LONDON — Perhaps no individual has a greater claim to helping to elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader of Britain’s Labour party in 2015 than Jon Lansman.
A veteran hard-left activist, Lansman ran a campaign that stunned the political establishment by defeating a clutch of former cabinet ministers and catapulting an aging rebel to the post of leader of the opposition.
This month, Lansman is expected to win a place on Labour’s governing body, the National Executive Committee (NEC). It is the latest in a series of moves that has made the staunch Corbyn ally one of the party’s key power-brokers.
Feared and reviled in equal measure by moderate Labour MPs, Lansman now chairs Momentum, the Corbynite pressure group that he established in the immediate aftermath of the leadership election.
The group — which boasts a network of over 31,000 members, 200,000 supporters and 170 local groups — acts as Corbyn’s praetorian guard. When Labour MPs attempted to oust their leader in the summer of 2016, Momentum mobilized its grassroots activists to ensure his reelection.
It may also have helped save Corbyn a second time last summer. After Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap general election in June, Momentum swung into action behind the Labour leader.
It helped organize huge public rallies which fed the surprise outbreak of “Corbynmania” during the campaign’s closing weeks, developed an app which directed its huge army of supporters to knock on voters’ doors in marginal seats, and its social media campaign was widely attributed with boosting Labour’s backing among young voters.
The group claims that one-third of UK Facebook users viewed one of its videos during the campaign, and that over 400,000 mostly young people received election day WhatsApp messages from it reminding them to vote.
“If the Labour and Conservative parties are the giant corporations of British politics, Momentum is a sparky start-up, free to take risks that mainstream political machines cannot afford,” write journalists Tim Ross and Tom McTague in their new account of last year’s election, “Betting the House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.”
Instead of a widely expected Labour rout, which would almost certainly have forced its leader’s resignation, the Tories were stripped of their parliamentary majority. Corbyn’s position now appears unassailable.
And throughout all of this, Lansman has worked stealthily to reshape Labour in its leader’s image.
Given Corbyn’s deep hostility towards Israel and the allegations of anti-Semitism which have dogged the party on his watch, it is ironic that Lansman’s own politics were shaped by a teenage visit to Israel.
The Momentum chair — who attended a private school and grew up in a “typical Orthodox family” in north London — was just 16 when he traveled to the Jewish State shortly after the Yom Kippur war to visit an aunt who had emigrated there.
“I worked on a kibbutz in the Negev and my aunt lived in Beersheva. It was actually a very politicizing experience,” he told the Jewish Chronicle in 2016.
“When I did my bar mitzvah I saw myself as a Zionist and I think after I went there I felt it less. I was more interested in the kibbutz — and what I liked about it was the pioneering spirit, the sense of community and radicalism of it,” Lansman said.
Returning to London, Lansman joined the Labour party. His unimpressed father became a Conservative councilman in Hackney.
That youthful radicalism has never deserted Lansman. He cut his political teeth during the battles which ripped Labour apart in the early 1980s as the hard Left attempted to wrest control of the party from its moderate wing. In 1981, the 24 year old was at the center of the bitter fight for the post of deputy leader, which pitted the right-wing former chancellor of the exchequer, Denis Healey, against the hero of the insurgent left, Tony Benn.
Despite Benn’s narrow defeat, Lansman earned a well-deserved reputation as a highly capable tactician who, as David Kogan and Maurice Kogan put it in “The Battle for the Labour Party,” their later account, “does the solid donkey work.”
The death of his wife from cancer led Lansman to drop out of politics in the 1990s in order to bring up the couple’s three children.
He returned shortly after Labour’s 13-year spell in government came to an end with the party’s defeat in the 2010 general election. Marginalized and shut out of decision-making, the Blair-Brown years had been lean ones for the hard Left.
Lansman’s decision to launch the Left Futures website brought it into the digital age and provided its notoriously fractious elements with a clear editorial line. Perhaps more important, though, was the psychological impact. Lansman’s new project — strident, unapologetic and aggressive in its attacks on so-called Blairites — gave the hard Left a much-needed confidence boost.
But it was another five years before Lansman was able to test out the skills he had honed in the early 1980s. In the aftermath of Ed Miliband’s resignation as leader following Labour’s second consecutive general election defeat, Lansman provided the energy, tactics and dogged determination which broke the established political rules and led to Corbyn’s landslide victory.
As head of the “Jeremy Corbyn for leader” campaign, he proved himself to be, as one senior Labour figure puts it, “the left’s most effective organizer.” Like others interviewed for this piece, he agreed to speak freely only on condition of anonymity.
