anything, including our brave new surrogacy-friendly world?

In her 1985 work The Mother Machine, Gena Corea foresaw a time when surrogacy by donor insemination (“straight” surrogacy) would be overtaken by IVF (“host” surrogacy):

Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid women.

Of course, Corea was being somewhat alarmist. Thirty years later, if you look at the website of Sensible Surrogacy, you’ll find it’s not a tenth, but a fifth. Meanwhile, in Right-Wing Women Andrea Dworkin argued that “the social control of women who reproduce— the sloppy, messy kind of control—is being replaced by medical control much more precise, much closer to the efficiency of the brothel model.” For anyone curious as to what a “reproductive brothel” might look like, Sensible Surrogacy provide photos of their “typical surrogate apartments” (which remind me of the YWCA I lived in during the 1990s, the difference being that the women were granted a hostel room without making any commitment to conceive for others). On such evidence it seems that we have indeed sleepwalked into the very reproductive dystopia predicted by the second-wave Cassandras, yet somehow we’re okay with this. There is, after all, a competing alternative narrative, one of progress and liberation, to which we can turn our attentions.

This was evident, for instance, following Dolce and Gabbana’s recent pronouncements on IVF, surrogacy and same-sex parenting. The designers were, without question, being both homophobic and bigoted towards children conceived by so-called artificial means when they issued their messianic directive: “No chemical offsprings and rented uterus: life has a natural flow, there are things that should not be changed.” Nonetheless, in the furore that followed it was striking how little attention was paid to the “rented uterus” question. The responses of gay men including Peter Tatchell, Elton John and Owen Jones focused on the parenting skills of same-sex couples, eliding ethical concerns related to how parenthood is achieved in the first place. Jones claimed that “because it is harder for same-sex couples to have children, there is a positive selection for what are more likely to be doting parents”. While such an argument contains its own prejudices (are we to conclude that children conceived accidentally – as is the case with one in six pregnancies in the UK – are any less doted on?) Jones is absolutely right that children raised by same-sex parents (and single parents) fare just as well as, and sometimes better than, those raised by heterosexual couples. But this only covers one half of the transaction. It is a narrative which, as Corea put it in 1985, “stresses a partial and inadequate element of the situation (the suffering of infertile couples) and obscures a clear vision of the actual social forces. Certain facts about surrogate motherhood are highlighted in media discussions while others are buried.” That surrogacy can bring enormous happiness to those who could not otherwise have children who are genetically their own is not in question; nor is the fact that the children themselve lead happy lives. Yet this does not resolve the issue of how we place their stories alongside the broader narrative of women’s reproductive rights and destinies.

The website of Surrogacy UK has the look and feel of a pregnancy magazine, all plump little poppets in multi-coloured sleepsuits: look! Look what you could make! They describe their ethos as “surrogacy through friendship,” arguing that surrogacy “can be a wonderfully rewarding experience for everyone involved”:

For Surrogate Mothers it is a chance to do something truly extraordinary.  For those who are unable to have children by any other means surrogacy can be a light at the end of a very long tunnel.

Scratch the surface, however, and the reality – that pregnancy is a physical process taking place in another person’s body, a body which one cannot wholly separate from the idea of a self – is never far away:

In the getting to know you stage take some time to talk through the details of surrogacy.  There may be certain things you want or expect from one another.  Would you be happy to have extra tests for abnormalities?  Are there circumstances in which you would consider terminating the pregnancy?  These topics can be difficult to talk about, but it is important to address them.

While such issues do need addressing, the idea that one might address them in advance is surely unrealistic. Pregnant with a baby I expect to raise myself, I’m not even sure how I’d deal with them until they actually arose. The thought of making decisions in advance and harnessing my own and the happiness of several other people to them seems impossible. It is not just raging hormones that make this difficult, but the shifting contexts of life itself (my family, other people’s families, money, security, relationships, health). And even then, hormones do matter.

It is notable that, as I am having my “own” baby, it is expected that rising levels of oxytocin will not only support my labour, but help me to bond with my child. Should this not happen (and for many women it does not) I will feel a “failure” as a mother. Yet were I a surrogate, such a “failure” would make me a success. Indidivual women are not in control of such things – if we were, conditions from the “baby blues” to postpartum psychosis would be things we could simply think our way out of – yet in a recent case involving a surrogate forced to hand over a baby to a couple who claimed this was what she had agreed to in advance, one got the impression that this woman had indeed been expected to manage her emotions more effectively. In wanting to keep full custody the baby she bore – and behaving defensively and aggressively as a result – she had done something wrong, yet, as Katha Pollitt wrote in 1987 regarding the Baby M case in the US, “when Mary Beth Whitehead signed her contract, she was promising something it is not in anyone's power to promise: not to fall in love with her baby”.

