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Low rise and shallow fall

In the second of his English Journeys, Edward Platt visits the Essex hinterland where he was born, a

In the second of his English Journeys, Edward Platt visits the Essex hinterland where he was born, and discovers that there’s more to this county than stereotypical manual workers and brash, self-made millionaires.

Essex was my second stop in the series of journeys around England that I began last summer, at a moment of heightened tension in the country: shortly after I arrived in Hull in August, riots broke out in many cities, and by the time I got to Essex the extent and severity of the period of "austerity" we were facing was becoming apparent and protesters were establishing their camp outside St Paul's Cathedral.

There was little to connect the two places on my itinerary except my family history: my father came from Hull, but he met my mother in London and they moved to a small village outside the county town of Chelmsford when they got married in 1965. I was born at a hospital in Chelmsford three years later. We left when I was two years old and I have rarely been back but, as I'm originally an Essex boy, I wanted to understand how the much-maligned county fitted in to modern England.

In the popular imagination, Essex is to London much as New Jersey is to New York – a grimy hinterland of industrial sites and commuter suburbs, inhabited by a brash species of manual workers and self-made millionaires. The stereotypical inhabitants of the area acquired particular significance in the 1980s, when the aspirational working-class families of Essex abandoned their Labour allegiances and helped Margaret Thatcher secure the neo­liberal consensus that dominated British politics until the crash of 2008. Or so the usual political narrative went.

The town of Basildon and its inhabitants assumed a critical importance; take Basildon and you take the country, the saying went, and it proved a bellwether constituency in every election between 1984 and 2007. It had an es­pecially significant role in the general election of 1992, when an early declaration of victory for the incumbent MP heralded the defeat of the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock and the demise of socialism as a credible electoral proposition. The romance between Essex and the Conservative Party was reprised in the 1990s through the career of Teresa Gorman, the Eurosceptic Thatcher manquée who was MP for Billericay.

Basildon returned a Labour MP in all three of Tony Blair's electoral victories, and the boundary changes of 2010, in which it was merged into the hybrid constituency of Basildon and Billericay, represented another weakening of the link between Conservative Central Office and central Essex. The MP of the reconfigured constituency is John Baron, a maverick Conservative, and he believes that his constituents still embody the values that Thatcher sought to awaken in the British people. "They're straight-talking," he said when I went to see him at his office in Portcullis House, Westminster. "They don't like people sitting on the fence. They say it as they see it, and if you believe, as I do, that life is not a rehearsal, then you relish those people. And they're entrepreneurial: if they take a knock, they get up, dust themselves down, and get on with it. In this country, if you fail, it tends to be seen as something to be ashamed of, but Essex is closer to the American model – failure is a step on the road to success."

Baron's association with Essex began many years ago. He served in the British army until 1988, and when he left he bought a flat in Chelmsford because he didn't want to live and work in London and property was relatively cheap there. Countless other people have been drawn to the city for the same reasons, though the founder of its most significant industrial concern used to commute in reverse. The Italian engineer Guglielmo Marconi, who came to England in 1896, lived in Bayswater but based his business in a factory in Chelmsford that hosted the UK's first publicised sound broadcast in 1920, earning the town the right to call itself "the Home of Radio".

The name Marconi was associated with Chelmsford for most of the 20th century, and one morning I arranged to meet Peter Turrall, chairman of the Marconi Veterans Association, outside the factory on New Street. Later in the day, I wandered into Chelmsford Magistrates' Court and listened to the trial of an apprentice plumber and his brother who were accused of breaking someone's nose and headbutting two policemen, but Turrall was an Essex man of a different sort. He had worked at the factory for 47 years, which was all his – and more than half of its – working life. He started as a junior draughtsman and progressed to become a director; for the last 12 years, he had the "privilege" of using Marconi's office on the ground floor, near the main entrance of the listed exterior. At one point, 6,000 people worked in the factory; nor was it Chelmsford's only significant employer – Turrall estimates that 25,000 people were employed in the town in the 1950s, when its population was no more than 40,000. Today, Chelmsford is four times the size but no more than 10,000 people work there, and Marconi's demise is emblematic of the way the town has shed its industrial past.

