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20 ways to save Labour

Figures including Germaine Greer, Richard Dawkins and John Pilger suggest policies to revive Labour

Joan Bakewell
What this country needs now is a major reform of the constitution. Labour should launch a debate with the greatest speed, canvassing opinion about reform of the House of Lords, Fixed term Parliaments, proportional representation, wage rates for MPs, MEPs and Lords; We need to have a sense of a new broom sweeping away abuses and anachronisms and addressing the fundamentals of how we are to be governed. Urgency is of the essence: without it people will assume that Parliament is drifting on much as before with a few local abuses put right. There is already a sense that the days of the unbridled free market are over; it makes a natural parallel to revise our constitution at the same time. There is indeed opportunity in all this: a commitment to new thinking and open mindedness would raise the public mood. Is it too much to hope?

Germaine Greer
The Labour Party has a single asset – Gordon Brown. Brown may be a difficult character, impatient, judgmental, insecure, and often angry, but he was an able Chancellor and he is respected by the international community. The expenses shambles was neither his fault nor his responsibility, and it came at a time when he had rather weightier matters on his mind, matters that he handled with admirable dispatch, decision and courage.

The people who cut and ran from his cabinet were some of the least impressive individuals ever to be involved in the government of this country. He is better off without them.

Paul Mason, Newsnight economics editor
It's not my job to give Labour advice - but their predicament reminds me of a classic systems design problem. Computer programmers often start as follows: draw a blank circle with an arrow coming out of it, pointing to a stick figure representing a human being. The circle is your organisation; the stick figure is your customer or end-user. Next ask yourself: what does the stick figure want? Now, think of everything you would put inside that circle to satisfy the stick figure. Treat your organisation as a blank sheet of paper. Only what delivers the outcome goes in the circle; everything that does not deliver is scrapped. What lies behind Labour's crisis is: it can't decide who the stick figure represents.

Alexei Sayle
One of the central problems with politics, particularly Socialist politics as they are currently constructed, is that on a day to day basis they are incredibly boring.

This is not an accident but is a process designed to ensure that only a particular type of individual, specifically those with borderline personality disorders centred around extreme issues to do with the control and manipulation of the behaviour of others are attracted to the business of government and activism. All those with a different view are automatically locked out of the process.

One way to counter this exclusionism is to have balloons and music at all Labour Party meetings and possible an all-you-can eat buffet offered at a nominal cost. I would suggest £3.50-£4.00.

John Pilger
One specific policy change for Labour? Withdraw immediately from Afghanistan and entirely from Iraq and stop supplying arms to Israel , and demand that the regime in Tel Aviv obeys international law and gets out of occupied Palestine. At the very least, this will protect the people of this country from further 7/7 attacks.

Richard Dawkins
Stop toadying to Muslims and other “faith communities”, as part of a general abolition of all religious privilege. Withdraw government support from faith schools that abuse children by teaching them they belong to a particular religion (as opposed to teaching them about religions and letting them make up their own minds when they are old enough). Abolish the automatic right of religious organizations to charitable status, and the automatic right of bishops to sit in the House of Lords.

George Monbiot
Abandon PFI.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty
Now that the Prime Minister has survived the crisis, he can shift his attention from fire-fighting to vision-building. Voters who’ve deserted the party need positive and inspiring reasons to return and the Government has less than a year to provide them.

There can be no clearer way to take the reins and show the electorate what a Brown premiership stands for than to roll back the excesses of the War on Terror. Now finally begin to walk the walk on human rights. So much dangerous and divisive legislation is still on the statute books – destroying lives and damaging Britain’s standing in the world. Terror suspects must be brought before the courts not left to go mad under “control orders” and indefinite house arrest. Secret commissions must be abolished and our justice system given back its integrity. Anti-terror surveillance and stop and search powers need re-drafting so that they are less ripe for use and abuse against innocent (and often black) people attempting to go about their lives.

Standing before the PLP and showing humility is one thing. But how much more powerful to stand like Obama in Cairo and draw a line under the Blair/Bush saga once and for all.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive, RSA
Labour needs to do three things to get back into contention and they have to happen in the right order. First, connect – unless the Prime Minister finds a way of being listened to it doesn’t matter what he says. Second, Labour needs to say something bold and brave enough to make its plan the story not its decline. The Government might, for example, unveil a credible and progressive plan for dealing with coming reductions in public expenditure; this is certainly not easy territory for the Conservatives. Third, Labour must then, and only then, try to define the choice at the next election. The electoral pendulum may swing one more time but only if Labour wins the right to be heard.

