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Arron Banks: the man who bought Brexit

He gave £1m to Ukip and spent £7.5m on the Leave campaign. He is friendly with Trump, hates Cameron and admires Putin – now he has Labour voters in his sights.

In 2011 Arron Banks floated Brightside, a Bristol-based insurance broker he had built from practically nothing. Unlike Banks, the new investors wanted to cash in, so the following year they unceremoniously sacked him as chief executive of the company and then in 2014 they sold Brightside to the private equity firm AnaCap for £130m.

Hours after his dismissal Banks, still fuming, went out to lunch with the firm’s commercial director, John Gannon, who had helped him start the business in 2005. In the car Gannon said how bad he felt. He explained how he’d had little choice but to go along with the decision. As they arrived at the Aztec Hotel and Spa, Gannon asked if there was anything he could do to make Banks feel better.

“I said, ‘There is one thing that will make me immediately feel better,’” Banks recalled recently. “‘All I want to do is hit you in the face.’ So he said, ‘Which way would you like me to turn my cheek?’ So he turns to the left and ‘bosh!’ – I hit him as hard as I could and he went over like a bag of cement.” The two men then ate lunch in silence as Gannon pressed an ice bag to his cheek.

Banks’s hunger for revenge did not stop there, however. Within six months he founded a new company, GoSkippy, and proceeded to poach Brightside’s best employees. He sent gloating emails to those former colleagues who had, he said, “stabbed me in the chest”. In one message he bragged: “Virtually all the sales team have left for Skippy – leaving the tea boy in charge.” In another he wrote: “You have no stats, no claims department, no rating engine and f*** all chance of persuading anyone to help create a new insurance vehicle.” In a third he said that being sacked “was like a pair of jump leads; it just fuelled the fires and the desire to show what can be done”. For good measure, after a series of claims and counterclaims, he won an out-of-court settlement from Brightside which cost his former company a few more million.

The saga says much about Banks, the man who subsequently deployed his fortune to campaign for Britain’s exit from the European Union. He is someone you cross or slight at your peril. Speaking on condition of anonymity, which is how most people chose to speak to me about Banks, an insurance industry expert said: “Arron is charming, charismatic and pretty popular in insurance circles. He’s great fun, but the thing about him is he’s very pugnacious. If he feels like you’ve crossed him he’ll come at you with all guns blazing.”

That is a lesson the Conservative hierarchy has also learned. Until 2014 Banks was a Tory party member and a modest donor. He then decided to defect to the UK Independence Party. Amid the pre-election hubbub of that autumn’s Tory conference, Ukip summoned political journalists to a press conference at Old Down Manor, on a Gloucestershire estate that Banks owns, to announce that he was giving it £100,000.

At that time the insurance magnate was hardly a household name, and the occasion was in danger of becoming an embarrassing non-event. But William Hague, the then leader of the House of Commons, inadvertently saved the day. He made the mistake of describing Banks in a radio interview as “somebody we haven’t heard of”. This, as Nigel Farage told me with a laugh, was probably true, because by then Banks had only donated to his constituency party. Banks was nonetheless incensed. He immediately upped his donation to £1m. Hague “called me nobody”, he told the journalists. “Now he knows who I am.”

As in the Brightside saga, Banks did not stop there. He claims to have pumped £7.5m into the Brexit campaign over the past year, most of it to Leave.EU, which is one of the two groups that championed Britain’s departure from the European Union in June’s referendum. That may well be the single biggest donation to a political cause in British history – and arguably it helped change the course of British history.

While most commentators focused on the official Vote Leave campaign and its high-profile political frontmen, such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, Leave.EU used social media to galvanise disgruntled blue-collar white voters of the north and Midlands. While Vote Leave concentrated primarily on the economic and sovereignty issues of interest to middle-class Tories, Leave.EU focused relentlessly, shamelessly and often outrageously on immigration. Much of its populist strategy was taken directly from the US presidential campaign of Donald Trump, a man with whom Banks feels such an affinity that his WhatsApp picture shows the two of them standing side by side, smiling at the camera and giving thumbs-up signs.

