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The great ebola scare

It is being called the most severe health emergency of modern times. But are the fears of mass contagion in the west overblown?

It is, according to the World Health Organisation director general, Margaret Chan, the “most severe acute health emergency in modern times”, one that is “threatening the very survival of societies and governments in already very poor countries”. Almost 4,500 people have been killed by the ebola outbreak in West Africa. Although most of the deaths have occurred in just three countries – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – where infection rates are still rising exponentially, western governments are preparing themselves for the arrival of the virus on their shores. The US and Spain have confirmed cases, and in the UK Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, expects ebola to be putting the National Health Service to the test by Christmas.

Amid the rising panic, a few calm voices are struggling to be heard. Sarah Wollaston, who chairs the House of Commons health select committee, has said that she expects the UK to get five cases in total, at the rate of roughly one a month. The NHS, she says, is perfectly ready and able to cope. Seth Berkley, chief executive of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, concurs: ebola is not a disease you have to fear when living in a wealthy country. “The likelihood of this causing a major epidemic in Europe or the US is very, very low,” he says.

The rapid transmission in West Africa is largely a result of broken civil structures and health-care systems. Sierra Leone and Liberia are recovering from decades of conflict that also sucked in neighbouring Guinea. The consequences are a dearth of medical resources and a mistrust of government: a perfect storm that leads the population to pay scant attention to advice from the state. Diagnosis of the disease has been slow and in some areas people have insisted on following local traditions, rather than best practice, when caring for – and disposing of – ebola-stricken relatives. This is what has cleared a path for the virus through the population of these countries. In the west, with highly responsive and respected health-care systems and no tradition of physical contact with the sick or dead, there should be little worry. The boring flu virus is more likely to get us, and yet we have let ebola, a somewhat self-defeating virus, become a major concern. It might be said that we are suffering from Ebola Panic Disorder.

Ebola is not an especially dangerous pathogen. It was first identified in 1976 but because it did not seem much of a threat a vaccine was never developed. Periodic outbreaks were fairly easily contained. A few hundred people died in Africa but no money or urgency was given to finding a cure. The US military paid ebola a bit of attention at first, in case it could be weaponised. That interest soon waned, however: bioterrorists would find it almost useless. It coexists happily with certain animal hosts – the current outbreak originated in fruit bats – but is so deadly to us that the virus is normally stopped in its tracks.

“It’s not airborne, and it kills its victims too quickly for them to pass it on efficiently: it just doesn’t spread fast enough,” says Melissa Leach, director of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.

The virus is carried in body fluids and enters through cuts in the skin or through mucous membranes. Infection can occur through sexual intercourse, ingestion of breast milk and through physical contact if protective measures are not taken. Once ebola takes hold, it disables its host’s immune system. Survival depends on certain factors. One is simply the strain of the virus (some are deadlier than others). Another is early and copious use of rehydration solution, replacing the fluids that the disease will cause to leak from the body. In some cases, a transfusion of plasma from a recovered victim has also assisted recovery.

 

The first signs of infection are fever and malaise; a few days later come diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Despite the frenzied reporting, bleeding from the eyes is not that common. However, the ebola virus halts the mechanism that clots blood, and gastrointestinal bleeding is a common symptom. Eventually, the mucous membranes (including those in the eyes) and any cuts or other wounds may ooze blood continuously. If you are going to die of the disease, you will usually know by about day six after the first symptoms show – the point at which most surviving patients’ condition has improved. The last stages of the disease are painful and horrific. The average time to death in West Africa, mostly through septic shock and multiple organ failure, has been just over a week.

It is what happens next that presents the greatest problem. Traditional funerals in the affected countries often require relatives to wash the corpse, in some cases multiple times over a few days. This provides an opportunity for the virus in the dead person’s leaking body fluids to make the leap into a new host. Disposing of the body while following strict protocols – using disinfectant while wearing full-cover protective clothing – cuts the risk of transmission to near zero.

