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The façade cracks

David Cameron is widely accepted as a “moderniser” and as having heralded a new kind of Conservatism. But are these changes quite so deep as he would have us believe?

When, in August, Peter Mandelson found himself at the same restaurant – the Taverna Agni, on the Greek island of Corfu – as the shadow chancellor George Osborne, the unlikely meeting was “by chance, not by choice”. Contrary to reports, the dinner, with 20 others, did not involve Mandelson “pouring poison” about Gordon Brown into Osborne’s ear (though Osborne attacked certain senior Tories, according to some of those present). Instead, the two politicians, who had spent little time together before, discussed approaches to effecting and managing change in their respective parties.

Unlike Osborne, who has spoken to several journalists about the dinner since then, Mandelson is reluctant to reveal the substance of what he considers to be a private conversation. But in his interview with the New Statesman last week he did give a hint of his verdict. “[The Tories] have managed to change their image rather quickly . . . but I don’t think they have done the equivalent major changes [as we did] and I don’t think they have carried the party entirely with them.”

Suddenly, at the end of the party conference season and following a dramatic reshuffle in which, against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis in living memory, Gordon Brown has partially re-established his authority, it is the Conservatives rather than Labour who are under pressure for the first time in more than a year. “The tide may be turning,” one senior Tory conceded this week. “I used to think we were definitely going to win; now it is less clear.”

Osborne has long been keen to portray himself as a moderniser within the Conservative Party, in the image of the young Mandelson. Yet he has always maintained, along with David Cameron, that the Tories do not need “a Clause Four moment” comparable to when Tony Blair symbolically abolished Labour’s commitment to nationalisation to prove to the electorate the party had changed and was ready to govern. Instead, the Tory leadership appears to believe, as Labour’s did through much of the 1980s, that the voters were wrong but will eventually come round to the party’s way of thinking.

The lasting reluctance of the media properly to scrutinise the opposition means that Cameron will almost certainly go into the next election having failed to take on his party on any single major issue. Two years ago, he called for “significantly less” immigration, abandoning any short-lived attempt to dampen rhetoric on that issue. And in April this year he used an article in the Sun to denounce the government for lying over “uncontrolled immigration”. In the same month, he ordered a return to the party’s “core vote strategy”, a focus on traditional issues such as immigration and Europe, issues so unsuccessfully pursued by his close ally William Hague, and Michael Howard and Iain Duncan Smith before him.

He presides over the most anti-European parliamentary party in Conservative history, having based part of his leadership campaign on the party’s withdrawal from membership of the centrist conservative grouping in Brussels. In the midst of a series of expenses scandals involving the Tory MP Derek Conway and three Tory MEPs, Cameron pushed hard, again in the Sun, for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. He said that having a referendum would help to “clean up politics”, but this was a distraction.

On last year’s messy education row, in which Cameron attempted to halt the creation of more grammar schools, he subsequently retreated, under pressure from the right, and went out of his way to emphasise that this was “not a Clause Four moment”. He said: “I don’t go round picking fights [with my party].”

More generally, Cameron’s talk of a “social revolution” – his desire to heal our “broken society” – simply amounts in practice to little more than a hardening of support for the traditional family: tax breaks for mothers to stay at home and for married couples. Even global warming and the environment are no longer priorities. In May, Cameron failed to mention the words “environment” or “climate change” in a 1,200-word statement about his priorities for government, and his adviser Zac Goldsmith has been sidelined.

Before the conference season, Cameron appeared firm in his belief that Labour would very soon erupt into full-scale civil war; and he himself had otherwise just to remain calm and patient and the election would be his to win. But if the cliché is true that oppositions don’t win elections; government’s lose them, as many Tories believe, then the question might be asked: why did Mandelson, Blair, Brown and Alastair Campbell work so assiduously to create new Labour?

Conservative MPs on the pro-European left of the party are concerned about its fundamental policy direction. They say that the prospect of genuine – including fiscal – change was killed off at the crucial moment when Cameron audaciously entered the leadership contest against Kenneth Clarke in 2005, and, on the advice of the Tory MP and Times writer Michael Gove, now the shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families, adopted Michael Portillo’s socially liberal agenda. Portillo, about whom Gove wrote a biography, had also refused to back Clarke for the leadership in 2001.

So, instead of the wholesale, root and branch change that Clarke embodied – as with Neil Kinnock with Militant in the 1980s, and Blair with Clause Four in the 1990s – the Tories remained committed to a right-wing fiscal policy, especially cutting inheritance tax for the rich.

Some of the more thoughtful Tories privately worry that it is an ideological commitment to free-market fundamentalism that leaves the party open to Labour’s attacks over, for example, the shadow chancellor’s comment that “people make loads of money out of the misery of others”, as well as expose the Tories’ short-sighted failure last month to condemn the practice of “short-selling” shares in the City.