Robert Skidelsky, biographer of Keynes
The appointment of Andrew Adonis to the Cabinet is a huge gain. He is one of the few intellectual high flyers in the government, who has shown clear thinking and tenacity in his previous education job. As Transport Minister in the Cabinet he will have extra weight to push through his big plan for high speed rail links between London and the West Midlands and Scotland. Recession is a good time to accelerate big infrastructural projects of this kind. If he can get this dedicated high speed rail line quickly approved and started before the government leaves office, it will be a splendid legacy for its final year.

George Galloway, Respect MP
Labour should adopt a commitment to introduce proportional representation for a wholly elected parliament. This is in Labour's interest given the meltdown of their vote. It would wrong foot Cameron who has set his face against fair voting. Above all, it would enable the British people to elect the progressive majority which would then support the radical change of policies on a raft of issues the British people need. Without a solid commitment to a new constitutional settlement between government and parliament and parliament and people, bringing policies voters actually want and need, Labour cannot hope to revive its fortunes.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary, PCS
My union would like to see the government, in its last year, prioritise the poorest and most vulnerable people in society, not the rich and powerful.

Towards this end, rather than withholding benefits from the poorest in society and privatising basic functions of the welfare state, the welfare reform bill should be scrapped and more emphasis placed on closing tax loopholes. This would raise extra revenue to finance decent public services, including decent pay settlements.

Proportional representation should be introduced to show serious commitment to make every person’s vote count. It cannot be right that the votes of most people are hardly relevant apart from in marginal constituencies.

It is certainly not right that in a democratic society fascists can be employed by the state to administer public services to the very people they would choose to discriminate against and victimise. Therefore we believe that the BNP and other far right group members should be banned from working in public services.

In opposition the government promised to repeal the anti-trade union laws, which shackle our trade unions. The government should honour this pledge now.

These measures would go a small way towards redressing the balance in a society which is now deemed to be more unequal than at any time since the 1960’s.

Mary Riddell, columnist
On things to undo, scrap Trident and ID cards. On things to do, devise a more humane youth justice system. Of the 3000 or so children in custody in England and Wales, three-quarters of those released reoffend within a year. This Labour government is running apprenticeships in crime. Over-use of prison costs a fortune that the taxpayer can ill-afford, puts citizens at greater risk and ruins the lives of vulnerable young people. If the Brown government is to succeed, it needs a bolder and more human face, which means tackling the difficult issues rather than just focusing on populist causes.

Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government, Oxford University
To bring forward the legislation raising the educational participation age to 18,which comes into effect in 2015, so that it has immediate effect. This will not mean that all 16 year olds stay at at school. It will mean that 16 year olds can no longer be dumped unqualified on the labour market. This is a long overdue reform, first advocated by Churchill in 1907! Its introduction now would be a valuable investment, helping to resolve the problem of youth unemployment and reducing the number of young, alienated and unemployed youths who may be tempted to vote BNP'.

Sigrid Rausing, publisher
There is one particular strength about the state of melt-down, and that is that it doesn’t matter any more how people see you. You can finally disregard opinion polls, editorials, and focus groups, because whatever you do now you are so unlikely to win the next election. There’s a certain freedom about that. It means that you can finally shed what people have disliked about new Labour for so long; the tedious and back-stabbing PR machinery, and the incessant quest for populist policies. The latter has led to betrayals, and a degree of moral loss, not least the notion that asylum seekers are the curse of Britain, deserving of nothing better than prison and deportation. Government language and actions have undoubtedly legitimised xenophobia, and made all refugees suspects, whatever hideous situation of state persecution they escaped from. Now you can close the detention centres, end the asylum dispersal policy (let refugees choose where they want to live), and allow asylum seekers to work, so that they won’t have to endure the humiliation of having to survive on £35 of supermarket vouchers a week. And get rid of all the other dubious compromises, the fakey PR language, and the curtailments of the civil liberties of terror suspects. Start answering questions rather than avoiding them – people might actually like it, and it will, in any case, make for much more interesting news programmes, which has to be a good thing.

Lisa Harker and Carey Oppenheim, co-directors, Institute for Public
Policy Research
The worst thing Labour can do is focus on what is needed to win the next general election, although this of course is what self-preservation demands. Short-termism is dangerous because the disconnect between politics and the people cannot be fixed with a few policy changes over the coming months; a fundamental shift in the way we do politics is required.