This has been proven time and again in previous ebola outbreaks. The protective protocols are so straightforward, in fact, that rural communities in parts of Africa have been successfully implementing them for decades without outside help. Some of the flare-ups in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been staunched rapidly without ever coming to prominence in the western media. Two other West African countries have had cases in the recent outbreak, but contained them by implementing stringent public health measures. In Nigeria, which has a population of 170 million and where roughly 15 million live in Lagos alone, eight people have died (of 20 confirmed cases) and there are now no residual infections. In Senegal, just one person has died.

So while we should be doing all we can to help West African countries deal with the disease, there is little reason for us to panic in the west – especially as a vaccine is in development. Two vaccine candidates have proved promising in animal trials, and human safety tests run by the University of Oxford began last month. If the vaccines perform as well as expected, and mass-production techniques are developed in time, 2015 might bring a huge effort to eradicate susceptibility to animal-borne ebola.

Seen in this light, both the tragedy playing out in West Africa and the panic besetting the developed world are actually a result of ebola’s lack of virulence. As Berkley points out, a vaccine is finally being developed, not because of the disease ravaging Africa, but because of a sudden realisation that, as a result of poor decision-making early in the current outbreak, the disease is not necessarily going to stay in Africa this time. “It’s more about fear of the disease taking hold in the west than it is about the disease in the south,” he says.

 

The threat has arisen because no one in charge realised that it would be so tough to implement even straightforward protection protocols in the broken health-care systems of Liberia and Sierra Leone in particular. The index case (that is, the first one) in the present outbreak was reported in December last year and attracted no response. “Then, very late, the international community started to get interested,” Melissa Leach says. “And the focus was on how we contain and control this.”

Leach sits on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which informs the government about risks and recommends strategies. The discourse has at last evolved, she says: the decision to scale up aid was well motivated, and the entire discussion about how we help stop the disease killing people in West Africa, rather than how to prevent it coming here. Nonetheless, motivating politicians to do the right thing did require some discourse about the threat to the UK, channelled through the media. And that’s when the silliness started.

There is a stark contrast between the calm, low-profile checks on NHS preparedness for ebola and the pointless but highly visible implementation of screening programmes at UK airports. The latter is only to allay public fears; it is close to impossible to spot ebola-carrying travellers. Yet in some senses the panic is predictably human, according to Wandi Bruine de Bruin, professor of behavioural decision-making at Leeds University Business School. One reason we are failing to assess the risk sensibly, she says, is that we hear stories of things such as people bleeding from their eyes; it is an upsetting mental image, and one that hampers our cognitive processing. “People use the emotions they feel about an event as a ‘mental short cut’ for assessing risk,” she says. “Horrific images of ebola are likely to evoke strong negative emotions, potentially leading to higher perceptions of risk.”

Another issue highlighted by de Bruin’s research is the human need for control. The two biggest threats in the developed world are stroke and heart disease. The problem is, stroke, heart disease – and cancer – are slow and steady killers. These are familiar, comfortable threats; it doesn’t feel as if they’re out of control. Ebola is different.

No matter how few deaths have occurred compared to other diseases, or what the likelihood of coming into contact with an ebola-infected person might be, if many people are being afflicted at once, in an unfamiliar environment, with a disease that evokes horror and has no cure – that is a frightening scenario, and our control-hungry minds are disturbed by it.

It’s easy to see this playing out in the US and Europe but it is also at work in West Africa, says Heidi Larson, an anthropologist who researches interactions with health-care systems at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “They are freaked out,” she says. “Look at the levels of panic and anxiety after one case in a western country: imagine how the people of West Africa feel.” It is almost certainly a desperate desire for control that is keeping people away from health centres, she argues. “Who would want to go to a hospital if you didn’t have to right now?” The same desire compels people to maintain customary burial practices, keeping infection rates high.