In disputes such as these, it is surely not simply a question of who would be the best parent or set of parents. There may be people in the world who could raise my own children more effectively and with just as much compassion as I am doing, but the love I have for my children is accepted as absolute unless there is strong evidence to the contrary. Is this something that could ever be signed away in advance? (According to Sensible Surrogacy, it depends on the country you go for. The UK might be a grey area but for surrogates in India, the answer is yes and there can be no turning back. Those in Thailand are permitted some legal leeway – some small loophole allowing for emotion – but thankfully “to ensure that the Thai surrogate maintains the terms of the agreement, all her compensation is withheld until she has given full rights to the Future Parents and they are on their way home”. Which, one presumes, sorts out the whole “love” issue to everyone’s satisfaction.)

As the Dolce and Gabbana responses showed, the sexual, racial and economic disempowerment of surrogates can be effectively played off against the disempowerment of those who do not conform to so-called “traditional” family structures. In much the same way that the sex trade can be positioned not as a marker of women’s subordination, but as one in the eye for bigoted puritans, surrogacy can be positioned as a challenge to those who see the “natural” family as Mummy, Daddy, missionary positioned-conceived baby. Yet legally things are not so straightforward. It is not just that access to paid surrogacy is contingent on economic advantage. In the UK, the law regarding surrogacy ultimately favours couples, particularly heterosexual and all-male ones. The legal solution of a parental order following the birth of a child by a surrogate is not available to single people (despite the fact that single people are permitted to adopt). While lesbian couples can apply for parental orders, this is made more difficult by the fact that at least one person must be a genetic parent (meaning “straight” surrogacy, bypassing egg donation, cannot be an option).  It is for this reason, one presumes, that Surrogacy UK only provide prospective parent application packs to heterosexual and male same-sex couples. I doubt it is intentional in some deep, conspiracy theorist way (indeed, I doubt that much to do with patriarchy is), but the structural implications of this are that yet again, the exploitation of female reproductive labour is directed towards the continuation of male family lines and two-parent families. Looked at from this perspective, surrogacy is not as much of a challenge to traditional family values as one might have thought.

The current legal structure also, inevitably, reinforces the age-old tradition of downplaying women’s contribution to the creation of life while exagerrating men’s. As female academics from various disciplines, such as the biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling and the anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy have pointed out, narratives of human reproduction are not based purely on objective scientific observation. They interact with cultural beliefs and can be gendered in such a way as to bolster ideas of male agency and dominance versus female passivity and subordination. Aristotle believed that women merely supplied matter that the active male principle formed into a human being. Women might have been the ones who gestated and gave birth, but they were merely potting soil for the male seed.

In Mother Nature, Blaffer Hrdy describes how seventeenth-century scientists “thought they saw a miniature man, a little ‘homunculus,’ through their microscopes, folder up inside a human sperm, waiting to be deposited inside the womb […] Even though mothers contributed egg cells, they were viewed as passive vessels, awaiting the life force conveyed by males.” We may scoff at such things today, but in 2015 Nick Loeb, the ex-partner of Sofia Vergara, still describes the frozen embryos formed from his sperm and Vergara’s ova as “the two lives I have already created”. Taking things a step further, Loeb argues that “a man who is willing to take on all parental responsibilities” should be “entitled to bring his embryos to term even if the woman [meaning the supplier of the eggs] objects”. Entitlement is one thing, but capability is quite another. By “bring his embryos to term” Loeb means “pay someone with a womb to perform the magic that transforms embryo to living, breathing child”. However rich a man is, he cannot purchase that capability in its own right. Yet female reproductive agency, once rendered invisible by patriachal quackery, is now undermined by the belief that everything can be bought by the highest bidder (and as ever, those with the most to bid tend to be male). 

Those who provide sperm make an obvious contribution to the creation of new life. Theirs is not, however, an equal one. Those who gestate, birth and suckle babies do far, far more. Yet ironically, providing sperm is all it takes to be said to have fathered a child. Meanwhile, the verb “to mother” encompasses a far broader range of activities than “just” supplying an egg. Pregnancy could almost kill you but still you won’t have proven you’re a “proper” mother. Alas, it has long been the case that under patriarchy, if one wants female reproductive labour to be recognised at all, such recognition will take the form of discrimination against women as a class.

