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How the uncrowned king of Scotland lost his way

The Scottish National Party, under the clever leadership of Alex Salmond, is likely to retain power

"The only question ye have tae ask yersel', son, is this. Dae ye trust me?" Such was Alex Salmond's final, desperate overture in 2007, when he sought to cajole Robin Harper, the then co-convener of the Scottish Green Party, into propping up the nation's first nationalist administration. Now, for the second time, the Scottish National Party's supremo is bent on boiling an entire election battle for the Scottish Parliament down to the same basic question. The answer he looks likely to get from the electorate on 5 May is much the same as the one he got four years ago: "Aye, up to a point."

Salmond can't lean forward and wrap his tentacle-like arms around every single Scottish voter, pull their faces close to his and murmur, "Trust me" (all of which he did with the hapless Harper, according to a recent recounting of the episode in the Scottish Review magazine), but he has done the next best thing by putting the following slogan on the ballot papers: "SNP - Alex Salmond for First Minister". Not "SNP - Free Scotland", nor even "SNP - Stop the Cuts".

It appears to be working for him: a YouGov poll for Scotland on Sunday on 17 April put the Scottish Nationalist leader ahead as the voters' choice for first minister, with double the support (57 per cent) of his nearest rival. The SNP has opened up a decisive lead over Labour (40 per cent to Labour's 37 per cent) in the constituency vote, which determines 73 of the 129 members of the Scottish Parliament by conventional first-past-the-post. A further 56 MSPs are returned from eight regions (each of which chooses seven representatives under a form of mixed member proportional representation). The SNP is edging ahead on that front as well, with 35 per cent support to Labour's 33 per cent.

It was a sensational day in May 2007 when the Scottish Nationalists ended Labour's half-century of hegemony in Scotland and became the largest party in Holyrood, the Edinburgh assembly. Although they sneaked just a one-seat lead and were able to form only a minority government, the SNP had made the crucial leap from protest to power. If they notch up a second triumph, the Nats could start to look like the natural party of devolved government north of the border.

Salmond seems steadily to be attaining the status of a contemporary clan chieftain for the whole of Caledonia: he is the uncrowned king of Scotland. Even seasoned political commentators regularly sing "Hail to the Chief" (a Highland ditty before it became the US presidential march). No little feat in a nation long notorious for mean-spirited put-downs, such as "Him, ah kent his faither".

However, First Minister is a far cry from prime minister of an independent Scotland. Surveys suggest that Salmond - who was forced, ignominiously, to shelve his plans for a constitutional referendum last September when he could not muster a parliamentary majority - can convince barely a third of his compatriots to stage a breakaway from the rest of Britain. Many who are comfortable with him as First Minister would like to see him ditch what has been nicknamed his "deferendum". They certainly don't want the Scottish question to become the equivalent of what some Canadians branded the "neverendum" in Quebec.

Mindful of this, the SNP has made its 2011 Scottish election slogan - "Be part of better" - even more unscary than the one under which it fought last year's general election: "Elect a local champion". Yet, when I catch up with Salmond on the campaign trail in Glasgow, the former oil economist feigns offence when I suggest that what he is successfully peddling isn't so much Scottish nationalism as Salmondism. "I don't see how any sane person can consider the SNP to be a one-man band. It's an orchestra," he says, and proceeds to praise his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, and his finance minister, John Swinney.

Sturgeon's handling of the health service north of the border has been harmonious and she has grown in stature - sketchwriters would no longer dare dismiss her as a "nippy sweetie" - but it is hard to envisage her as a national emancipator.

While her chieftain and chief admirer was praising her, Sturgeon was slugging it out in less salubrious surroundings on the other side of the Clyde in Govanhill, a district known as "Scotland's murder capital". Labour is making a determined effort to unseat her from Glasgow Southside. A crackdown on knife crime is the manifesto commitment it is pushing in the tenements and tower blocks; the knives are out for Nicola.

Wounding the pride of Salmond's deputy - who would still get into the assembly through the regional candidate list - would be a small consolation for Labour if it can't oust the First Minister from office. With a far less charismatic leader, Iain Gray ("Gray by name, grey by nature"), Labour knows that it cannot beat Salmond in the TV studios, so it has taken its campaign to the doorsteps. Its declared aim is to canvass up to a million households and its Scottish standard-bearer is keen to be seen to be leading by example.

“Back at our Oban conference, I said that this is a doorstep election for us. We're gonna fight it face to face with the electorate," Gray tells me when we meet, sounding as though he might be squaring up to a bunch of knife-wielding neds in Govanhill rather than canvassing in Gilmerton, a neat, working-class neighbourhood in the suburbs of Edinburgh.

