The dilemma on the t­ip of a needle

Stem cell research may hold the key to future wonder cures. It is predicted that the market for stem

In a biotech laboratory close to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in Bloomsbury, London, Professor Geoffrey Raisman, is researching a treatment for spinal cord injury using adult stem cells. This week, with no brief for Republicans or Democrats, he has been pondering the presidential inauguration celebrations with serious misgivings. He believes that the new president’s pledge to fund human embryonic stem cell ­research could have a detrimental effect on the future of his work.

Ten years ago in a tiny, underequipped laboratory in the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Professor James "Jamie" Thomson, an embryologist, extracted the first human embryonic stem cells from an embryo. Thomson was part of a community of scientists who had been pursuing the "philosopher's stone" of embryonic stem cells with slender resources and huge determination for a decade. Last year, at a conference in New York City calling itself the World Stem Cell Summit, it was projected that the market for stem cell clinical products could reach $8.5bn within a decade.

Stem cells have potential to be coaxed into different tissue, blood and cell types, in the body. In the human embryo they are "totipotent", that is, in a state of greatest potential to become any blood or cell type. But stem cells, albeit with more restricted potential, also exist in adults: in the gut, high in the nose, in blood, in the ­umbilical cord, and in bone marrow. While stem cell research has been hailed for its prospects for future wonder cures, scientists are divided over the merits of the two basic cell strategies: adult and embryonic. Some, such as Raisman, believe that adult cells are yielding the fastest and safest ­clinical results; others insist that embryonic cells ­offer the best prospects. Thus the question arises: where do governments and investors put their money?

Professor Raisman charges that the media hype over embryonic research as a coming miracle cure has put his adult stem cell research programme in the shade

Scientists on the Raisman wing believe that human embryonic research holds back medical progress by attracting funds that might otherwise go to adult stem cell work. Raisman, who is not against embryonic stem cell research on ­ethical grounds, has been funded by the Medical Research Council, and by private donations, but in common with many similar research programmes he is underfunded. If President Barack Obama makes good his promise to support funding for human embryonic research, Raisman predicts that there will be a rush to "invest" in embryonic strategy.

Information on the actual sums invested by private industry and governments into the many hundreds of stem cell research programmes worldwide are impossible to calculate because of secrecy. In the meantime, however, adult stem cell therapies have been achieving notable successes. The Stem Cell Summit in New York cited the use of a breast cancer patient's own stem cells in breast reconstruction, and a heart patient whose bone marrow stem cells mended a severe lesion. In Bristol, last November, the first tissue-engineered trachea (windpipe), using the pat­ient's own stem cells, were transplanted into a young woman with a failing airway, saving her life. No such tangible successes can yet be produced based on human embryonic stem cells.

Under George W Bush, federal funding of ­human embryonic stem cell work was banned in the United States for religious reasons. Bush's scruples were prompted by the stock objections of the American religious right, which regards human embryos as persons with full human rights. The Catholic Church also bans research that threatens the life of the human embryo for, according to papal teaching reiterated frequently by the late John Paul II, human individuality, or ensoulment, commences from the moment of conception. Research involving embryos has, for two decades, riven churches and religious groups within and outside America, as well as national governmental policies and research communities throughout the west. During his election campaign Obama repeatedly claimed, however, that he would overturn George W Bush's policy on the issue in the interests of its future benefits for a wide range of illnesses.

Under Tony Blair, Britain adopted a go-ahead policy on human embryonic stem cell research during a period (ending three years back) when the European Union declined to fund such programmes. Last year Britain went beyond the ­ethical limits of most countries in the west by sanctioning the creation of hybrid animal/ ­human embryos. After a heated nationwide ­debate, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) licensed three British research laboratories, in Newcastle, London and Warwick, to create embryos in which the ovum comes from an animal (typically a cow or rabbit) and the nuclear DNA from a human being.

The scientific and political arguments in Brit­ain in favour of hybrid embryos focused on the scarcity of donated human embryos available for research, and the claim that such research transgressed moral norms was rejected by parliament. Professor Raisman argues, however, that the ethical debate over both human and hybrid stem cells ignores the issue of intellectual property rights and patenting: in other words, the profit motive. "Adult stem cells are much more promising therapeutically; they are already in use for such things as skin grafting, but they attract less funding and much less interest because they can't be patented." As the adult cells come from the patient's own body, the cells are not amenable to the imposition of intellectual property rights. On the other hand, exploitation of embryonic stem cells for therapy requires many complex laboratory processes from the out­set, and is consequently more amenable to patenting. Both governments and industry the pharmaceutical industry) are loath to invest or fund unless they can see the prospect of intellectual property rights - in other words, ownership.