Turrall retired in 1998, and the following year Marconi embarked on one of the most ­catastrophic restructurings in British corporate history. It had merged with GEC in 1968, and in 1999 it sold its defence arm to British Aerospace, renamed itself Marconi plc and began acquiring telecoms businesses. In 1996, the firm had £2.6bn in the bank; within six years, it had accumulated £4bn of debt. At the height of the dotcom bubble it overpaid for its acqui­sitions and it didn't know how to run them. As Turrall said, the company was unable to do what the new management wanted, "which was sell mobile phones effectively". When the market had been at its most exuberant, the company was worth £34.5bn, but in the depths of the slump that followed, its valuation fell to just over £50m and its debts became unsustainable. It was broken up and sold off and the New Street factory closed in 2008.

“When you've invested 47 years of your life in a company and you see the office boarded up, it's very, very sad," Turrall said. The property developer that bought the factory and got ­permission to turn it into homes, offices and a hotel went bankrupt in 2009 during the fi­nancial crisis, and the building has remained empty ever since. On the northern side of the site, moss and weeds have begun to bloom on the concrete banks of the dank green moat that once supplied its machines with water.

Yet Marconi hasn't disappeared altogether from the town. The research laboratory that it established in 1936 in Great Baddow, a village south of Chelmsford, is still running, now owned by BAE Systems, the company formed when British Aerospace bought Marconi's defence business. Great Baddow has since merged with Chelmsford, and the BAE Systems Advanced Technology Centre lies along its southern limit, between an industrial estate and the open fields that stretch towards the A12.

The building was a nondescript 1930s block with low red-brick walls, metal windows and stone pillars flanking the front door, but once I got beyond the lobby, I found myself at the beginning of a corridor that seemed to have no end. "It's a series of mirrors," said one of the two amiable guides who showed me round, adding: "You're three feet tall by the time you reach the end of it." The Alice in Wonderland reference seemed appropriate for a business that displays copies of a magazine called Land Warfare International in its reception area, and describes the process of designing and manufacturing weapons as "tailoring solutions to individual customer needs".

The showroom to the side of the long corridor displayed some of the devices developed at Great Baddow or one of the other BAE Systems R&D bases around the country, such as liquid body armour, "radar-absorbent material" and "over-the-horizon radar" ("the earlier a target can be detected, the more effectively it can be prosecuted"). Some had civilian applications – the computer system in the prototype of a land-based drone might one day become standard in cars, and the system of "video analytics" that can predict "antisocial behaviour" could be used to survey a building's "perimeter" or to monitor "parking violations". Great Baddow has also supplied the European Space Agency with communications systems and worked with the British Olympic Association on various sports.

Yet such activities are a fraction of the business done by BAE Systems. According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), more than 95 per cent of its income derives from the sale of "fighter aircraft, warships, tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery systems, missiles, munitions" and other military equipment. One of the purposes of my trips around the country was to explore the demise of the industrial sector that my father spent his career financing, and so I knew I should recognise the value of highly skilled technical jobs that places such as Great Baddow provide. Yet I also knew that the worth of the armaments trade is disputed; it accounts for 1.2 per cent of the total value of UK exports, and even that figure is only sustained with significant taxpayer investment. What's more, any calculation of the economic value of the arms trade is inevitably incomplete – a widget has a productive life that a jet fighter self-evidently doesn't, and a true accounting would have to include the many forms of destruction that the firm's products cause.

Even John Baron – an ex-soldier who shares the widely accepted view that the British economy must be rebalanced towards manufacturing, and whose constituency includes another Marconi offshoot in the form of a defence electronics company called Selex Galileo – believes that Britain must conduct itself with more discretion in the global arms bazaar. In 2003, Baron resigned from his position as a shadow health minister because he opposed the war in Iraq, and he was one of the few MPs (and the only Conservative) who voted against the campaign in Libya last year. He concedes that he is "out on a limb" on the question of foreign intervention, yet he makes the unarguable point that our fondness for removing selected dictators is hardly consistent with successive governments' role in promoting and subsiding

the arms trade. "What rules are we living by?" he said when I met him in Westminster. "The Prime Minister made an important speech to the Kuwaiti parliament in February this year saying there is an issue between interests and values, and perhaps too often in the past we have focused on the interests – yet at the time, he was leading an arms delegation. There has got to be an element of consistency."