Labour needs a compelling vision for our future as a nation. At its heart should be a new constitutional deal - one that addresses the unequal sharing of power in society and challenges the professionalization of politics. Labour could start with establishing a Citizen's Convention, tasked with reviewing the political system. It would be made up of 150-200 ordinary citizens, selected by lot, and would take evidence at "town hall" meetings around the country and recommend options for reform. These could be voted on by parliament or by the public in a referendum. Such a move may not be sufficient to win Labour a general election, but it would secure its position as a party willing to respond to the public's distrust of politics and bold enough to take action. Ultimately this is more likely to determine Labour’s future than any short-term fix.

Lisa Appignanesi, president, English PEN
During its years in office, Labour has – in the name of security or the purportedly ‘offended’ - whittled away at that freedom which underpins all others: the right to speak, write and protest freely. I would like to see a robust statement on free expression in a bill of rights and in the statute books. This would include the freedom to discuss, scrutinize, criticize, ridicule, and express antipathy.

We need to get rid of musty laws of seditious and criminal libel, which though long dormant here, are pointed to by authoritarian regimes abroad and used to prop up their silencing of dissent.

Our civil libel laws also urgently need reform and this needs to be incorporated in policy. We’ve ended up with a regime which effectively privatizes censorship, as the recent case brought by the British Chiropractic Association against the science writer Simon Singh shows.

Rich corporates and individuals, often of little enough reputation, regularly use our libel courts to protect that reputation. We have become the libel capital of the world. Our present law is weighted so heavily against writers, is so exorbitantly expensive, that even the sniff of a possible suit is enough to quash a book or article. The law discourages argument and investigation. It silences writers, academics, publishers, serious journalists and NGOs, even where public interest can be proved.

Policy promises please.

Peregrine Worsthorne, former editor
1.Integrate the great public schools into the state system with a remit to cultivate a new tradition of meritocratic public service. Something desperately needed in this leaderless land.

2.Cancel Trident and instead launch a new programme of international nuclear disarmament. During the Cold War not renewing Trident would have seemed a crazy idea. Today it is its renewal that seems quite mad.

Clive Stafford Smith
Rather than focus on one policy, Labour needs to recall and follow the party’s founding principles instead of constantly trying to identify and appease the views of the Daily Mail. Gordon Brown might begin by giving everyone in the party (himself included) a copy of his own book, Courage, left permanently open at page 113. On that page Martin Luther King provides the catechism that should guide any politician: “Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? And vanity comes along, and asks the question is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right?” Life is much simpler than most politicians would have us believe – if a particular policy takes us a step closer to our ideal society, we do it; if not, we reject it.

Martin Kettle, the Guardian
Labour urgently needs to widen the political agenda, to re-establish its lost reputation for modernity and change and to energise its working and middle-class base. One way to achieve all three would be to learn from the Germans and rediscover one of the great missed opportunities of the 20th century by reviving the issue of industrial democracy. Labour should dust off the Bullock report of 1977 and rediscover the idea of company codetermination along German lines through works councils in every medium-sized or large business.

The financial crisis has powerfully posed the question of how good businesses should be run. Labour remains hopelessly uncertain about the answer. Works councils, the central proposal in Bullock, would put flesh on the bone of the idea that all good post-recession businesses need to focus more on their stakeholders and less on their shareholders. Industrial democracy would be part of the middle way which post-credit crunch Labour needs to navigate between the Scylla of the Old Labour union-centred agenda and the Charybdis of New Labour's too often uncritical embrace of neo-liberalism. It could take British industrial policy beyond the them-and-us world in which too many unions still remain locked and give Labour's next generation of leaders a much clearer model of what a good business should look like.

Good businesses should continually reinvest in products and their employees, not just in management and shareholder rewards as in the past, to remain competitive. So in its manifesto Labour should propose elected works councils in all businesses employing more than 500 people. It should make clear that it intends the works council and employee representation to be independent of existing union recognition arrangements, if any, and to apply in all businesses irrespective of union recognition. The fact that proposals of this kind would come extremely naturally from the mouth of Alan Johnson is a further happy coincidence for a party that wishes to turn a new page..

Neal Lawson, Chair of Compass
Interviewed after her third election victory in 1987 Mrs Thatcher was asked wasn’t it only fair that Labour had a turn next. Never she exclaimed. Then they would introduce proportional representation and the Tories would never govern again. If only. But the case for PR is not just that it stop the Tories but it transforms politics into a full and open debate about competing visions of the good society. All of a sudden every vote counts so every voice is heard. The interests of the poor and those who know our life styles can’t be in conflict with our planet are no longer drowned out by a few swing voters and two reactionary media moguls. By introducing PR politicians show they trust the people and bust open the myth that first past the post politics delivers strong government. Politics and meaningful change come from winning the battle of ideas – not pretending that 30% of the vote is a mandate to reform anything. The steam age of politics by command and control are over – we need an electoral system for the wonderfully complex, diverse and less deferential world in which we live.