In Corbyn’s world, Lansman occupies perhaps a unique position. His relationship with the Labour leader stretches back nearly four decades: the pair met while Lansman was a student and Corbyn was a local councilman and election agent in north London.
Lansman’s status is that of authorized outrider. He is both an insider — he has direct access to the Labour leader, his chief lieutenant shadow chancellor John McDonnell, and the country’s most important trade union leader, Len McCluskey — and yet has an independent power base as head of Momentum.
Lansman’s decision to run for a place on the NEC — an election in which all Labour members have a vote — is revealing in several ways. He is perhaps one of the few people in Westminster who would probably much rather have a seat on Labour’s governing body than one in parliament (despite media speculation, few think Lansman has any interest in becoming an MP).
But Lansman’s run for the NEC also signals a weakness on the hard Left. Its current supporters on the body may be capable of following a line, but not of responding nimbly to the sometimes last-minute agenda items presented by party staff and rapidly shifting developments which occur during the meeting themselves.
“They’ve decided to put the person who calls the shots in the room,” says one insider. “They currently don’t have someone who can actually lead the [hard Left] caucus.”
The key battle within the party this year will be over proposals backed by Lansman to enhance the power of Labour’s members at the expense of its MPs. One change will make it easier for constituency Labour parties to ditch incumbent MPs. The other will allow them to nominate candidates in future leadership elections (at present that ability rests solely with MPs, which meant that Corbyn only narrowly got on the ballot paper in 2015).
The Momentum chair presents such ideas as a simple matter of fairness. They allow members of the party — the people “who finance it, who achieve the victories or play a large part in achieving the victories” — to have a greater say in choosing candidates and picking policies.
But critics fear that the hard left wants to turn MPs from representatives of the voters who elect them to mere mouthpieces of activist-dominated local parties. The fact that Lansman has been a dogged supporter of mandatory reselection — long the hard Left’s holy grail — worries many parliamentarians. It would allow left-wing party members to more easily deny centrist MPs re-nomination as the Labour candidate in the run-up to a general election.
In November, it was revealed that Momentum is demanding aspiring parliamentary candidate sign contracts that commit them to the “political objectives” set out in the organization’s constitution in order to win its support.
Dubbed a “loyalty test” by Momentum’s opponents, the 13-point contract pledges signatories to “work to ensure the Labour manifesto [subject to future policy development] is fully implemented once Labour are in government,” as well as requiring a commitment to “revitalize the Labour party by building on the values, energy and enthusiasm of the Jeremy for Leader campaign.”
Many Labour MPs were appalled by the move. As Mike Gapes, the member of parliament for Ilford South, put it succinctly: “I joined the Labour party. I did not sign up to a Trotskyist party or a Stalinist cult.”
The news of the proposed Momentum contract has been coupled with an attempted purge of moderate Labour council members ahead of this year’s local government elections. In London, the effort has been especially fierce. In the north London borough of Haringey, Momentum activists have succeeded in unseating more than a dozen sitting Labour council members who, in the words of one, do not “fit a flat-pack ideological mold.”
Observers liken the organization’s effort in Haringey to a mafia hit where a body is left hanging prominently from a bridge as a warning to others to toe the line.
Lansman, however, appears totally unrepentant. With Momentum under fire, he doubled-down and argued that the organization’s supporters had been treated unfairly when candidates were picked in other London boroughs. The process throughout the capital should be completely rerun, he suggested to widespread consternation.
Lansman’s call, says an opponent, is typical of the “mentality of victimhood and paranoia” which — despite its current ascendancy in the party — continues to afflict the hard Left.
But, argues the senior Labour figure, Lansman’s sense of urgency about driving through new reforms to consolidate the hard Left’s power is a reflection less of a victor’s hubris and more of a “highly rational” assessment of the flux which surrounds British politics. Lansman “sees through the Corbyn cult,” and is able to cut through the emotional attachment to the Labour leader which clouds the judgment of many of his supporters.
Barely six months ago, Corbyn was trailing May by double-digits in the polls and looked set to become one of Labour’s shortest-serving leaders. Lansman is determined to embed the hard Left’s gains and ensure that, if the political tide turns against Corbyn once again, any future successor will not be able to consign it to the margins as happened after Labour returned to the center ground in the mid-1980s.
If nothing else, Lansman has built a hefty insurance policy to guard against any future backlash against the hard Left within the party
Some suspect Momentum also represents the hard Left’s “Plan B” should it lose its hold on Labour. Unlike other factions within Labour, the organization has not only built a mass membership, it has also developed a brand and media profile which extends far beyond the party.
Its vast haul of data — in the 2015 leadership election, Corbyn’s campaign amassed the contact details of 2 million people which it harvested into 250,000 votes for its candidate — impresses supporters and opponents alike. Might this, the latter argue, represent the basis of a new, hard Left party if Labour falls back into the hands of its centrist enemies?