BAE Systems might reply that it has always been perfectly consistent. According to CAAT, it routinely equips countries that the UK Foreign Office's Human Rights and Democracy report considers as having "the most serious wide-ranging human rights concerns". It has also been investigated by the Serious Fraud Office for "political corruption" in its dealings with many different countries. The gravest allegations concern its relationship with Saudi Arabia: the British government cancelled the SFO's investigation into the vast al-Yamamah deal on the predictable grounds that it would endanger Saudi Arabia's participation in "the war on terror". But in March 2010, in a case brought by the US department of justice, a district court judge in Washington found BAE Systems guilty of "deception, duplicity and knowing violations of law . . . on an enormous scale" and fined the firm $400m, or £257m – "one of the largest criminal fines in the history of DoJ's ongoing effort to combat overseas corruption in international business and enforce US export control laws".

That it no longer makes landmines or cluster bombs is the best that can be said for it. Yet my two guides saw no reason to apologise or explain; they regarded these inventions as "toys for boys" and said that the stigma of the corruption charges did not permeate to Great Baddow. One told me that he had always wanted to work at the centre. As a boy, he could see the radar transmitter tower that stands in the grounds from his bedroom window, and he wanted to emulate his grandfather who had served in the RAF during the Second World War. Such consistency might be preferable to the doublethink that fetishises the martial valour of old campaigns while deploring their contemporary equivalent, yet it seemed a shame that there had been no other businesses that dominated the horizons of his childhood. By the time I left Great Baddow, I had come to the conclusion that the presence of the last outpost of the Marconi empire in Chelmsford was more corrosive of Essex's moral status than any number of brawling plumbers.

Essex is a large and varied county. Its western half is inevitably shaped by its proximity to London: there is green belt land where development is prohibited and the untouched expanse of Epping Forest straddles the metropolitan boundary, but elsewhere the capital's tendrils stretch into the countryside. Commuter towns such as Chigwell and Woodford are part of the agglomeration of interwar suburbs, and in the postwar years another kind of urban overspill led to the creation of the "new towns" of Harlow and Basildon. Yet the perception of Essex as a modern, essentially suburban creation is hardly consistent with the existence of Colchester, England's oldest recorded town, and the capital's influence fades as you travel east. "Because Essex begins somewhere among back streets in London's eastern suburbs, some people think it has no mystery, but
I know that Essex is a huge mysterious county, with God knows what going on in its remoter valleys," wrote J B Priestley, in English Journey, the account of his travels round the country in 1933. It is England's driest county, and one of its flattest. Its north-eastern reaches are "Constable country" – that fine picture of English rural life called The Hay Wain was painted at a ford on the River Stour, which forms the border between Essex and Suffolk – and the nature writer Robert Macfarlane counts its south-eastern coast among England's "wild places".

Macfarlane is fascinated by a naturalist called John Baker, who spent the decade between 1953 and 1963 tracking the peregrines of coastal Essex as they travelled across a "mixed landscape of woodland, field, sea wall, mudflat and salt marsh". Baker came to know south-east Essex intimately, Macfarlane writes, "its boulder clays and river gravels, its cricket-bat willows and hazel coppices. He moved, once winter arrived, along 'the bone-white coral of frosted hedges', and through 'black hard winter woods'." In Baker's eyes, "the Essex landscape – never more than 150 metres above sea level, only 50 miles from London, heavily farmed – was as inspiring and elemental as the Pamirs or the Arctic". He published The Peregrine, his classic account of his pursuit of the falcons, in 1967, and 40 years later Macfarlane retraced his footsteps, beginning in "a long thin skein of broadleaf wood" called the Wilderness, which lies east of the village of Woodham Walter, near Maldon on the Blackwater Estuary. Macfarlane was going in search of the "beyond world" that exists at one remove from "our world of tarmac and cars and pesticides and tractors", and when I looked at the map to place his journey, I was surprised to discover that the wood he had selected as his emblematic wilderness was only three miles from the village where I was born.