His campaign managers have sought to establish his macho credentials: the former charity worker has "walked in the killing fields" of Cambodia, voters were told. This only led to more mockery when Gray was ambushed by mildly aggressive anti-cuts campaigners outside Glasgow Central Station on 7 April and appeared, from the television pictures, to be running away from confrontation.

Over the rainbow

Gray is promising to introduce more apprenticeships than the SNP, but has refused to echo Salmond's pledge to protect every single public-sector job in Scotland (only the NHS will be ring-fenced, he says). In the past, it would have been the Scottish Socialist Party giving Gray a hard time for this, but the SSP has suffered the fate of most far-left groups, succumbing to fratricidal infighting.

After losing a long legal tussle with the tartanised edition of the News of the Screws, the party's shamed former leader Tommy Sheridan is now banged up in Barlinnie, where he has begun a three-year prison term for perjury. As a result, across most of urban Scotland - not least in the deprived "schemes", where the SSP used to be strongest until it self-immolated in 2007 - it is a straight fight between the SNP and Labour.

The complexity of what was once hailed as Scotland's "rainbow parliament" is about to be diminished further by the obliteration of the Scottish Liberal Democrats (who have sunk to 8 per cent in the polls). In the eyes of the Scottish electorate, the Lib Dems lied more flagrantly throughout last year's UK general election campaign than Oor Tommy ever did in the dock and have committed a far worse crime by collaborating with David Cameron's Conservatives - a hanging offence in both the Highlands and the Lowlands.

The Lib Dems used to be mini-monarchs of the glen - they reigned with Labour in the first two coalitions that bedded in devolution from 1999 to Salmond's victory in 2007 - but Tavish Scott and his tribe now resemble terrified fawns, trembling as they await their fate on the blood-splattered heather. Their only continuing relevance is in who will pick up the lion's share of their carcasses: Labour or the Nats? The Lib Dems have been overtaken by the Tories, who can claim to have re-established themselves as the third force in Scottish politics, with 11 per cent support.

Expectations that George Galloway would add some colour to the proceedings were dashed at his campaign launch - and not just because the Dundonian was dressed from head to toe in black. Mr Smirk goes to Washington was more entertaining than Mr Galloway goes back to Glasgow. On his old stomping ground again in an effort to resurrect his parliamentary career - this time as an MSP rather than an MP - the founder of Respect showed scant respect for Scotland's fledgling legislature and engaged in lame satire, describing Salmond and Gray as the political equivalents of the Krankies (a Scottish comedy duo that several generations of voters would never have heard of).

Galloway was much more on the ball some time ago when he compared Salmond to Jim Baxter, the legendary Rangers midfielder who restored to Scotland a sense of national pride when he tormented England's World Cup-winning side in a match at Wembley. Salmond, who has brought a similar flourish and mischievous flamboyance to the role of First Minister, does not conceal his satisfaction with the analogy. "For most Scots of my generation, one of our most pleasant memories was watching the 1967 game at Wembley. So, obviously, I think Jim Baxter was a God," he enthuses.

The smile slips from his face, however, when I suggest that Baxter's wizardry at Wembley may have been wonderful to watch, but it wasn't important. "Slim Jim" (who became almost as beefy as Salmond after he hung up his playing boots) performed his tricks for the tartan army not in the World Cup, but in a mere home championship match, about which the Scots always were far more excited than the English. "I didn't say it was important," Salmond retorts. "I said it was enjoyable."

The same could be said of his stewardship of devolved Scotland - enjoyable for him, but not all that important in historical terms. He can play a blinder against his unionist opponents on the stump and during Holyrood debates, but it does not alter significantly the status or governance of his native land. In hard macroeconomic and geopolitical terms, Scotland remains what it has been for the past three centuries - a stateless nation. The powers of the Scottish Parliament are puny compared to those of any Canadian province. Quebec has much more sovereignty than Scotland, particularly in areas such as taxation, energy and immigration.

This isn't to say that devolution doesn't make any difference. Salmond's minority government has frozen council taxes north of the border and it scrapped prescription charges on the day that the NHS brought in bigger charges in England. While their English counterparts have been rioting, Scottish students have been spared tuition fees. How all of this - plus every existing public-sector post - can be sustained amid the Con-Dem cuts is a question the SNP is being allowed to jig around.

Tom Gallagher, a Glasgow-born professor of peace and ethnic conflict studies at the University of Bradford, has argued that the SNP's economic policies are less shallow populism than sly attempts to cause strains in Anglo-Scottish relations. "Salmond talks about his warm affection for England but he is on an endless search for new ways to needle its citizens," Gallagher tells me over Sunday brunch at a café in Edinburgh.