Few politicians or pundits are inclined to give Leave.EU much credit for Brexit’s victory, but there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that the voters it targeted turned out in record numbers, and it is far from implausible to suggest that its campaign made all the difference in a very close contest. A senior official in the Leave camp – no friend of Banks – acknowledged that a combination of Leave.EU’s social media operation and Farage’s tub-thumping rallies “combined to connect with a large chunk of the blue-collar vote which ultimately proved absolutely critical to the result”.

Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent and co-author of Revolt on the Right, about the radical right in Britain, told me: “There’s an awkward attempt under way by those in Vote Leave to say, ‘We were responsible for the result. This had nothing to do with Ukip and Arron Banks, and if anything Vote Leave won in spite of the more hard-edged Eurosceptics.’ I completely disagree with that analysis.”

The vote set Britain on the road to Brexit but did much more than that. It shook a political establishment that Banks regards as self-serving, elitist and corrupt. David Cameron resigned, Labour sank into civil war, and in her speech to the Tory conference on 6 October, Prime Minister Theresa May sought to woo precisely the people who had been targeted by Leave.EU as she drastically repositioned her party.

But Banks is still not finished. He now plans to turn Leave.EU’s legions of supporters into an online “people’s movement”. He wants “to give voice to the forgotten millions of English people” who feel ignored by the political establishment, to an “England rising”. He intends to launch this latest quixotic venture early next year, and his goal is to ensure not only that Brexit – hard Brexit – is implemented in full, but to bring about deep reform of the system he so detests. “We can’t carry on with politics as normal,” he says. “It’s a disastrous state of affairs.”

“Don’t underestimate him,” Goodwin warns. “The fact he has a lot of resources, the fact he’s clearly willing to throw them into politics, and the fact he’s now got a track record of building networks and attracting a large database of registered supporters
means anything he does has to be taken seriously . . . My feeling is he’s ideally positioned to build something that could potentially have a very big impact on British politics.”

But just who is this maverick who has risen from obscurity over the past two years and used his wealth to exert a considerable, some would say alarming, degree of influence over our national life?

 

***

 

Banks’s driver, a burly former rugby player, collects me from Bristol Parkway Station in a sleek black BMW, but I soon discover that there’s nothing particularly grand about Banks. I walk into his second-floor office in a bland building on a nearby trading estate to find him wearing a T-shirt, shorts and trainers. He has been to the gym, he explains. He is 50 and needs to lose weight. He had a health scare in South Africa during the summer – a heart problem that required hospital treatment.

The office is light and spacious but unpretentious, save for a photograph of Banks shaking hands with the Prince of Wales at a Royal Commonwealth Society function. It was taken before he joined Ukip, he says with a grin. Before he became a pariah, in other words. On the windowsill is a book called 100 Good Things About the EU: between the covers, every page is blank.

As an ardent Remainer, I am expecting to dislike the man intensely, but I find him disarmingly humorous and frank. We chat for nearly four hours. Whether he is merely generous with his time, or loves the attention, I cannot tell.

He says he was born in Knutsford, Cheshire, and raised by his mother in Basingstoke, Hampshire, while his father managed sugar estates in various African countries – South Africa, Kenya, Somalia, Ghana – that they would visit for holidays. “He was awarded an OBE for services to sugar, which is more than I’ll ever get for services to Brexit,” Banks notes wryly.

At 13 he was sent to a “third-rate” boarding school, Crookham Court in Berkshire, which closed in 1989 after Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life programme exposed three of its teachers as paedophiles. He was never abused: he was too busy committing his own transgressions, getting expelled for an “accumulation of offences” that included selling lead filched from the roofs of school buildings. He accepts that his expulsion was entirely justified. It would have happened much earlier, he says, except that the struggling institution needed his fees.

