Show Hide image

Old wound, same pain

The conquest of the Wild West left North America’s first inhabitants scattered, diseased and broken.

The past is not well buried at Wounded Knee. The bodies themselves are long gone, and little more than a sheet-metal sign covered in scrawled, bleached-out graffiti commemorates the events of a bitter winter’s day in 1890. But for the Oglala Sioux, who inhabit the squalid trailers and drafty bungalows scattered across the grassland around the battle site, old memories are preserved in the people’s present-day suffering.

It is nearly 119 years since the Hotchkiss guns of the US 7th Cavalry massacred hundreds of their ancestors, ending the Indian Wars and leaving Chief Big Foot sprawled dead in the South Dakota snow, and with him the dream of native resistance to the white man’s westward expansion. Yet today on Pine Ridge, the tribe’s reservation close to the state line with Nebraska, life expectancy is still the lowest in the United States: the men of the Sioux live on average only to the age of 56.

The story of how the native inhabitants of North America have fared since the arrival of the first European settlers is a sad one. Their numbers depleted by foreign diseases to which they had scant resistance, they were cheated and defrauded out of their lands, and then stereotyped as tomahawk-wielding savages by Hollywood. Recently, however, much has changed; while some tribes such as the Oglala Sioux remain in desperate straits, others have begun to find new ways to make livelihoods for themselves in a modern world. And in this pivotal year for race relations in the US – with a black man in the Oval Office for the first time – it seems timely to investigate where the continent’s first oppressed people find themselves today. What does it mean to be a Native American in the age of Obama?

Fittingly, my first encounter with Native American culture was in Washington, DC in January, during the heady few days around the presidential inauguration, the city packed to the gills, the grass on the National Mall trampled and chunky Humvees crowding the street corners. I was there to speak with members of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the body that represents native interests to DC lawmakers and Capitol Hill politicos.

My arrival coincided with a tribal leaders’ meeting in Crystal City, a suburb across the Potomac River in northern Virginia. There, the Hyatt hotel was packed with delegates: downstairs in a subterranean chamber were dancers in magnificent feathered headdresses; upstairs in the conference chamber, the talk was of the new administration and the president’s promise of help to Native American communities through the economic stimulus package, a fund that would eventually amount to more than $2bn.

Yet when I spoke to Jacqueline Johnson Pata, a Tlinglit Native American from Alaska and chairwoman of the NCAI, she explained that, for some native communities today, the most important economic support is not through handouts from Washington, but in fact the money generated by these communities’ own casino operations. US law treats Native American tribes as sovereign entities, in a nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government, and since the 1970s various tribes have exploited this status to run gaming operations that remain outside direct state control.

“Casinos build schools, build bridges,” Johnson Pata said. “Gaming has been the one economic opportunity that’s actually benefited . . . Gaming has made some tribes have some revenues that have helped them build their communities, send their kids to school, provided college, diversification for other businesses.”

Just how much money some tribes have made from gaming became apparent months later when, at the newly opened New York Yankees baseball stadium in the South Bronx, Mitchell Cypress, chairman of the Seminole tribe in Florida, smashed a Fender guitar to open the ballpark’s outpost of the Hard Rock Cafe. The Seminole, flush with gaming wealth, bought the entire Hard Rock chain for $965m in 2006, in the largest ever purchase of a corporation by an indigenous people.

But even in January, it was clear that gaming was key to understanding the contemporary Native American experience and both ends of the wealth spectrum it had created. The apparatchiks in DC had insisted that while a few tribes had been able to make substantial profits from their casinos, many others, despite having gaming operations, were still mired in poverty.

A few weeks later, I made my way to south-eastern Connecticut and the reservation of the Mashantucket Pequots, a tribe massacred by European settlers in 1637, now owners of the largest casino in North America. Their operation, Foxwoods, began life as a bingo hall in 1986; a cash injection from a Chinese-Malaysian businessman, Lim Goh Tong, underwrote a huge programme of expansion. Today it boasts 340,000 square feet of gaming areas, 7,200 slot machines and six separate casinos. The vast concrete-and-mirrored-glass complex towers above the treetops, amid concentric rings of parking lots and hotels.

