Until recently, having cultivated a lengthy white beard, Jon Lansman resembled a rather psychedelic Father Christmas. The now clean-shaven Momentum chair was, it transpires, in mourning.
“It was the death of my mother… I can’t remember whether it’s a Talmudic or biblical requirement [Lansman is Jewish]. I’m not religious, it’s a cultural thing, my dad did it for his parents, I think she would have liked it,” Lansman told me when we met recently for lunch at the Cellarium Café, a medieval undercroft adjacent to Westminster Abbey.
Lansman’s mother was originally a Conservative voter but defected to Labour after the Thatcher-era recession led to the closure of the family rag-trade business. His father, however, was a loyal Conservative councillor in Hackney and clashed amicably with his Bennite son. “We used to have lots of arguments. But he was a very One Nation Tory, very into public service.”
At 61, Lansman is more influential than at any other point in his long career. Momentum, the activist group he founded in 2015, has more than 40,000 members (making it larger than the Green Party) and Lansman was this year elected to Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee. But, he lamented: “Brexit is a very frustrating thing, it’s not what we want to be talking about. That has inevitably distracted us from other issues.”
Lansman, who campaigned for Remain in 2016, believes that an early general election is unlikely but that a second Brexit referendum “certainly has to be a possibility”. Early in his political career, in common with the Bennite left, he supported UK withdrawal from the European Economic Community. But he reversed his stance after Labour’s 1983 landslide election defeat.
“I was too young to vote in the 1975 referendum. I would have voted to stay in at the time but I was going through a kind of conversion to the [Bennite] Alternative Economic Strategy. I then came round to the view that withdrawal was preferable. But then in 1983, after we lost the election, I accepted that it was time to settle the issue and came round to staying in Europe.”
It was as co-ordinator for Tony Benn’s 1981 deputy leadership campaign that Lansman first came to prominence (Denis Healey falsely accused him of orchestrating the heckling of his speeches). Two of the causes that Benn championed until his death in 2014 – the Labour left and EU withdrawal – now define British politics.
Yet Lansman is far from certain that Benn would have backed Brexit. “There’s a lot about the Brexit case that he would have felt uncomfortable with; I think he would have been pretty positive about freedom of movement. He would not have wanted to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in any way, Corbyn was very much his protégé. I don’t think Tony would have been part of that small band of determined [Labour] Brexiteers who’ve voted with the Conservatives.”
For Lansman, 2018 was also marred by the scourge of anti-Semitism within Labour. “My sense is that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We have done the things that we need to do to get the disciplinary system working,” he said. “Education and training is the primary tool for dealing with this. I’d like to see the party being more proactive on social media, not just taking screenshots and disciplining people but actually challenging things that are being said.”
Momentum has achieved its initial aim of preserving the Corbyn project. But Lansman does not disguise far greater ambitions: “I still think we have to do a lot more to embed it in the party’s culture. We have to build a hegemony for the ideas and the approach of Corbynism. I don’t think we should be embarrassed by the Gramscian reference… We have to educate and train our supporters to develop the leaders of the future.”
Labour’s rules were recently changed to make the deselection of MPs easier and though Lansman emphasised that “the threat is not as real as suggested”, he warned: “I’m afraid some MPs are their own worst enemies… There are people who treat their members with contempt and that does not help.”
Lansman does not fear a Labour split (“I think I’m less worried than ever, things have settled down”) and relished the marooned state of Corbyn’s opponents. “The problem with the Blairites is that they haven’t yet accepted the reasons for their defeat and you’ve got to do that before you can develop a new programme. That’s true in the US as well.
“Tony Blair actually seems to have quietened down, it’s a shame in a way. Every time he used to speak against us, Momentum would get loads of new members and donations, the more, the better. During both of Jeremy’s leadership campaign every intervention he made won us many votes. I think he’s realised that.”
Is the left hindered, I asked, by the absence of any recent socialist model to emulate? “It was a great failing of social democracy in the second half of the 20th century,” Lansman replied. “The Soviet Union was such a bad model that it dispirited and weakened the resolve of people to defend the role of the state. I also think the West made enormous mistakes. We wouldn’t be facing the appalling gangsterism of Putin’s Russia if we had given more support to Gorbachev and not given in to the [liberal] triumphalism of the time.”
Another precedent that occupies the minds of the left is the overthrow in 1973 of Chilean president Salvador Allende’s socialist government. “I remember being with Tony Benn in 1981 and we had dinner with Madame Allende; Chris Mullin was still writing his book [A Very British Coup] and I talked to him about it – it was very real, that prospect [a coup]. Has it really gone away? I’m not sure, I think what’s happened in Brazil is a bit of an example… Just because you’re against conspiracy theories, doesn’t mean there aren’t people out to get you.”
Lansman has begun to speak openly about the possibility of retiring as Momentum’s head. But he is determined that, unlike New Labour, the Corbyn project will not be easily dismantled.
“Everyone needs succession plans. There’s nothing I want more than to be able to hand over to a new generation.” He restated his point more bluntly: “Our time horizon is to plan for when Jeremy and I are both dead. I take that responsibility very seriously.”
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special