My father used to divide the county along a north-south rather than an east-west axis: he used to say that the A13 was the barrier between the industrial and post-industrial zones on the edge of the Thames Estuary and the villages further north. Even though he worked at the Coryton oil refinery, he and my mother chose to live in a village near Chelmsford. Bicknacre lies five miles east of Great Baddow on the southern edge of Danbury Common, one of the largest areas of commonland in Essex. When I left BAE Systems, I went in search of the house where I spent the first six months of my life. I found the street easily enough. I parked in the middle of the lane beside the footbridge spanning a small, sunken stream and walked up the road, checking the names on the doors. I passed Garlands, Puffins and Copperfield, but I couldn't see one called Mariner, or the lifebelt that used to hang beside the front door. A man getting out of his car by the lawn where joke-shop police tape roped off a white plastic skeleton suspended from a tree in honour of Hallowe'en told me it was at the far end of the lane, and eventually I identified it as the bungalow without a name.

It didn't look like it did in our old family photos. The front had been extended by a small porch with stained-glass windows and fake carriage lanterns, though the path that used to run past it to a farm seemed unchanged and the fields beyond remained undeveloped. The side-window of the heavy Ford pick-up parked beside the front door was embossed with a peeling decal of a buxom squaw, and a baseball cap with "Native Pride" stamped on the peak was lying on the dashboard. There was a miniature headdress hanging from the rear-view mirror and another in the window of the caravan stationed on the hardstanding at the side of the house, but no chief or shaman came to the door.

From the Wilderness, Macfarlane had travelled east towards the reclaimed expanses of the Dengie Peninsula, where "woodland and field frayed away to salt marshes, and the salt marshes gave into miles of shining mudflats", but I drove south, towards the industrial heartlands where my father used to work. The land immediately south of Bicknacre was so flat that it might have been floodplain, or reclaimed land, though the Thames Estuary was still above 15 miles away. It took me 20 minutes to reach the small town of Hadleigh. As I turned off the busy high street, the flats and houses disappeared and the land fell away to reveal the river. I passed a field overhung by a fluttering canopy of birds and drew up at the beginning of a muddy footpath beside the Salvation Army's outpost at Hadleigh Farm. The Salvation Army bought the land here in 1891 and established a "farm colony" for "the benefit of men who, through misfortune, need a helping hand".

It had already established a city colony in Whitechapel, and its founder William Booth hoped that its rural counterpart would be the "second rung on the ladder" for "the submerged tenth" – "all and any who have been shipwrecked in life, character, or circumstances".

It built dormitories, a hospital and a chapel, and five years later a visiting journalist found "one of the finest market gardens in England", with "all the elements of an industrial and agricultural community". In 1990 it reopened as "an employment training centre", though the news that it will host the mountain bike trials in this year's Olympics confirms how its relationship with London has changed – once seen as a place apart where the wrecked lives of Londoners could be redeemed, Hadleigh Farm has become another recreational resort.

The castle stood 200 metres up the track, on the last crest of high ground before the land began to fall to the river – "the last low rise, the last shallow fall", as the poet Lavinia Greenlaw, who grew up in Essex, put it in a prose poem inspired by Constable's sketches and paintings ("Nearing forty, he found himself at the mouth of the estuary").

Hadleigh Castle was built in the 1230s for the 1st Earl of Kent; it was later requisitioned by the crown because of its strategic location and it formed part of the dower of several English queens, including three of Henry VIII's wives. Black plastic bags, presumably filled with dog­shit, hung from the railings at the entrance, and as I entered the jagged ring of craggy turrets two red-hulled tankers were crossing in the middle of the pale expanse of water. To the east, a line of houses struck up the slope above Southend and, to the west, beyond the dense grid of streets on Canvey Island, a wavering flame hung above a cluster of towers and spires that looked like a version of the Emerald City.

Coryton was less alluring close up. A week later, I drove back along the raised carriageways of the A13, past the wind turbines at the Ford plant in Dagenham, and turned on to the dead-end road called the Manorway, which runs past the former refinery at Shell Haven and terminates at the gated entrance to Coryton. Even the car parks were barred, so I drew up at the roadside and walked over to the fence that sealed the dense complex of interlocking structures and smoking chimneys that contrives to process ten million tonnes of fuel a year.