Richard Gott
The anniversary of D Day is a useful reminder that Britain and Europe have been occupied by the United States ever since 1944. Their troops and military bases have never left, ensuring that Britain can never escape from the American empire. A new project for the Labour Party would be to abandon the American alliance, to leave Nato, to withdraw British soldiers from Afghanistan, to send US troops home from their British bases, and to establish a fresh foreign policy free from American entanglements. No other policy would be such a sure-fire vote-winner from across the political spectrum.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Unless something quite extraordinary happens -- and that does not mean the replacement of Gordon Brown by Alan Johnson -- Labour are going to be very heavily defeated at the next election. What's more, and from any perspective other than that of abject "loyalists" or apparatchiks, they deserve to be. For what's left of Labour the best thing would be to start right now examining the failures of the past 12 years, and to see whether an honourable radical party can be constructed out of the rubble.

Jo Glanville,Editor, Index on Censorship
Part of the mess New Labour now finds itself in is down to its half-hearted commitment to open government. True, New Labour brought in the Freedom of Information Act, which was a milestone. But it then restricted the Act with so many exemptions while obstructing the more awkward inquiries (from the Iraq war to expenses) that it is only down to the most dogged campaigning (and ultimately a good old-fashioned leak to the press) that the more sensitive information has made it into the public domain. So I would like to see a solid commitment to transparency and accountability – not least by beginning the inquiry into the Iraq war – and holding it in public. David Miliband is at this moment attempting to stop information on British intelligence’s complicity in the torture of Binyam Mohamed (the former Guantanamo detainee) from coming into the public domain. If he were to drop his current request for a gagging order, it would win confidence and respect.

Jude Kelly,Artistic Director, Southbank Centre
I would like Labour to Google the ‘All Our Futures Report’, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year – widely recognised at the time as both highly influential and controversial – and embrace its central principle of putting creativity at the heart of education, alongside the 3 Rs. This is not about the arts as a discipline, but about teaching the creative process and stimulating creative intelligence across every discipline – which is essential if we are going to excel in this post-industrial era. In making that commitment, Government would inevitably return to the idea that children and young people should be at the centre of everyone’s story.

David Goodhart
Gordon Brown has two huge drawbacks as a prime minister - he is no good with people close up (his colleagues) and he is no good with people at a distance (the voters). If we are stuck with him for another year we have to hope that he can indeed "do better" on the former but on the latter he should just give up and hand over almost all communication to Peter Mandelson and Alan Johnson; he should announce the date of the election (in April or May next year) and his programme of work and then retire to become the eminence grise of his own government, chairing the cabinet, meeting important people, ploughing through policy options and generally staying out of sight. On policy, some sort of constitutional reform bill is probably unavoidable - it should focus on sorting out expenses, strengthening parliament by cutting the number of ministers drawn from the House of Commons to 50 (further ministers "of all the talents" could still be drawn from outside), and laying down a referendum on the Alternative Vote system to be held at the time of the next election. Otherwise everything he does should emphasise the solid and the long-term and economic renewal - which means infrastructure, physical and social, and intelligent support for manufacturing industry as the financial sector shrinks. On physical infrastructure the two priorities are nuclear power and high speed rail links - both agreed in principle. On social infrastructure he should announce six months compulsory civic service for all 16 to 25 year olds to combat both social fragmentation and youth unemployment, plus a guarantee of at least a full time minimum wage job income for any parent who wants to stay at home with a child for the first three years of his/her life. Finally, one big symbolic thing that would change Britain for ever - move the political capital out of London, the political class might find it easier to turn over a new leaf in a new location. Start with the new supreme court, then the new House of Lords and finally the House of Commons and the monarch. Where? With the new high speed rail links it doesn't really matter. But how about Doncaster?

Peter Tatchell
Voting reform, using the Scottish Parliament election system. It would make every vote count and ensure a more representative House of Commons and government. This would boost public confidence in politics. Because the British public is mostly left-of-centre, it would keep the Tories out of power, and give Labour a semi-permanent place in government. Labour would, of course, have to rule in coalition with the Lib Dems and Greens, but this is preferable to Conservative rule. Moreover, since the Greens and Lib Dems are more left-wing than Labour, they would have a progressive, radicalising influence on a Labour-led coalition government.

Interviews by Sophie Elmhirst and George Eaton

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

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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