He moved on to St Bartholomew’s in Newbury but was expelled again, this time for a “monumental pub crawl” that ended in a daredevil car stunt. His “lack of educational attainment” ruled out university, so he returned to Basingstoke, where he sold paintings, then vacuum cleaners, then houses. “I was quite good at persuading people to buy things they didn’t want to buy,” he says.

Inspired by Margaret Thatcher, he joined the Young Conservatives and sought election to Basingstoke Council for the Labour-held ward of Norden. He lost, despite buying a Labrador dog to broaden his appeal. He never ran for office again.

It was through the Young Conservatives that he met his first wife, Caroline, a teacher whom he married at 21. “Her parents really didn’t like me,” he recalls, laughing. “I think they wanted their daughter to marry a country solicitor or someone with prospects. When I asked her father [a dentist] if I could marry her he said, ‘No, you can’t.’ I remember writing him a stinking letter along the lines of ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ which didn’t improve matters.”

A neighbour found him an entry-level job at Lloyd’s of London. He stayed seven years, rising to become a deputy underwriter before being recruited to run Norwich Union’s Bristol office. Later he worked as a consultant for Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway group. A framed $5 bill signed by Buffett hangs on his office wall, alongside a certificate for a single Berkshire Hathaway share that Banks bought for $83,000 a decade ago. It is now worth $216,000.

But Banks was no corporate man. He was too impatient, intolerant, unorthodox. “As I got older I realised there was no respite from stupidity,” he says, so he set up on his own. From a small office above a bakery in Thornbury, Gloucestershire, he launched MotorCycle Direct, which sold insurance to bikers over the phone. After two or three years he sold the firm for “a few million” and opened Commercial Vehicle Direct, which catered for White Van Man. “Within a very short period we were the largest van insurance company in the country,” he says. CVD duly morphed into Brightside, which expanded into multiple forms of insurance – life, cars, homes, travel, pets.

Today Banks owns a majority stake in Conister Bank on the Isle of Man, and several insurance-related businesses, some of which are based on the same island or in two other offshore tax havens: Gibraltar and the British Virgin Islands. But he makes no apologies. “I don’t give a monkey’s. I live in England. I pay tax in England . . . My position is: if you don’t like it change the law. Business people will always go for the most efficient thing.” He does little business outside the UK, and so will suffer little if Britain leaves the European single market.

At one point Gibraltar’s financial regulator ordered one of his companies, Southern Rock, which underwrites GoSkippy’s policies, to increase its reserves substantially in order to cover potential payouts. Banks responded as he so often does – aggressively. He threatened legal action. He also bought a full-page advertisement in the Telegraph attacking the regulator and PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accountancy firm; he accuses the regulator of having pressured PwC to exaggerate Southern Rock’s exposure.

Another curious incident involved a then 33-year-old female employee named Jo Featherby. The Sun reported that in 2012 Banks received an official warning from the police following claims that he had harassed her. Banks is unusually coy on the subject. He concedes he was given a warning, and that he settled Featherby’s claim for unfair dismissal out of court, but denies harassing her. He suggests he was merely trying to save her from a “pretty unpleasant boyfriend”, adding: “I probably intervened in something I should not have.”

His first marriage lasted ten years and produced two daughters, Charlotte and Sophie, both now in their twenties with Firsts from Exeter in history and bioscience. Charlotte works in marketing for the National Trust. Sophie, who opposed Brexit, is looking for her first job.

In 2001 he married again, this time to Ekaterina Paderina, known as Katya, a Russian from Yekaterinburg whom he met while attending a Britney Spears concert at the O2 Arena in London as the guest of an insurance
firm. Katya came to Britain in the 1990s to study marketing at Portsmouth University. She overstayed her visa but married Eric Butler, a merchant seaman who, at 54, was more than twice her age. The marriage ended within months, prompting officials to investigate whether it was a sham.

Years later the tabloids discovered that Michael Hancock, a disgraced former SDP/Liberal Democrat MP for Portsmouth with a history of assisting dubious young women from eastern Europe, had intervened to help Katya stay in the UK. That, plus her fluency in six languages and the fact that Yekaterinburg was once a closed city, led to suggestions that she was a spy. Banks responded by buying a personalised number plate for her Range Rover: X MI5 SPY.