Yet when I spoke to Michael Thomas, chairman of the Pequots, he explained that the crucial factor that allowed his tribe to profit from gaming in such a spectacular fashion was its location, close to major population centres. “We have 26 million people within two and a half hours’ drive of the reservation,” he said, agreeing that the spoils of Native American gaming were not equally distributed across the United States. “For a select number of tribes, like mine, that still reside in heavily populated areas, it has been an economic blessing. The vast majority of the tribes continue to be mired in poverty.”

In some respects, Foxwoods seems an extraordinary success story. With its themed restaurants and leisurewear-clad punters, it may be no Monte Carlo, but it is still a brash reversal of centuries of oppression. However, in other ways the Pequots also embody many of the controversies attached to this new form of native enterprise – in particular the vexed issue of tribal membership.

Although the gleaming museum that the tribe has built with casino revenue is full of dugout canoes and mannequins in traditional dress, the idea that the 870 current members represent an unsullied heritage is disputable. Like most Native American peoples, the Pequots were severely weakened by the white man’s diseases, to which they had little resistance. Yet their lineage is more fraught than most. By the 1970s and before the rise of gaming wealth, there were only two tribe members still living on the reservation. Others returned subsequently, but still today most of those who profit from Foxwoods are of only fractional native descent. And unlike some other tribes, the Pequots do not enforce a blood quantum – a minimum amount of Native American ancestry – as a requirement for membership. Instead, anyone who can prove lineal descent from two censuses, completed in 1900 and 1910, is eligible to join.

Lori Potter, a member who now works for the casino, argued that it was irrelevant to question the present Pequots’ ancestry. “We determine that it is not necessarily how much blood you have, but it’s your ties to the community and to the land, and to the culture and heritage here,” she said. “Just like Britain doesn’t use a blood quantum to define a Briton.” Potter herself, who moved back to the reservation in 1996, is one-eighth Native American.

Foxwoods provides an extraordinary insight into how some of the tribes have transformed their way of life, but the gilded trustafarians of the Mashantuckets are far from typical Native Americans. To travel to South Dakota and the Pine Ridge reservation of the Oglala Sioux, however, is to see how the other half lives. Located out on the vast prairies that dominate the state, it is the poorest tribal homeland in the country, and has become a byword for Native American social deprivation.

The contrast between Prairie Wind Casino, the Oglalas’ own venture into gaming, and Foxwoods back in Connecticut could not be more complete. Under a great sky squatted a low brick-and-steel building, an island far out in the endless grassland. In a parking lot smeared with windblown snow stood muscular pick-up trucks, bearing licence plates from neighbouring Nebraska and Wyoming as well as South Dakota. Inside the casino itself was a compact gaming floor where slot machines buzzed beneath a replica wigwam.

In a partitioned back office, I spoke to Pam Giago, a tribe member and the casino’s general manager. She explained how Prairie Wind laid on transportation to bring in customers to the remote casino. “We do busing from the various locations,” she said. “Sometimes we have buses that come in just for the day; other buses bring customers for night stay. We have slow days and we have good days.”

Nevertheless, it was clear, given the Oglalas’ isolated location, that a Foxwoods-style gaming operation was never going to be an option for them. Their casino provides 288 much-needed jobs for local people and, according to Theresa Two Bulls, the tribe’s chairwoman, contributed $125,000 per month to the community. On Pine Ridge, however, a reservation with a population of 40,000-plus and an area larger than the entire state of Connecticut, that is not nearly enough to lift the Sioux out of poverty.

