“The truth is that being on the NEC has been a very disappointing experience,” Jon Lansman tells me. This is the last week that Momentum’s co-founder and former chair, a central figure during the Corbyn era, will be a member of the national executive committee. Results of fresh elections to Labour’s ruling body, which will almost certainly see Keir Starmer increase his majority on the crucial governing body, are set to be unveiled on Friday. I am interviewing Lansman over Zoom as this seems an appropriate moment to reflect on his significant role in recent Labour history.
The Labour leadership under Jeremy Corbyn “chose to focus on a battle for bureaucratic control rather than the democratisation of the party that I was seeking”, Lansman says. “That was a very difficult situation to manage. I absolutely supported the transformative policies that Jeremy was standing for. But I also wanted to refashion the party in a way that made it fit for the 21st century, and I don’t think we’ve achieved that. I was pretty depressed by that.” Far from believing that he wielded power and influence as an NEC member, he thinks the party’s core committee has little say due to a “terrible governance deficit”. This is something that has also been raised by NEC members from the party’s right, though Lansman reckons that while Gurinder Singh Josan has been “consistent” on the issue “not necessarily everybody has been”.
“We were all expected to show loyalty to Jeremy, those of us who were elected supporting Jeremy, rather than influencing the direction of the party and overseeing the party’s administration, which is what our job was under the rules,” Lansman admits. This situation is not new, nor has it changed with the new leadership, he adds: “I’m afraid that under Keir – in spite of his commitment to end factionalism – it is just as factional in the way it operates.” He is “disappointed” – a word that crops up often in our conversation – that “voting, almost without exception, is along factional lines”. He reports, in an observation that will perhaps surprise some, that the least factional part of the NEC is found on disputes panels considering internal complaints.
Readers might be surprised to see the ex-head of Momentum talk about reducing factionalism in Labour. Does he feel that he behaved in a non-factional way on the NEC? “Under Jeremy’s leadership, it wasn’t factional by choice from the start. But I think there was lots of necessity about it, at certain times.” He refers to hostility from MPs towards the Corbyn project. What about the failed bid to abolish Tom Watson’s post on the eve of conference? “I don’t feel particularly comfortable with the scrapping of Tom Watson’s post. The circumstances of the proposal were not as I understood them to be at the time. I withdrew the proposal the following morning, and that’s that.” He has “absolutely no regrets” about dumping Labour Students, however.
Lansman may no longer be in a Momentum leadership position, nor soon in any Labour post, but he is still intent on internal reforms being implemented. He makes the case that the NEC does not have oversight of party staff or finances as it should, and the policy-making process is “recognised as being wholly inadequate by left and right”. The unelected party chair role does not sit comfortably with Lansman either. Would a directly elected chair be better? ”It’s controversial, I know: personally I’d sooner see an election for general secretary.” The NEC could interview and shortlist candidates, and members would choose one to serve for a fixed term, he suggests.
Among his regrets over the past several years in the party is the failure to introduce open selections for sitting MPs, which would have forced them to seek approval from local members before each election. It is a reform that Lansman has championed for decades, yet it failed to emerge even with the Labour left in charge. “Ultimately, it was the decision of the leadership,” he explains. While understanding the reasons for that – again, hostility in the parliamentary party – he points to polling that shows the policy to be a popular one with members. “So I’m sorry about it. But I don’t think that’s the only thing. I want to see a mass campaigning party.”
This is Momentum’s bread and butter, its raison d’être: creating a mass party. Does Starmer share that aim? “I’m not sure. I don’t think Keir has really made that clear.” He adds: “I do worry that the mass party is seen as a necessity primarily for financial reasons. I think it’s seen by too many MPs as a threat. I don’t think that’s justified, but it’s the way they think.” He also suggests that progress on campaigning is not good enough, saying: “We’re not doing as much as we should be doing now. Covid is a necessary limiter, but there’s widespread recognition that our digital tools are not up to the job.” It is here, too, that Momentum put members’ expertise to use and created tools such as the online campaign map.
