Michael Sheen as Tony Blair in the 2006 film The Queen.
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Michael Sheen: The tyranny of mere wealth is destroying our democracy

Wealth without responsibility will inevitably lead to a society that eats itself from within and tears itself apart.

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Remember that scene in Grease where ­Danny Zuko is with his friends and then Sandy, the girl he’s had a summer romance with, comes along? He doesn’t want to look like a “ponce” in front of everyone, so he’s mean to her and humiliates her, and then later when they’re alone he apologises to her and says he loves her really. It’s hard not to think of it whenever I hear David Cameron talking about “wanting to bring our country together” and how he will “reclaim a mantle that we should never have lost – the mantle of One Nation, one United Kingdom”. You see, Scotland, I hit you because I love you. Don’t leave me. I’ll make it up to you, honest! Just replace Danny’s T-Bird wannabe pseudo rebels with Tory backbenchers, potential Ukip defectors and the true-blue core vote, and you have a pretty accurate remake. Just without the apology.

Now, comparing Cameron and the Tory party with John Travolta has its limits. We’re talking about a man who is embroiled in an organisation seen by many as malevolent, who is in thrall to an ideology espoused by a self-serving, dictatorial maniac responsible for years of suffering and abuse. Just to be clear, that’s John Travolta and Scientology I’m talking about.

This last election campaign was one drenched and distorted by fear on all sides. Fear of the Scots, fear of immigrants, fear of fiscal irresponsibility, fear of bacon sandwiches. Since the global banking disaster of 2007-2008 the economic situation has caused a great deal of fear in the UK and the programme of austerity implemented in reaction to it has caused and continues to cause a great deal more. It has been argued that the severe cuts sanctioned by austerity are totally unnecessary and are, in fact, holding back the rebuilding of the economy. Nevertheless, the coalition government pushed their programme through, along with the narrative that they were fixing what had been broken by the previous Labour government and cleaning up after their opponents’ wanton and reckless spending.

The clue to the real situation is in the word “global”. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone outside Britain who would listen to you trying to pin the financial crisis on the Labour government without nervously backing away as if they were being told that it was a secret race of Lizard People wot done it. And yet, a significant proportion of people in Britain are prepared to believe just that. That Labour and the Lizard People brought down the world financial mechanism by spending too much. Spending that the Conservative Party in opposition agreed with every single step of the way. It would be like popping a Ginsters pasty in the microwave and discovering you just nuked Africa. (No, that was not actually in the Ukip manifesto.)

Of course, where that same Labour government can be severely criticised is in not creating regulation that would have reined in the excesses and sharp practices of the banking world. Regulation that the current Conservative government would now be in the process of dismantling, of course. Because the Conservatives want less regulation. It’s worth saying again – the banking crisis happened because there wasn’t enough regulation in place to contain the lust for profit over and above any sense of responsibility to anything else, and the Conservatives want even less of it.

Now, given all that, you’d think it would be an absolute open goal for an excoriating rebuttal from Labour on all of this. They could tear the paint off the walls with their blistering attack on the explosion of the Thatcherite consensus, its blind trust in the all-knowing markets and the ultimate wisdom of profit-seeking firms. How they’d scorn the Tory-supporting bankers for having to be bailed out by the very state they have so much disdain for. Oh, the wrath that would be directed at anyone who dared to talk about the danger of welfare “handouts”, when the greatest danger was quite clearly those who were being given massive handouts by the state to sort out the miserable mess they had created in the first place.

You’d expect them to be screaming it from the rooftops, along with the argument that the Tories are using the disguise of “much-needed” austerity measures to push forward the right-wing agenda of dismantling state mechanisms for ensuring equality. It is policy being led by ideology, not economic necessity, in the same way a neocon agenda was given its head in the US after the 9/11 attacks under the guise of “homeland security measures”. You’d think that we would be sick of hearing about all this from the Labour leadership by now.

So, why the resounding silence? Well, here we have the crux of the matter. New Labour became toxic with the electorate primarily because of Iraq and also because it was the one in office when the banking collapse happened. In the hope of not being smeared with the same brush, Ed Miliband wanted to disassociate himself from all things Blair-Brown. He gambled that not standing up for the positives in New Labour’s record would be worth it, weighed against not being blamed for the negatives. He also seemed to want to appeal to the more traditional left-wingers by standing up to the bastions of the right, such as “predatory” big business, Rupert Murdoch and so on, but doing it really quietly so he wouldn’t alienate the centrists he needed to win the election.

Well, one Old Etonian could have sounded a warning to Miliband’s Labour – George Orwell. In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, he wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” Miliband let the Tories control the past by not stamping out the “Labour caused the recession” narrative early on. Not only did this feed into the ­conventional Tory myth of fiscal responsibility v Labour’s economic ineptitude, but it also prevented Labour from getting on the front foot about what did cause it, who was responsible and what might be necessary to prevent something similar happening again. Once Cameron and Osborne controlled that narrative of the past, it became impossible for Labour to form a coherent one of its own in the present.

The future now belongs to the Tories; the next five years at least. They face the pressures of globalisation on one side and a rising politics of identity on the other. Local councils are fearful of what another round of cuts will do to services that have already been stripped to the bone. All this takes place within the context of an ever-growing mistrust and outright contempt for the entire political culture and its inhabitants.

The Tories might have won the election but they are just as woefully unprepared for the reality of what needs to be done as Labour is. At least Labour has the opportunity to regroup and have a long, hard look at itself. Change is being forced upon it by humiliation and perhaps in the long term that is no bad thing.