Some poverty it is, too. Keen to see conditions on the reservation first-hand, I drove across the prairie to Wounded Knee, the old battleground synonymous with the Native American plight in the United States. There, a stone’s throw from the massacre site, I met Emerson Elk, one of the few remaining speakers of the Lakota language, whose 100 per cent native ancestry makes him a “full-blood” member of the Oglala Sioux. He lives with his wife and sons in a bungalow streaked with mould and surrounded by a bone yard of cannibalised cars and a van full of animal hides and pelts. Lifting a stone-bladed tomahawk axe from beneath the table, Elk explained how, in the 19th century, the US government reneged on its treaty obligations to the Sioux, confining them to a shrinking area as their ancestral lands were annexed for settlement by the white man. Elk, 52, was grimly matter-of-fact about the present conditions on the reservation, too.

“We, the people, are living in extreme poverty,” he said. “It’s very bleak here. It’s very hard being Lakota. We have government housing: [there’s] a cookie-cutter effect, all the houses are the same. The insulation, it’s not very good. It’s not doing its job in the wintertime. We can’t even have a wood stove in these houses. In 1890 our people were being exterminated, and that mentality is still here today. Under the US government we’re barely surviving. We have treaties that are not doing their obligations – to health, education and welfare. By the time the money trickles down to the Lakota people, it’s zero.”

That afternoon Elk, whose Lakota name Sai-Moto translates as “Bad Bear”, took me out to see the manner in which his tribe now lives. As he directed from the passenger seat, I drove up a rutted track of ice and mud to the mass grave where the victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre were buried, and there he spoke to his ancestors in the clipped tones of the indigenous language. Then we traversed the reservation, passing battered trailer homes with no indoor sanitation; in some cases, their desperate inhabitants had stripped the aluminium coverings to sell, leaving their trailers naked and looking like husks.

Ninety miles from Wounded Knee, in the eastern part of Pine Ridge, we visited the hamlet of Wanblee, where I saw a tiny, four-bedroom bungalow awash with dark-eyed children. Twelve people call it home. Seeing the scant insulation and propane heating, I asked Elk just how cold it could get in a hard winter.“Sometimes you can saw a gallon of antifreeze in half,” he replied. “When the wind blows, it gets right through the wall.”

A vast divide exists at Pine Ridge between the full-blood members of the tribe and those with lesser native ancestry, who dominate the local administration and business community. In Wanblee, I spoke to Fred Sitting Up, a full-blood who had lost much of his vision to diabetes, which is endemic to the reservation.“The federal government allowed the Bureau of Indian Affairs to enrol anyone in our tribe,” claimed the 55-year-old. “They assumed more leadership roles. They get in by saying, ‘My great-great-great-grandmother was Indian.’ They want our land base. Right now they’re trying to dig for uranium. They’re all non-Indian. They’re not doing anything to protect our people, our land. Three-quarters of the reservation is owned by non-Indians. They don’t like us.”

Elk added: “When I die, I don’t want to see no half-breeds.” It was clear then that even though the Oglalas were a world away from the Mashantuckets (far from their casino’s money being sufficient to fund the education of the tribe’s children, some tribespeople claimed they received just $10 per child) they were still negotiating the same identity issues as their eastern counterparts.

My visit to South Dakota also helped to put my earlier experiences in Washington into perspective. Much had baffled me during Obama’s investiture, when I had attended the Native American inaugural ball at the Hyatt in Crystal City, and the ballroom shook late into that historic night. In particular, I was puzzled by the dress code of ornate feathered headdresses worn over jeans and tuxedos laced with beads. But after I’d witnessed the residents of Mashantucket and Pine Ridge thrashing out their identity politics at both ends of the Native American socio-economic spectrum, that sartorial melange seemed more appropriate.

I understood the real irony that underpinned the night of the ball. For the United States had just inaugurated its first black president, yet the system of tribal sovereignty that governs Native American affairs – and indeed underpins the gaming enterprises that have brought great wealth to some communities – remains a riff on the “separate but equal” doctrine of institutional inequality that the civil rights movement fought so hard to dismantle.

And so, on that frigid but joyful evening of the ball on the Potomac River, as Barack Obama was on his way to the White House, most of the revellers would be returning, sooner or later, to their American bantustans.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!

Show Hide image

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