As the author of a ferocious critique of the current First Minister, entitled The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism, Gallagher fears further attempts to rile the English if the SNP is returned with an increased mandate on 5 May. "Salmond seems to be banking on a voters' revolt in England, resulting in a slashing of Scotland's block grant and eventual divorce proceedings."

Others would consider that alarmist. As the constitutional historian Peter Hennessy has observed: "Scotland [continues to] be to the UK what Quebec is to Canada and the UK is to the European Union, the awkward one spewing out a constant drizzle of complaint but never pushing it to the point of rupture."

Quebec has brought the Canadian confederation far closer to the brink of disintegration than Britain has ever been - not just once, but twice. A much closer parallel could, perhaps, be drawn between Caledonia and Catalonia. For 23 years, as premier of Spain's richest region, Jordi Pujol reigned in Barcelona and goaded governments in Madrid. Catalonia, however, is still part of Spain.

Salmond might be shaping up to become the Pujol of Scottish politics, slowly and steadily salami-slicing sovereignty from London, starting with fiscal autonomy, yet never quite persuading his compatriots to make the leap of faith to independence in Europe (whatever that means within an increasingly integrated EU). Just as Pujol claimed more than once that Catalonia was "passing through its worst moment in its relations with Madrid", so Salmond confidently proclaims (as he has done several times): "I believe we're at the nearest point that Scotland has been to independence for 300 years."

It's my party

The Scottish national movement is riding on the hinges of history, he contends. "What were previously seen as pillars of British identity have been crumbling for some time and will be further diminished by a Con-Dem administration that doesn't give a fig for Scottish opinion."

This latest chapter in Scotland's story looks as though it will be a lengthy one, however. The way Salmond tells it, the Scots and their southern neighbours are engaged in the longest of long goodbyes. He has "never believed in a [nationalist] Big Bang theory", contending that Scotland is engaged in "a process of independence", in the course of which it will "accrue extra powers for our parliament". Still only 56, Salmond can afford to play a longish game.

Not that he will be reclining in Bute House, the FM's official residence in the elegant Georgian New Town of Edinburgh, and patiently waiting for the Bullingdon boys to bring about the break-up of Britain. "It would be nice to believe we could all put our feet up and wait for David Cameron to propel Scotland to independence," he says, "but I think we might have to exert ourselves somewhat."

Fundamentalists in his own party fret that Salmond isn't exerting himself sufficiently in pursuit of the SNP's flagship policy. A few of the "fundis" might even have cheered when Jeremy Paxman mischievously suggested to Salmond - during a Newsnight interview after he had postponed his plans for a referendum - that Scotland's Nationalists might need a new Moses to lead them to their promised land.

The former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars wrote in the Scotsman of 13 April: "Only poor Iain Gray believes Alex Salmond is 'obsessed' by independence, oblivious of the fact that the 'I' word is on the back burner, shunted there, in the view of the leadership, by the superior tactic of gaining votes from all and sundry . . . in order to reclaim those seats at the ministerial desks."

Sillars's intervention was swiftly shot down as the moan of an embittered malcontent by the cyber-Nats who dominate that paper's online forum. They may find it harder to dismiss the reflections of the only intellectual to grace the SNP benches at Holyrood. Christopher Harvie, former professor of British and Irish studies at the University of Tübingen in Germany, considered himself hugely fortunate to scrape into the Scottish Parliament as a list MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife in 2007. He once extolled Salmond's virtues in any media outlet that would host him. However, as he departs from Holyrood, he cannot disguise his disillusionment with the nation's first nationalist administration.

Harvie has written a new final chapter for the new edition of his acclaimed history of 20th-century Scotland, No Gods and Precious Few Heroes. Although he still considers Salmond to be a canny strategist, he has tired of the "cold publicity material and naff slogans". He considers "low-carbon Scotland and independence stalled" and questions whether his one-time hero "can galvanise support for a new political as well as economic ecology".

He notes, too, that the nationalist club at the University of St Andrews (Salmond's alma mater) had only three members in 2010. "Had Holyrood 2007-2011 really been a Scots attempt at breakaway?" he writes. The gloomy epilogue to his book is entitled "Salmond's Parliament". And, after four years on the SNP back benches at Holyrood, Harvie has no doubt that it is all about Alex, after all.

Rob Brown was founding deputy editor of the Sunday Herald, Glasgow, and is a senior lecturer in journalism at the Independent College Dublin

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm

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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