My father had got a job at Coryton because he wanted to work for an American company and to gain experience of industry – two mid-century ambitions that now seem quaintly old-fashioned – but he didn't enjoy it much. He was bored and underemployed, and he spent a lot of time going to interviews for other jobs.

Coryton has since passed from Mobil via BP to a Swiss-based business called Petroplus, which until recently operated seven refineries in northern Europe. It comes under the Port of London, which has expanded ever further east in search of deeper water as ships have grown in size, and it is one of the busiest refineries in England. In October 2010 a group of protesters called the Crude Awakening shut it down for seven hours by locking themselves to "immobilised vehicles" on both sides of the carriageway and preventing lorries from leaving. "This place, this whole industry, must become a thing of the past," a spokesman said.

The group's attempt to break our dependency on oil was no more than symbolic, but the global recession has had a profound effect on Coryton's ability to function: last month Petroplus Chemicals announced that it would file for insolvency, after failing to reach agreement with its creditors to extend deadlines for loan repayments. The administrators, PricewaterhouseCoopers, say that the plant will continue to operate as normal, though job losses are expected. There are fears, too, that the bankruptcy will trigger increases in petrol prices and lead to shortages in the south-east.
Surprisingly, the presence of the refineries has not been an unmitigated disaster for the surrounding environment. P&O, the company that bought Shell Haven, will be obliged to compensate for the construction of a new container port on the site by creating tidal mudflats on both sides of the Thames, and the activities of another oil company on a site on the other side of Vange Creek have led, serendipitously, to the creation of what has been called "England's brownfield rainforest".

Canvey Island has been occupied intermittently since Roman times, though Dutch engineers constructed the first sea defences in the 16th century. It is divided roughly in two: since the 1950s, the grid of residential streets that I had seen from Hadleigh Castle has spread across the eastern half of the land, but the western half is a hybrid of fields, marshes and industrial sites. In the 1960s, a company called Occidental Oil made plans to build a refinery in Canvey Wick, which lies between Vange Creek and the Charfleets Industrial Estate, and it prepared the site by installing storage tanks, building a vast deep-water jetty and spreading river dredgings across the marshes. Yet the refinery was decommissioned in 1973 and the land was left untouched for 30 years. The local kids who adopted it as a motorcross circuit helped to prevent trees and shrubs from taking over by churning up the earth, however, and a rich variety of habitats has emerged.

When a quango called the East of England Development Agency (Eeda) bought the land in 2002, in the hope of building a business park on it, environmental surveys discovered that it had "more biodiversity per square foot than any other site in the UK". It is home to many rare insects, including the shrill carder bee, found in only a handful of locations in Britain, as well as two species – a ground beetle and a weevil – that are unique to Canvey. It also hosts a large variety of grassland plants and various kinds of orchids.

In 2005, 93 hectares in Canvey Wick were given the status of a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), but the designation has not put an end to the debates about its future. The RSPB is planning to open a nature reserve covering 17 hectares in its southern part, but the supermarket chain Morrisons, which owns the site, intends to retain the rest. There is still a plan to build a sustainable business park, incorporating "brown roofs", rough grassland and "bee banks", on a ten-hectare site to the north but, given that the government intends to shut down Eeda by March, it isn't clear when or how it will be realised.

In theory, there is no public access to Canvey Wick, but I walked down the half-finished road, turned on to a path that led across the fields
to the abandoned jetty and climbed through a hole in the fence at the bottom of the slope below the sea wall, a reminder of Canvey's precarious estuarial location. The wall was built after the floods of 1953, in which 58 people on the island drowned. Canvey has pumps that can work faster than the tide, local people told me. It also has a pub called the King Canute and some elderly islanders refer to events "before the flood" and "after the flood", confirming its emblematic importance.