 

One consequence is that it’s not just ebola that is running rampant in West Africa. Now that the hospitals are no longer seen as places where you take control of a disease, malaria, pregnancy complications, pneumonia and dysentery will kill even more people than usual. Not that there would be resources to deal with these afflictions even if people did present themselves at clinics and hospitals. Health-care workers are consumed, sometimes literally, by ebola: there is no slack in the system.

Those who do seek care when ebola symptoms manifest are thrust into an environment that creates even more fear and loss of control. Generally in the west, we have little contact with the sick; we leave them in the care of professionals. In many West African hospitals, doctors and nurses are for diagnosis and treatment; everything else is the family’s responsibility. If your child or your partner is hospitalised, you take them food, give them fluids, wash them and meet all their basic needs. You touch them, hold their hand, reassure them it’s going to be all right. But not with ebola.

“They see a family member getting sick; they’re not supposed to touch them; they’re told that they are to be taken away to a place where they can’t be accessed, and that they may never see them again,” Larson says. The prospect is too much for many to cope with; hence the suspicion that Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are harbouring many unreported cases. “The panicked relatives are the real risk.”

These fears can be allayed. Health-care workers in previous outbreaks in the DRC became so concerned by the disengagement of families that they changed disposal routines. Bodies would be disinfected and bagged in front of relatives, who were given protective clothing. The bagged corpse was physically handed to the family, and family members put it into a grave. These rituals, performed 30 times a day at the peak of one outbreak, seemed at first to be a waste of precious resources. However, in the longer term, increasing relatives’ engagement with the health-care system helped stem the tide of new infections.

Implementing such measures requires trust in the authorities and donor agencies – a rare currency in West Africa now. Many developing countries have lost confidence in western programmes, says Didier Raoult, a disease researcher at Aix-Marseilles University. Several high-profile failures are to blame, he notes. In what he calls the “Haiti mess”, international aid workers imported cholera into the country following the 2010 earthquake and killed more than twice as many people as have died in the present ebola outbreak.

The CIA’s covert use of a vaccination programme in Pakistan to try to identify Osama Bin Laden’s children was, in effect, a subversion of essential aid programmes to protect a few westerners from the possibility of death in terror attacks. “That undermined our credibility,” Raoult says. It led to a long-standing boycott of vaccination drives and attacks on health workers, causing enormous setbacks to the effort to eradicate diseases such as polio.

Mistrust is also a problem in the UK, where the panicked reaction to ebola can be correlated with the public mood. Unpopular political leaders and a loss of confidence in the NHS are potent stimulants to overreaction. “People underestimate the amount that underlying political or social issues affect the public’s reaction to an event,” Larson says. “Think about the MMR [jab] scare. The panic around that was because it came hot on the heels of the poorly managed and frightening BSE saga.” The result was a severely reduced uptake of vaccines and an ensuing series of measles outbreaks. The west’s reaction to ebola, given our current economic and political gloom, will be similarly exaggerated, she suggests.

It is vital that we stem the panic, otherwise our reaction will be short-sighted and short-lived. During an outbreak of plague in India a few years ago, health-care workers went to the world’s premier plague labs for help and found none; the researchers had retired and hadn’t been replaced. “There was no capability almost anywhere to work on this disease,” Berkley says. “Because we don’t see these diseases commonly, we get hysterical, and then when it’s over we tend to move completely away from it.”

Stringent budget cuts at WHO and other agencies and a lack of political attention to global health challenges between outbreaks have exacerbated the crisis in West Africa, and heightened the wider panic, Berkley reckons. Contrast that with our preparedness for nuclear war. “The likelihood of that is pretty low but the UK has nuclear submarines going round the world, always available in case a nuclear attack occurs.

“Everybody accepts it’s OK to spend the money on armed forces and nuclear submarines, but when you say, ‘Let’s keep disease labs up to date, let’s keep a fast response team, let’s do the training necessary to prepare for an outbreak,’ people don’t respond. There’s no perspective.” 

Michael Brooks is the New Statesman’s science correspondent. His latest book is “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science By Surprise” (Profile, £12.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

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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