While such a party would be unlikely to break into double-digits in the popular vote, it would probably succeed in siphoning enough support from Labour to inflict severe damage. If nothing else, therefore, Lansman has built a hefty insurance policy to guard against any future backlash against the hard Left within the party.
Certainly, Lansman’s leadership of Momentum has won him few friends within the parliamentary Labour party. One MP suggested his views on Lansman were unprintable.
“He’s viewed with much suspicion, even by Corbynistas,” believes another.
MPs resent Momentum’s “attempts to control the party and dictate rules and policy, especially the threats around selection, mandatory reselection and signing pledges. They resent it not for fear of losing their seats but because it’s bullying, insidious, anti-democratic, [and] contrary to all that Labour stands for.”
But while many of Lansman’s opponents within the Labour party speak harshly of him, others adopt a warmer tone.
“He’s a real mensch,” says one, “very agreeable company,” adding that his “kindly and avuncular” manner accounts for the high regard in which many young Momentum activists hold their “organizational guru.”
Lansman has been careful to condemn the online abuse to which moderate Labour MPs are frequently subjected by Corbyn supporters. However, many continue to hold some in Momentum responsible for it.
In 2016, the former Labour chief whip reportedly wrote to Lansman and confronted Corbyn about abuse and intimidation allegedly directed at MPs by Momentum activists. Six months later, female Labour MPs – who have borne the brunt of some of the worst bullying – appealed to Corbyn to distance himself from Momentum. The Labour leader refused the request.
Unlike some on the hard Left, Lansman has been willing to admit that Labour has a problem with anti-Semitism. Questioned by the BBC in October, Lansman showed little patience for those leading Corbyn’s supporters, such as McCluskey and the film director Ken Loach, who have seemed to downplay the issue of anti-Semitism within the party.
“You have to be a Jew to actually experience anti-Semitism,” Lansman argued. “I have experienced anti-Semitism; my children, who are only half Jewish, have experienced it. I know there is a problem with anti-Semitism and it has to be dealt with.”
Lansman also backed a rule change proposed by the Jewish Labour Movement to crack down on anti-Semitism which was passed at this year’s Labour party conference. The Momentum chair is believed to have intervened personally with McCluskey to ensure his union — which controls an important bloc of the votes at the conference — also lined up behind the change.
I know there is a problem with anti-Semitism and it has to be dealt with
Even some critics concede that Lansman’s intentions are sincere, and note that some Momentum hardliners with whom Lansman has tussled have deployed classic anti-Semitic tropes about power and manipulation against him.
It was not the first time that Lansman has distanced himself from Corbyn’s other hard-Left allies on the issue. When the former London mayor Ken Livingstone was suspended by Labour in 2016 for suggesting that Hitler supported Zionism, Lansman delivered a swift rebuke: “A period of silence from Ken Livingstone is overdue, especially on anti-Semitism, racism and Zionism. It’s time he left politics altogether.”
Shortly afterwards, Lansman urged the left to stop using Zionism as a pejorative term.
“Most Jews in Britain don’t see it as an ideology, they see it as indicating support for the existence of Israel as a Jewish state,” he told the center-left New Statesman magazine. “Most British Jews… genuinely support two states, unlike the current government of Israel.”
“It’s wrong to talk about Zionism as a single ideology or a homogeneous group of people,” he added.
.@jonlansman tells Limmud his 5 point plan on Israel/Palestine: Acknowledge other narrative; End settlement expansion; Equal rights for all; End the occupation; Build inter-communal relations; oppose BDS but target settlement economy – mostly classic left Zionist positions
— Jeremy Newmark (@Jeremy_Newmark) December 26, 2017
Lansman’s position on the conflict — addressing Limmud, an international Jewish conference held in Birmingham last month, he called for an end to settlement expansion but voiced his opposition to BDS. In response, Jeremy Newmark, the chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, suggested that this reflects “classic left Zionist positions.”
Whatever happens to Corbyn, Lansman has achieved something potentially unique in modern British politics which may have long term effects. Through Momentum, he has succeeded in attracting thousands of young people into the previously small and closed world of the hard Left. It is a legacy which inspires his admirers and terrifies his enemies.
Writer Robert Philpot is the author of “The Honorary Jew: How Britain’s Jews Helped Shape Margaret Thatcher and Her Beliefs.” He is the former editor of an independent centrist Labour magazine, Progress, and is now a contributing editor to it. His articles have appeared in The Jewish Chronicle, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Commentary and History Today. He previously served as a special adviser in the Northern Ireland Office and Cabinet Office.