Banks and Katya have raised three more children – Darren, 16, Olivia, 13, and Peter, 11 – who are all enrolled in expensive private schools (the older two board at King’s College, Taunton). “Why would I send them to a state school for a lousy education?” Banks says, when I ask how that squares with his leadership of the “People’s Movement”.

Sadly I did not meet Katya. She advertises herself on the website Model Mayhem as an aspiring actor: “I am fun and friendly with an extensive, glamorous wardrobe and a large house which could be used for location shoots. I will not do nudes.” And I had been repeatedly told how feisty she is, a description Banks cheerily confirms.

He recalls an occasion when they were guests in a corporate box at the Emirates Stadium when Arsenal played CSKA Moscow. Katya started cheering the Russians; the crowd below barracked her. She tried to climb out of the box to confront them, whereupon the stewards hauled her back and took her away for 30 minutes to cool off.

At one point the couple separated for a year. “We’re both quite eclectic, high-energy people and probably needed a break,” he says. “I was sent to the dog kennel for a period of time . . . In the end, we got bored of the divorce and legal bills and decided to give it a miss. You get so angry with the lawyer that it actually brings you together.”

By 2014, the year he defected to Ukip, Banks was riding high. He was worth more than £100m. Besides his insurance businesses, he had acquired five diamond mines – three that once belonged to De Beers in Kimberley, South Africa, and two in Lesotho. He had bought Old Down Manor from the Tubular Bells musician Mike Oldfield and transformed it into a wedding venue. He lived in a handsome stone house in the nearby village of Tockington (where a huge Union Jack flutters above the front lawn), and had another fine home overlooking a game reserve near Pretoria in South Africa. Oscar Pistorius was a neighbour.

He played hard. He owned racehorses. He went to Wimbledon each year and once played Virginia Wade at Queens at a corporate event, winning not a single game. He enjoyed squash, golf and shooting, and had run the London Marathon. He was a member of the RAC club in Pall Mall.

He was also charitable. He had competed in the East African Safari Classic Rally to raise money for Sentebale, Prince Harry’s children’s fund in Lesotho, distributing footballs bearing anti-Aids messages to schoolchildren en route. He had helped build a paediatric hospital in Belize and founded Love Saves the Day, a charity that finances microprojects for Lesotho women. Banks had also given nearly £200,000 to his local Conservative Association – £25,000 in cash and the rest a loan to enable it to buy its premises in Thornbury.

All of which prompts the question: why did he suddenly round on the Tories?

 

***

Banks cites his growing aversion to a Tory government led by Old Etonians which was presiding over a deepening gulf between Britain’s haves and have-nots.

“I hate Cameron – viscerally,” he says. “He was smart enough to get a first-class degree in politics and economics at Oxford University, and stupid enough not to realise the damage his policies were doing. Under his government the national debt doubled, interest rates collapsed to zero, the Sunday Times Rich List doubled or quadrupled and the average person’s wages flatlined. His economic policies were unacceptable.

“Cameron stuck in my throat because he was privileged in every possible way but too stupid to understand he should have been trying to help those who needed help.”

When I suggest that a man of his wealth makes an unlikely champion of the struggling working man, Banks retorts: “If you’re saying I should be poor to appreciate [the working man’s plight] I think that’s arrant nonsense.” His own paternal grandfather was a miner, he says. And he insists that he abhors inequality. He favours a near-100 per cent tax on inheritances of more than £5m.

His many critics offer other explanations. A disaffected Ukip ex-official says of his defection: “If you put up a poster saying ‘Look at Me’ outside the Odeon in Leicester Square you could not have made a bigger egotistical statement.” A senior figure in the Leave camp reckons that Banks – a provincial, self-made man who went to the wrong school and missed out on university – has “chips on both shoulders”, and that Hague’s put-down “was one of the most wounding things he could have said about [him]. Everything since that day has been about Banks trying to prove he’s a somebody.”