Germany has been reluctant to allow stem cell research in the light of its Nazi history

In Britain, consciousness of the urgent requirement to pay heed to patents in medical science gathered impetus when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. She argued that Britain had lost billions of pounds in revenue through a single failure in the mid-1970s to patent an important discovery. The episode, ­notorious in the annals of British science, involved the development in Cambridge of monoclonal antibodies (crucial to diagnostic testing) by César Millstein’s molecular biology team. The discovery was not patented, but a member of the team patented a further development of the process in America, thus earning billions of dollars for biotech research in the United States. During the Thatcher years, the promotion and protection of intellectual property rights in British research became an absolute priority.

Individual European countries have pursued their own national funding policies on embryonic stem cell research, reflecting traditional ethical attitudes, in some cases to the detriment of commercial advantages. While Italy has banned funding because of the influence of the Catholic Church, Germany has been equally reluctant as a consequence of its sensitivity to human ­ex­experiments in the light of its Nazi history. Japan has adopted similar policies, for the same reasons. Both Germany and Japan invoke the "slippery slope" argument. In other words, they are less preoccupied with doctrinal issues due to their caution based on national historical experience. Britain's more liberal ethical attitudes are largely based on classic utilitarian principles. The ideas of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham - the greatest good for the greatest number - hold more sway than arguments about ensouled embryos. When I served on an HFEA ­inquiry panel two years ago, exploring public attitudes towards ­hybrid embryos, it was noticeable that the majority of the participants, which included an ­ordained Church of England ethicist, emphasised the consequentialist clinical benefits - finding cures for Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, and cancer.

In the United States, the administration's views on stem cell research have been largely shaped by a combination of Evangelical and Catholic attitudes. While Catholics traditionally voted for the Democrats during and after the John F Kennedy era, the Republicans under George W Bush's leadership won over a sizeable proportion of the massive Catholic vote. Rights to life, abortion, and embryonic stem cell issues loomed large. A mailshot of four million letters was despatched to Catholics in advance of the 2000 election, claiming that the Republican Party endorsed John Paul II's views on family and life issues. Meanwhile John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, and a Catholic, appeared at odds with his own church on abortion.

During the 2008 election campaign, the Republicans were no less energetic in seeking the Catholic vote, and the Catholic bishops were ­vociferous in condemning Obama's human ­embryonic stem cell policies. In 2000 and 2004, half of America's Catholics voted for Bush. In 2008, however, there was a noticeable swing towards Obama of one crucial segment of the Catholic vote. Catholics, numbering 65 million, form the largest single denomination in the US, making up 27 per cent of the entire electorate. Some 52 per cent of white Catholic regular church-goers voted for McCain, and 47 per cent for Obama. But non-church-going Catholics voted 61 per cent for Obama and 37 per cent for McCain. The swing is probably a reflection of the increase in Hispanic voters, who opted for Obama on account of the economic downturn. The total Catholic vote was 54 per cent for Obama and 45 per cent for McCain, a five-point swing for the Democratic candidate on 2004.

Professor Raisman is typical of scientists who are agnostic on questions over the status of the human embryo; his jaundiced view of embryonic stem cell research is scientific, he insists. Using rat models, he has been grafting adult stem cells (known as olfactory ensheathing cells) from the upper region of a rat's nose to create pathways across spinal cord lesions. The strategy has been amazingly successful in rats. Animals that had been paralysed in a front limb have completely regained movement. In the near future, Raisman hopes to apply the treatment to human beings, starting with victims of accidents (typically motorbike riders) who have lost the use of an arm as a result of trauma at a site of the spinal cord known as the brachial plexus (where the shoulder meets the spinal cord). The olfactory human cells will be taken from the patient's own nose, thus reducing the possibility of immunity problems. This is just a prelude to tackling major spinal cord injury.