Yet the height of the sea wall informs one of the paradoxes of life on Canvey: its encircling parapet closes off all views to the horizon, and many of the islanders have turned their houses upside down, placing living rooms above bedrooms to alleviate the claustrophobia. I had spent the morning in the interior of the island without catching a glimpse of the river, and as I climbed the slope towards the sea wall, a metal door on the platform of the jetty was banging in the breeze. It was one of those days when an unusually high tide sends islanders to the phone to rebuke the council for not closing the flood barriers – the wind had stirred the grey-green water into choppy waves that were slapping against the sea wall four or five feet below the parapet, and the line of boats moored midstream was bucking briskly back and forth. The jetty stretched into the middle of Vange Creek before turning south and running towards the main channel of the Thames. Oil storage tanks blossomed like mushrooms on the far bank.

The stiles at the entrance to the footpaths that led into the interior of the reserve were closed, so I followed the sea wall to the south-west tip of the island and a pub called the Lobster Smack. It's said to feature in one of the climactic episodes of Great Expectations when Pip attempts to help his patron Magwitch escape down the Thames. It also has other, more recent claims to fame – one local man told me that its car park was the venue of both the last legal cockfight and the last legal bare-knuckle fight in the UK. A colony of single-storey prefab holiday homes and modern semis clustered beneath a group of storage tanks on the south coast, and as I walked back along Hole Haven Road, I passed a man in a skull-and-crossbones headscarf picking sloes from the bush opposite the entrance to the oil plant. Two hundred metres further on, I reached the other end of the almost completed road that local people have labelled "the road to nowhere".

“It's costing £18m and people think it's a waste of money," Councillor Dave Blackwell of the Canvey Island Independent Party said when I went to see him at his garden centre on the edge of the Charfleets Industrial Estate. He argues that there is no need for the business park, either, given that almost a third of the units on the estate are empty. Blackwell has been campaigning to save Canvey Wick for ten years, and he spends many summer mornings photographing wildlife on the site. Now 64 years old, he regrets the way that Canvey has developed since he was a boy, when most of the island was farmland. "You can't live in the Dark Ages," he said. "People have got to have homes. But Canvey's reached saturation; we can't cope with the amount of people we've got now, and the council wants to build another 1,000 homes."

There is only one respect in which Canvey Island hasn't changed – it used to be "the East Enders' playground" and because 95 per cent of its residents came from east London it has retained something of the old East End spirit. However, a friend of mine who used to work as a barrister at the courts in Chelmsford and Southend once offered the anecdotal observation that 90 per cent of the convicted criminals in Essex come from Canvey. Oil City Confidential, Julien Temple's film about Dr Feelgood, the island's best-known rock band, described the place as "busted and broken" – a violent, hard-drinking wasteland.

Blackwell concedes that Canvey has problems, especially "antisocial behaviour", but he insists that it is no worse than anywhere else. He used to be a Labour councillor but he didn't like being told what to say and do by a central organisation, and he was so determined to assert the island's distinctive identity that he founded the Canvey Island Independent Party (CIIP) in 2004. "People were fed up with the mainstream parties and they needed someone to fight for Canvey," Blackwell said. "People are looking for something outside mainstream politics. Our councillors live locally, they know everyone, and they know what the local problems are. There are no politics."

The CIIP now holds ten out of 11 seats on the town council and 16 of Canvey's 17 seats on Castle Point Borough Council: it is one of the most prominent of the local parties that have begun to emerge as a consequence of disillusionment with Westminster politics – and another of the man-made ecosystems that have flourished on this reclaimed island on the edge of the Thames. "My ambition is for Canvey to run itself and
determine its own future, rather than relying on other people," Blackwell said. "I hope I've created a party that will last for years and do something good for the people of Canvey."

As I walked back to Benfleet, I wondered what such localism meant in the context of Canvey, which might claim to be an island socially and politically but cannot say the same economically – most islanders commute to work in London, and it is indubitably part of the global trade in oil and gas which has shaped its landscape.

I passed the flood barrier that marked the boundary of the island and began to ascend the low rise that led to the station. The boats beached in the muddy creek in the foreground and the shadows of the cars moving back and forth on the tree-lined road that is the main bridge to the mainland were beginning to blur into the darkness, and in the distance the steady flicker of the flare burner gave no indication of the financial difficulties that would soon beset Coryton's most recent owners.

Edward Platt is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. "City of Abraham", his book about Hebron, will be published by Picador in September.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lucky Dave

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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