Others suggest that he had become, by his own admission, a “bored multimillionaire”, and simply saw an opportunity to make trouble and have some fun. “He loves to be mischievous, to upset the apple cart, to be a rebel – the boy who blows raspberries in front of the headmaster,” said a source who worked with him during the referendum.

The opportunity certainly existed in 2014. Ukip had won the elections to the European Parliament that May. Two Conservative MPs, Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, subsequently defected. The Tories were panicking. “If you ever wanted to jump into politics feet first and have an instant influence then Ukip was the place to do it,” said another former Ukip official. “Farage would have offered him the world. Banks would have thought it was bloody exciting. The party was right at the centre of politics, making headlines and flying high, and he could be up in the cockpit.”

In Farage, moreover, Banks would have seen a kindred spirit – an irreverent, rebellious outsider like himself who was scorned by the political establishment. Their first meeting over lunch at the RAC was not a success. Banks had flu and Farage wasn’t allowed to smoke – not even in the garden. “I had a terrible row with the waiters,” Farage recalls. But thereafter they got on famously. They shared a hatred of the EU – Banks calls it a “closed shop of bankrupt countries” and Britain’s membership “a first-class ticket on the Titanic”. They disdained all forms of political correctness, and they drank together.

“Banks became part of Nigel’s privy council of lads, part of his drinking entourage. They were like a group of best friends with their own secret words and hand gestures and in-jokes,” said the former Ukip official, who recalls several epic drinking sessions. “They regard the politically correct, nannying, self-righteous, sanctimonious, holier-than-thou liberal establishment with contempt and never miss an opportunity to poke it in the eye,” said another source who worked with Banks on Brexit. “They behave like a bunch of schoolboys on a day out – not the Bullingdon Club, but the lower fourth from a Coventry comprehensive.”

Farage puts it slightly differently. Banks “hates political correctness and career politicians and hedgers and trimmers and dissemblers”, he told me. “He’s just enormous fun to be with. When he lets his hair down, boy, he has fun. It’s refreshing to meet someone who knows how to enjoy life as he certainly does in spades.”

 

***

 

On the face of it, the general election of 2015 was a huge disappointment for Ukip. With the help of Banks’s money, the party won nearly four million votes and 13 per cent of the total, but just a single seat in the Commons. Even Farage fell short in Thanet South. Soon afterwards Banks emailed Andrew Reid, Ukip’s treasurer, to suggest that he take over as chief executive because the party organisation was so chaotic. “I’m currently paid a million pounds a year. So you get a million-a-year CEO for free,” Banks wrote. His offer was declined.

But Ukip’s erosion of the core Labour vote had helped the Tories unexpectedly to win an outright majority, with the result that their coalition with the Liberal Democrats was finished. That robbed David Cameron of any excuse for reneging on the promise he had made in 2013 to hold an In/Out referendum on Europe – a promise designed to stall Ukip’s rise. “Four million votes only got us one manky MP,” Banks says, “but it got us what we really wanted, which was the referendum.”

That July, Banks and his long-standing wingman, Andy Wigmore, took Farage off to Belize for a break. Wigmore is another colourful member of the Banks entourage – a naturalised Belizian who serves as trade and industry counsellor at the Belize High Commission in London and represented his country in trap shooting at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow (he came last).

The three men stayed at Francis Ford Copolla’s Turtle Inn resort and went deep sea fishing, catching an eight-foot bull shark. They had a night of hard drinking in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye with Michael Ashcroft, the disaffected Tory peer who has extensive business interests in Belize. They also resolved to start preparing immediately for the referendum campaign, though Cameron had not yet set a date, and to create Leave.EU, which Banks would bankroll.

“He’s shown himself to be someone who doesn’t rush into things,” Farage says of Banks. “He thinks and talks, but once he’s made up his mind he goes for it in no uncertain way.”

Banks engaged the Washington campaign strategy firm Goddard Gunster to advise Leave.EU; it swiftly identified immigration as the critical issue and told him how to exploit it. As Banks recalled in the week after the referendum victory: “What they said early on was, ‘Facts don’t work,’ and that’s it. The Remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.”