Raisman complains, however, that he has had scant fund­ing over the years because he cannot promise patents that will make profits. He charges moreover that the media hype for embryonic research as a coming miracle cure, including for spinal cord injury, has put his kind of research programme in the shade. A new surge in gov­ernment-funded human embryonic research in the United States, he believes, is likely to make things worse, as grant bodies in Britain and ­elsewhere will seek to compete. "The scramble to fund human embryonic stem cell experiments looks like the scientific equivalent of sub-prime mortgages," says Raisman. "One wonders how long the large sums of money and hype can go on chasing such a distant goal before the bubble bursts."

Many clinicians agree with Raisman that actual therapies using embryonic stem cells are far off. Professor Keith Peters, until recently president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, puts it as distant as two, even three decades. Yet by no means all supporters of embryonic research base their enthusiasm on early delivery of therapies, or on the prospect of financial returns. There are many potential problems with all stem cell therapies, including adult stem cells, as scientists such as Raisman agree. Scientists still do not know how to make embryonic stem cells proliferate reliably, or indeed switch off once they do proliferate; hence there is anxiety that cancers could develop in treated patients.

All the more reason, according to one constit­uency of the research lobby, for studying human stem cells from their very earliest stage: the embryo. Most persuasive on this score is Professor James Pedersen of Cambridge University (who came to Britain from San Francisco to escape Bush's ban on federal funding in 2004). He ­argues that ­reliable stem cell therapies must go hand in hand with fundamental research on the process of ­development from conception to birth to understand in depth how stem cells work, and hence how to avoid mistakes in therapies. Pedersen's largely academic, non-clinical developmental work, however, does not involve the scramble for patenting rights described by Professor ­Raisman.

While the scientific row over funding and patenting heats up against the background of the new American president's science policies, the ethical arguments are likely to be revived in a population where 57 per cent believe in creationism: the literal belief in the Genesis creation story. But as the economic downturn bites, there will be greater scrutiny of the returns on embryonic research funding - whether in terms of profits to be made on intellectual property rights, or actual delivery of successful therapies to the clinic. A 20- to 30-year delay for dividends in the current economic climate is a long time to wait. In the meantime, Professor Raisman makes an interesting link between regulation in medical science and regulation in banking and the economy: "The creditworthiness of scientific claims," he says, "has no better system of regulation than other derivatives and instruments beloved of financiers, attracting huge bonuses by moving other people's money about."

It is a salutary reminder that the widespread adoption of entrepreneurial and monetarist models from the 1980s onwards for the conduct of medical research is as much due for scrutiny as other failing economic institutions.

John Cornwell is director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College,

Hybrid embryos: a short history

The controversy over stem cell research revolves around the use of human embryonic cells, since extracting the cells destroys the embryo they are taken from. In December 2000, the UK parliament voted to permit the research under guidelines that, by European standards, were liberal. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) was charged with granting licences for research on embryos discarded as part of the IVF process. Opposition from anti-abortion groups and senior Catholics was intense. Tory MP Edward Leigh described the research as “the killing of the innocents”, comparing its supporters to Nazis.

“Therapeutic cloning”, or the creation of human embryos for the purpose of growing stem cells, raised controversy on a second front. The lab-created embryos typically only exist for a few days, and are little more than a ball of cells; nevertheless, opponents such as Peter Garrett, research director for the pro-choice group Life, warned, also in 2000: “We are only a couple of years away from cloning human beings.'' In 2004, the UK became the second country in the world to permit the procedure.

By 2006, British scientists were seeking permission to create hybrid embryos by injecting human nuclei into the shells of rabbit eggs. The resulting embryos would contain just 0.1 per cent animal DNA – but this was enough to raise the question as to whether the embryos were human. In late 2006, faced with furious opposition, the government proposed legislation banning the creation of hybrid embryos; but in September 2007, the HFEA decided that there was no fundamental reason to prevent cytoplasmic hybrid research.

A revised Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was drafted.

In January last year, the first licences were granted to carry out projects involving hybrids; but within days, 16 MPs had rebelled, calling for a free vote. The Catholic Church also vocally opposed the proposed bill – among them Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who claimed that the bill endorsed “experiments of Frankenstein proportion". Nevertheless, in April, the first human-animal embryos were created in the UK, and in October, despite a further attempt by Edward Leigh to have the technique banned, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was passed in October 2008, on its third reading.

Alyssa McDonald

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?

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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 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