On the right of the party, meanwhile, the disaffected David Davis is increasingly emerging as the focal point for dissent. Davis, who fell out with the neoconservatives in the shadow cabinet, led by Gove and Osborne, and whom Osborne is known privately to attack, is keeping his head down after his crusading by-election victory. Early this week, he was ona fact-finding mission in Kabul. But at Westminster someof his allies say there is nothing “modern” about the way in which some members of the shadow cabinet privately support the government on 42-day detention and ID cards, but without either the confidence or the integrity to say so publicly.

At the same time, on the left, Clarke, who also opposed ID cards, would have made the totemic commitment to tax and spending cuts. Further, he would not have made the risky commitment to sharing the proceeds of growth that enables Brown to portray the Tories as cutters of investment in hospitals and schools. And it is unlikely that the former chancellor would have allowed the Tories to be as exposed as they now are by the international financial crisis.

ILLUSTRATION BY DAN MURRELL

***

This week, with Labour more united than it has been for nearly a year, there are the first signs of panic and discord inside Conservative Central Office, as well as a return to what Mandelson calls “Tory dirty tricks”. The most obvious dirty trick was the leaking to the Sunday Times that Mandelson had criticised Brown over dinner in Corfu. This is not true.

The second, less noticed, dirty trick concerns the role of Michael Ashcroft, who is back in Central Office as deputy chairman. On 29 September, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary, Cameron’s Money Men, one of the revelations of which was that Ashcroft was using Bearwood Corporate Services, a subsidiary of one of his companies in Belize, as a conduit through which to funnel funds into the Tory party in an apparent violation of the spirit, if not the essence, of electoral law. Sir Alistair Graham, the former standards committee chair, told the programme that the almost £3m donation should be investigated by the Electoral Commission and returned by the Conservatives.

In the process of making the film, Dartmouth, the production company, had a researcher donate money (two instalments of £167) to the Conservatives. Central Office found out about this and leaked the story about the researcher to the papers to distract from the larger issue of Ashcroft. Iain Dale, the influential but partisan Tory blogger, wrote about the researcher earlier this month, and the Mail on Sunday followed up, tracking down the researcher to her home. Labour sources blame Cameron’s press office for what happened and for the persecution of the researcher. “How did the papers get hold of her address and a private letter written by her to the treasurer of the Tory party?” asks one Labour figure. “Do the Tories, and David Cameron personally, who is quoted in the piece attacking Channel 4, feel comfortable with aiding photographers using long lenses to secretly photograph a 24-year-old woman who hasn’t broken any law outside her private home address?”

Channel 4 sources asked, too, why Central Office is so exercised about a £300 donation via a third party, but is failing to investigate the alleged £3m donation via a third party which they received from their own deputy chairman, on whose residency and tax status Cameron continues to remain silent.

***

Early in Cameron’s leadership, there was a fascinating moment during a little-watched interview on Sky News during which, unusually, he was asked questions “from the left” as opposed to “from the right”, a process rarely, if ever, repeated since.

The interviewer quoted the new leader as saying that he wakes up every morning and asks himself: “How can I change the Conservative Party today?” So how would he change the party, he was asked. It was a question Tony Blair would have relished. But Cameron faltered and – showing one of those occasional flashes of rage – sought to terminate the interview.

Cameron, who does not suffer from a lack of self-confidence, would do well to remember that there are those who oppose him in the Conservative Party and who are not convinced by his inconsistent and often opportunistic leadership. On the left, Clarke remains the true hero. On the right, Davis lurks dangerously on the back benches, as he did when he was an effective public accounts committee chairman under William Hague.

The role of Boris Johnson should not be forgotten, nor should his carefully planned denunciation as “piffle” the Tory leader’s claim that Britain is a “broken society”. Johnson’s unilateral sacking of Sir Ian Blair as Metropolitan Police Commissioner, his rallying call at the party conference against Labour for seeking to “punish the capitalists and to bring in new regulations to fetter the banks”, are further indication of his ambition and a reminder that his position as Mayor of London makes him the most powerful Conservative in the country. In the autumn last year, as Gordon Brown led by 10 per cent in the polls, the former Conservative Party chairman Michael Ancram was among those publicly to criticise the Cameron leadership. He broke cover with an “alternative manifesto”, espousing a return to traditional, hard-right Tory values. Cameron suddenly looked vulnerable. But Brown was undermined by equivocation over when to call an election, the 10p tax fiasco and a series of blunders – not all of which were his fault. Cameron, so jittery for a period, recovered his composure, aided by a media-friendly conference performance.

But as Mandelson said last week: “What goes down can come up”; and whatever they say in public, shadow cabinet members accept that the return of Mandelson, as well as Alastair Campbell, is a cause for anxiety in the Tory ranks. “The Tory revolution has taken a puncture. It is by no means wrecked but there is certainly more of a contest than there was a month ago,” says Peter Hitchens of the Mail on Sunday.

The battle lines are now drawn between the experience of Brown and other senior ministers, and a callow Conservative leadership that has won over the media but not changed the party as extensively, or fundamentally, as it would like many of us to believe. Ultimately, the electorate will decide. But in aweek in which George Howarth has called for an end to hostilities within the Labour Party, senior Conservatives from both the right and left in the party are beginning to accept that, far from being won, what will be an especially hard-fought general election campaign has not yet even begun.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks

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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