He also employed Cambridge Analytica, another US company with several high-profile Republican clients, which explained the dark arts of targeted voter messaging. And he met members of Donald Trump’s fledgling presidential bid whose advice provided the bedrock for the Leave.EU campaign: don’t advertise – use social media and be outrageous, because, as Andy Wigmore put it: “The more outrageous you are, the more attention you get.” The result was indeed, by British standards, an egregiously outrageous campaign.

It began with a vicious battle for recognition between Vote Leave and Leave.EU – or rather with Grassroots Out, the umbrella organisation of which Leave.EU was the biggest component. Banks considered Vote Leave an elitist, out-of-touch Tory cartel and nicknamed its chief executive, Matthew Elliott, “Lord Elliott of Loserville”. When Carswell, Ukip’s only surviving MP, sided with Vote Leave, Banks infamously denounced him as “borderline autistic with mental illness wrapped in”.

For its part, Vote Leave considered Ukip and Farage toxic and found the focus on ­immigration distasteful. “The Tory posh boys saw the referendum as theirs to run. They would not discuss the issues we felt would excite the general British public . . . They wanted nothing to do with Ukip or me,” Farage told me with a chuckle.

 

***

 

Banks was furious when the Electoral Commission designated Vote Leave the official voice of the Out side, allowing it to spend £7m in the immediate run-up to the referendum and guaranteeing it free airtime. He threatened legal action, but reconsidered when told this could delay the vote.

Thereafter Leave.EU became, in Banks’s words, “the provisional wing of the Leave campaign”. Operating mainly from his offices in Bristol, it pumped out a stream of videos, cartoons, text messages and “news” clips which it posted on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms.

Much of the comment was inflammatory, if not downright xenophobic. “Are you concerned about the amount of crime being committed in the UK by foreign criminals?” asked one video. “Are you worried about the overcrowding of the UK and the burden on the NHS?” another said. One tweet proclaimed: “Islamic extremism is a real threat to our way of life. Act now before we see an Orlando-style atrocity here,” referring to the deadly attack on a Florida nightclub by an Afghan American on 12 June.

Other messages were disingenuous at best. “Dave wants to give 75m Turks access to your #NHS!” said one, even though there is zero chance of Turkey joining the EU in the foreseeable future. Another quoted Victoria Beckham’s criticism of the EU without mentioning that it was 20 years old. Yet another cited General Sir Mike Jackson’s doubts about the EU but failed to mention that they came from a newspaper article in which he came down in favour of Britain’s continued membership. “We used their own words but picked the bits we wanted,” Banks says. He laughs as he recalls how he ordered a Leave.EU employee who had apologised to the furious general to call Jackson back and “unapologise”.

On occasion Leave.EU went too far even for Farage. In one video promoted by the group, Donald Trump likened Muslim immigrants to a snake that bites a kindly woman who seeks to help it – clearly implying that some immigrants were terrorists. “I wasn’t overly keen on that,” Farage told me. When Farage was excluded from the BBC’s Wembley debate, held two days before the vote, Leave.EU published the mobile-phone numbers of BBC executives and urged its followers to call them. “Nigel bollocked me for that,” Banks confesses. Following the murder of the pro-Remain Labour MP Jo Cox on 16 June, Banks commissioned an instant poll to gauge the effect – a move widely seen as distasteful.

“We picked fights with just about everyone,” Banks says, but the more the mainstream media and politicians fulminated at Leave.EU’s antics, the more they drew attention to its message. From Trump, “We learned how to use and abuse the mainstream media with their phoney outrage,” Banks says. “We fed off that fake outrage. All they were doing was giving us more ­oxygen . . . The mainstream media did more to grow our reach than anything else.”