So, where does Labour go from here? The muted and confused narrative of the past five years has made it difficult to know if Miliband lost because he was seen as too left-wing or not left-wing enough. Or just not anything enough. Neil Kinnock welcomed Miliband’s election by saying, “We’ve got our party back.” Tony Blair said that when a traditional party of the left goes up against a traditional party of the right it ends in the traditional result – a Labour loss. Labour did lose, but was Blair right? I suppose it depends on where you’re standing. The SNP swept the board north of the border with the kind of rhetoric and vision that has been seen as a traditional-left position. Could Labour have done the same? How would that kind of message have played with the voters in England? And, whatever the message, what if it had been delivered by a leader who was seen as more substantive and electable than Ed Miliband? At the time of writing, there’s a handful of Labour leadership candidates essentially trying to be everything to everyone. Aspiring to be aspirational to the aspirants who aspire towards aspiration.

When you hit rock bottom, you need time to accept that you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about and that you really have gone terribly wrong, before you can trust yourself to come out with anything worth saying. I suspect that period is a bit longer than a few days. I find it deeply troubling that most of the talk is about how to become electable again. How to reclaim the share of seats that Labour had at the end of the 1990s. In the same way that, in retrospect, it is deeply troubling to realise how much the opinion polls led the policies in the recent election period and were proved totally wrong in the end. It’s the tail wagging the dog, isn’t it? While the dog is taking a shit, no less.

The question of whether Labour moves back towards the centre, doing more to seem business-friendly or breaking away from the unions, is totally secondary to the fundamental question: “What do you believe in?” If it wasn’t about getting elected, or ­being popular, or being successful in the short term: what do you believe in? Then, how do you turn that into policy that can make concrete change? You should have deeply held beliefs and core principles based on your experience of living with and listening to the people you are representing, shouldn’t you? Then that becomes the bedrock from which you are able to face the uncertainties and challenges of the future. Your adaptability and flexibility in the moment is precisely related to how solid you are at your core. If politics is about compromise and flexibility on the surface, then unless there is a passionate belief at the heart of what you do, you will die slowly, eaten up from the inside, crumbling from within. You won’t realise it until your head hits the floor, your mouth still moving, making promises into the dust.

It’s easy to forget that democracy is an imposition. It does not arise naturally. Its victories and progressions are often pulled from grasping hands that wish them to be withheld. Its aim is to express the will of the people, and for that will to be the basis of the authority of government. It is made manifest through the institutions that are created to reflect it and the mechanisms that are put in place to deliver it.

We have seen through recent history that the establishment of those institutions and mechanisms is a slow process. They don’t suddenly appear once a dictatorship or the like is overthrown. They must be designed carefully. They have to channel what is best about us and keep in check what is worst. Self-interest at the expense of the many will always be lurking. Fear will always be used as a tool to exploit weakness and tear asunder what has been so carefully built.

It can be difficult to recognise the face of regression, because it is not the new. It has a familiarity about it and can be easily mistaken for something known and safe. Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, said: “Man is not free unless government is limited.” If the banking crash taught us anything, it is that freedom is dangerous if it does not go hand in hand with responsibility. The 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, saw the merging of big firms such as the railroads and the oil companies, and the consolidation of wealth into fewer hands that resulted from it, as a grave threat. He wrote, “. . . we had come to the stage where for our people what was needed was a real democracy; and of all forms of tyranny the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of a plutocracy.”

Roosevelt made aggressive use of the Sherman Antitrust Act 1890 to break up large industries reaching monopolistic levels. A handful of wealthy heads of corporations were beginning to exert increasing influence over industry, public opinion and politics after the American civil war. A journalist of the time, Walter Weyl, wrote that money was the “mortar of this edifice”, with ideological differences among politicians fading and the political realm becoming “a mere branch in a still larger, integrated business. The state, which through the party formally sold favours to the large corporations, became one of their departments.”

Wealthy heads of ever-merging corporations consolidating wealth and exerting influence over the policies of democratically elected government. Public opinion being shaped by a mainstream press owned by many of the wealthiest people in the country. Political parties becoming ideologically indistinguishable. Sound familiar?

We have to defend ourselves against a plutocracy by proxy. Against politicians shaping the mechanisms of democracy to serve the wealthy few, whose ranks they will join once their governmental tenure is over. Rolling back fundamental rights and freedoms. Doing away with checks and balances. Reducing the reach of the state to allow market forces to run amok. People’s lives reduced to figures on a chart. All done in the name of “efficiency” and “fairness”, but in reality to allow greater ease of access to vast sums of money for fewer and fewer people. Undeniably, wealth must be created in any society that wishes to sustain itself, and wealth creation should be promoted and supported by government. But wealth created in the face of ever-increasing inequality, which takes no responsibility for the society to which it is intrinsically connected, will inevitably lead to a society that eats itself from within and tears itself apart.

If we are to withstand the truly terrifying possibilities that something such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – a free-trade treaty that jeopardises the future of the NHS as we know it – might visit upon us, then we must be vigilant, informed and organised. Look it up, read about it and be ready. The challenge of our immediate future is that the architecture of our democracy clearly needs to be ­reformed. We have to ensure that it serves the will of the people more fairly and provides for greater equality and inclusivity.

Can our leaders be trusted to take that delicate but supremely important journey of renewal on our behalf? Can we trust them to do it in a way that leads us away from the “tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of a plutocracy”, and towards an ever purer expression of the greatest imposition of all – true democracy?

Michael Sheen is an actor. He tweets at: @michaelsheen.

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Now listen to Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer discuss censorship and creativity on the NS podcast:

 

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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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