For women, reproductive difference has long been tied to economic dependency, sexual exploitation and social exclusion. Male scientists used to argue that women’s reproductive role made them unfit for anything else. As Blaffer Hrdy puts it, the assumption was that “because females were especially equipped to nurture, males excelled at everything else.” More recently, the neurosexism of the late 90s and early noughties has pushed an insidious “different but equal” line, with popular works such as Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference suggesting that women’s reproductive history has led to a situation in which most female people – regardless of whether or not they ever become mothers themselves – are “hardwired” for empathy (and lower-paid care work) in a way that most male people are not. It doesn’t take a genius (nor indeed the possession of a “male brain”) to see how this works to perpetuate longstanding inequalities between men and women, not just in economic terms but also through all the ways in which women are expected to perform the emotional donkeywork in informal relationships extending far beyond those between mother and child. No wonder, to quote Blaffer Hrdy, “biology itself came to be viewed by women as a field sown with mines, best avoided altogether,” or, as the feminist legal scholar Martha Albertson Fineman writes, “the idea of mother as a specifically gendered concept is cast by some feminists as particularly threatening to women’s sense of individuality […] discussions about motherhood are likely to be labelled ‘pronatalism’ and condemned as harbouring the subtext that all women must mother.” As new mother Ari puts it in Elisa Albert’s novel After Birth, “Heaven forbid it might be true that female bodies are different”:

Heaven forbid we admit that living in these female bodies is different. More terrible and more wonderful. Because, what? We might lose the vote? Because we might get veiled, imprisoned? Best deny it, deny it, make it to the Oval office, win, win, win.

For some feminists there is much appeal in insisting that all things are equal in human reproduction. The truth, however, is that they are not, and never will be until we take the physical, emotional and social context of women’s lives as seriously as we take those of men.

In her 1995 work The Neutered Mother Albertson Fineman explores ways in which liberal feminist calls for gender neutrality in parenting play into the hands of fathers’ and men’s rights groups, creating a theoretical equality which, due to its failure to account for women’s “material and psychological circumstances,” ends up reinforcing male control of families and marginalising single mothers in particular. Although in general fathers do not spend as much time caring for children (and those who do have been shown to spend more time on play while Mummy still deals with the less glamorous side of things), the idea that they could has been used, not to make men more responsible, but to downplay the specificity of what women are actually doing in practical and biological terms.

The idea that biology has historically led to women being granted more rights over children is, as feminists have long pointed out, a myth. Until the mid-nineteenth century fathers were automatically assumed to have possession over their children. It was not a corresponding assertion of maternal rights, but a move towards favouring “the best interests of the child” which led to more mothers being awarded custody. As Susan Maushart comments, “ironically and inaccurately, we now describe as ‘traditional’ those judges who persist in reflexively granting custody to mothers”. To assume that mothers should have rights relating to childrearing based on the contribution they make – as opposed to “naturally” ordained responsibilities – is not traditional, but revolutionary.

This is relevant to surrogacy because, as Pollitt pointed out in relation to Baby M, “it is a means by which women sign away rights that, until the twentieth century, they rarely had: the right to legal custody of their children, and the right not to be bought, sold, lent, rented or given away.” One could of course argue that to have a right and sign it away is different to never having had it at all. Nonetheless, the conditions under which women sign away their assumed “rights” – which, in the broader context of reproductive justice, are on shaky ground to begin with – cannot be ignored.

I do not think the surrogates who apply to Surrogacy UK are all victims of false consciousness. I don’t necessarily disbelieve them when they argue that being a surrogate can be an positive, empowering experience. While the word “empowering” itself may have fallen out of favour in feminist circles, it seems to me that such an act of physical creativity and emotional generosity could, in another world, fall within feminist definitions of maternal power – the power not to dominate, but to nurture and share. Perhaps some interactions between intended parents and surrogates already come within touching distance of this. Nevertheless, the world we live in is one in which for the majority of women, gender-based economic and reproductive coercion are the norm. One witnesses this at the extreme end in the pregnancies of schoolgirls kidnapped and raped by Boko Haram, but even in places where women are considered economically and physically secure, abortion is rarely considered a basic right. A woman’s positive choice to reproduce is treated as public property. She will be judged and found wanting – for being too young, too old, too independent, too poor, for being employed or unemployed, for belonging to the wrong ethnic group, for having the wrong partner or no partner at all. For a minority of women, a combination of the availability of contraception, changes to employment legislation and class privilege have made reproductive choice a meaningful reality. These women are the exceptions to the rule. We cannot claim individual women can choose to be generous with their reproductive capacities until such a time when, in reproductive terms, all women are truly free.

How much of a right should pregnancy give a woman over a baby? What does it count for? I am not sure but I can’t help feeling that our current thinking, with its impulse towards gender neutrality and the insistence that female reproduction is neither inherently different to nor more costly than its male counterpart, is flawed. Having the ability to gestate new life does not make you a perfect parent. It does not impart some great, mystic wisdom. It doesn’t even make you a nicer person. Nonetheless, going through pregnancy and giving birth are, like being born and dying, essential, untouchable, personal experiences. As Ari puts it, “there’s before and there’s after. To live in your body before is one thing. To live in your body after is another”. It ought to be possible to state that biology is not destiny, insofar as women are varied human beings and not carers by default, without erasing vast swathes of female lived experience and the needs that arise from it. But where should we go after that? Wherever it is, we must do so listening to all sides of every story, thinking beyond artificial separations of the world of the mind and the creations of the flesh.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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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