Leave.EU claims that in some weeks it reached as many as 15 million people. One video was viewed 9.3 million times on Facebook. Several were watched more than a million times. Whenever someone “liked” or commented on one he or she was swiftly contacted by Leave.EU’s 70-strong call centre, also housed in the Bristol offices, and invited to join the cause. The Westminster bubble “never understood the power of the beast”, Banks says. “If Vote Leave had run the campaign without Nigel, Ukip and what we did, they’d have lost it hands down.”

The two Leave campaigns certainly dovetailed, albeit inadvertently. Vote Leave courted Tory Eurosceptics from the affluent shires. Leave.EU galvanised poorer, less educated, socially conservative voters in deprived parts of the country that Vote Leave could never hope to reach. Farage says Leave.EU was “largely responsible for finding them, contacting them and reaching out to them, using social media in a way no one in British politics has ever done before”.

Banks has no scruples about the tone or style of the Leave.EU campaign. “Politics is a dirty business,” he says. Indeed, he has written a soon-to-be-published book about the referendum that is gleefully entitled The Bad Boys of Brexit: Tales of Mischief, Mayhem and Guerrilla Warfare in the EU Referendum Campaign. His co-author is Isabel Oakeshott, the journalist who retailed the hotly disputed story, published in another recent book, about Cameron performing a lewd act on a dead pig while at Oxford.

“We always knew the referendum would come down to two things – the economy on the In side and immigration on the Out side, and that if you could keep the subject on immigration you would win,” Banks says. “What we would do was say things other people were thinking and not prepared to say and then not back down on it. We never back down on anything.”

Banks denies being racist. He claims to support immigration so long as it is controlled. But he does confess to being “tribal”, to feeling more affinity with our Anglo-Saxon “kith and kin” – Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans – than with other nationalities. “It’s part of a wider debate about: ‘Should we have our identity destroyed by this liberal globalism, or do we retain pride in our country and what we believe in?’”

He certainly does not apologise for using his substantial wealth to influence the vote. “It’s war,” he says. “If you don’t like it, change the rules. The In campaign was funded by Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and a bunch of disreputable corporates. What’s worse?” And he argues: “Why shouldn’t I fight for what I believe in? To me it’s a matter of life and death for my country. We either get back control of our destiny or not.”

Nor does he hide the extent of Donald Trump’s influence on his campaigning style. He knows and likes Trump, saying he is “a lot more amiable and personable” in private. He also shares Trump’s contempt for the political establishment and mainstream media, and admires his ability to reach disaffected voters. Both Banks and Farage attended the Republican convention that nominated Trump in July. Banks was at the Mississippi rally on 24 August at which Farage endorsed Trump and he will attend the final presidential debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday. He thinks Trump will win in November, and would vote for him if he could, because Hillary Clinton “is a continuation of the failed policies of America”.

Banks shrugs off the uproar over Trump’s lewd comments about groping women which were caught on tape. “To a group of people they would probably be unacceptable. If you say them to a friend you know well as banter – so what?”

Does he share Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin? “I do in a way,” says Banks, who enjoyed a long, boozy lunch with the Russian ambassador to Britain at his residence during the referendum campaign. “He’s a nationalist, in the sense he’s trying to look after his country first and others second . . . I admire his strength as a politician but not necessarily all his policies.”

But Putin uses that strength to crush dissent, rig elections and close down the independent media, I point out. “You know as well as I do the words ‘independent media’ don’t mean anything,” Banks retorts. “Murdoch controls all of our terrestrial TV channels [sic], most of our newspapers . . . Maybe he [Putin] is just a bit more brutal in the way he does it.”

He suggests that the president’s military interventions in Ukraine and the Crimea were “a natural reaction to what the West has been doing . . .The Russians have their sphere of influence no different to the rest.” He even defends Russia’s robust military support for a Syrian regime that has used every conceivable barbarity against its own people. “The rebels and Isis are interchangeable,” he contends. “You have to be pragmatic. What’s more important – defeating Isis, or the civil war within Syria?”

At no point does he show any sympathy or understanding for the Syrian refugees who have sought refuge in Europe. Indeed, he defends Ukip’s highly controversial “Breaking Point” poster, showing a line of people queuing to move further north into the EU across the border between Slovenia and Croatia. Look at the picture closely, he says. “They are all young men in their twenties – economic migrants.”

Nor, for that matter, did he express any concern at the spate of anti-foreigner and racial attacks that followed the referendum, including one on a Polish cultural centre in Hammersmith, west London, on 26 June. “What’s a psok cultural centre [sic] when it’s
at home,” he tweeted. “Pack in the guardian connected outrage. Yawn . . .”

 

 

***

 

Last week, exactly two years after he defected to Ukip, Banks watched, bemused, as Theresa May delivered an establishment-bashing speech to the Tory party conference, courting the very constituency that Ukip and Leave.EU had targeted.

The Prime Minister called the referendum a “quiet revolution . . . in which millions of our fellow citizens stood up and said they were not prepared to be ignored any more”. She promised to champion “ordinary working-class people” not the “powerful and privileged”, to help those left behind by globalisation and to curb immigration. She berated those “politicians and commentators” who “find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal”. It was “like watching Nigel in a skirt”, joked Banks, who backed Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership contest and does not believe May will deliver on her promises.

The previous day there had been another surprising development. Diane James resigned just 18 days after replacing Farage as Ukip’s leader, leaving Steven Woolfe as the favourite to succeed her. Then, last Thursday, Woolfe clashed with a fellow Ukip MEP and ended up in hospital in Strasbourg. Banks likes Woolfe, whom he regards as a credible and charismatic figure, with his northern working-class background, but acknowledges that “the Struggle in Strasbourg may well destroy him – he didn’t come out of it very well”.

Banks is now uncertain whether to continue funding Ukip, a party run by “a team of circus clowns”. Much depends, he says, on whether a viable leader emerges from the chaos: a leader capable of controlling the party and taking the battle to Labour. Theresa May has “frozen us out of the Tory side of the equation”, he says, but Ukip now has a “huge opportunity” in Labour’s heartlands because Jeremy Corbyn’s values “just don’t connect with the sort of blue-collar, socially conservative Labour people who voted for Mrs Thatcher”.

Yet Ukip is no longer the project that most enthuses him. Rather, it is his People’s Movement. Unusually, he and Farage disagree about this. Farage believes Banks should preserve the strong Leave.EU brand to fight for the full implementation of Brexit, sector by sector, but Banks has something far more ambitious in mind.

He wants to convert Leave.EU’s hundreds of thousands of followers into an online army, much like Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, a force that transcends conventional party politics and the left-right divide. He envisages it as an exercise in direct democracy, a forum where people can post, debate and vote on ideas – and then embrace them in such numbers that politicians are compelled to respond.

The People’s Movement would not be linked to Ukip. It would work to ensure that Brexit is fully implemented, but it would also press for profound political reforms, such as replacing the House of Lords with an elected senate, halving the size of the Commons and introducing fixed terms for MPs. Banks is exploring other bold ideas – ideas that he hopes will appeal to voters of any party – such as replacing foreign aid with a form of service overseas for young Britons, working under the army’s auspices.

The old two-party system is an anachronism, he argues. “Our future lies in a different kind of politics, neither left nor right but radical. We believe there’s a great scope for an online movement that can embrace people from all across the political spectrum. There’s a change in the wind . . . Social media has transformed everything.”

Pie in the sky? Probably, but who knows? Banks is rich, resourceful and determined, and we live in extraordinary times, in which pundits and pollsters are repeatedly proved wrong and populist insurgencies are shaking political establishments across the Western world. Exploiting public discontent has seldom been easier.

Marine Le Pen of the Front National will be fighting for the French presidency next year. The populist right-wing Alternative für Deutschland will contest the federal elections in Germany. Geert Wilders’s Partij voor de Vrijheid (“Party for Freedom”) will be a strong contender in the Dutch general election. “Banks’s intervention should be seen against that backdrop,” Matthew Goodwin told me. “It’s where we are right now. It’s the zeitgeist.”

Martin Fletcher is an NS contributing writer

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge

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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