Momentum did reenergise the party, and did help to expand the membership to the benefit of the party’s get-out-the-vote operation on the ground and its coffers. Where many will say that the Labour left failed, however, is antisemitism. “It was emotionally a big thing for me. I never expected to find antisemitism in the Labour Party and I did find it. I found it in appalling ways in the stuff that I saw in disciplinary cases. I’m frustrated at the level of denial that there is in the party,” Lansman tells me. “A lot of the people who are in denial, if they saw this material, I think many of them would adjust their position – maybe not sufficiently in some cases, but there is no basis for saying it is lies or a smear.” He is clearly upset by the “nastiness and venom” directed towards him on social media. “They’re just nasty, horrible.”
When the Equality and Human Rights Commission report was released last month, establishing that Labour was responsible for unlawful acts in the way antisemitism was handled, Corbyn took just half an hour to release a statement in response. The former leader used it to reiterate that antisemitism is “abhorrent” and does exist within the party, but also that “the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents”. Lansman describes the publication day as “emotional”, and says of Corbyn’s reaction: “I wasn’t happy with the words that Jeremy used.”
Echoing the view that Angela Rayner recently expressed on Newsnight, Lansman elaborates: “He was clearly talking about the number of cases, and of course that is technically right. The public perceptions, which are created by media reporting, don’t match the numbers of cases. But to say that on the day of the EHRC report, when lots of people…” He trails off, before continuing: “I’ve had lots of antisemitic abuse. I am hurt by that. The hurt has not been exaggerated. The hurt is real. So I think Jeremy’s words were not right. I disagree with them.”
Lansman does not break with the shared Labour left belief that the disciplinary action was wrong, however, saying for the first time publicly: “I also disagree strongly with his suspension. I haven’t said that before because it wasn’t appropriate for an NEC member to say that, but I’ve effectively finished my term.” And he is sceptical about the process, saying he’s “not sure it was right” for the general secretary to take the decision. Lansman nonetheless tells me he won’t “go on about it” because “what the EHRC said about political interference in the disciplinary process is right”. And the outgoing NEC member makes clear that he is fully in favour of an independent process, as recommended by the equality body.
Lansman is not leaving the NEC of his own volition, it should be noted. Was he disappointed when the Labour left groups chose not to include him on the slate? “Yes, I was. Of course. But I’ve accepted the decision,” he replies. And, particularly with a new voting system in place, he is worried about the results. “I’m fearful for the outcome of the election because I’m not convinced the left has adopted the right strategy. I think the right approach to maximise support for transformative policies and democratising the party is to appeal to the coalition that elected Jeremy. We haven’t really done that, we’ve retrenched. I say ‘we’, I haven’t really been involved. The left has retrenched to its core.”
This could easily be interpreted as a criticism of the new Momentum leadership, but Lansman tells me: “I’ve avoided commenting on or criticising the new leadership of Momentum. I don’t think it’s an appropriate thing for a former chair to do.” Yet he does argue that in a key way their task is easier than the one he took on because “we were supporting the leader” and: “One of the things that goes with supporting the leader is pressure to support whatever the leader does and decides. There was plenty of that.” Although he says there was “enormous pressure” on the officers’ group to oppose open selections, for example, they refused – but nonetheless “got a lot of stick” for recommending the enhanced trigger ballot system that was eventually adopted. “I do think that meant decision-making [by the party leadership] was too much in the bubble. The new Momentum leadership are relieved of that problem.”
Lansman has had a big year: he was also director of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership campaign. I ask what went wrong: the candidate, the campaign, or a devastating general election that made her defeat inevitable. He replies: “Rebecca was a good candidate who rose to the role and did so increasingly during the campaign. But I think the odds were always stacked against her. The truth was that the effect of the New Labour years was to marginalise the left to the extent that left MPs were a bunch of old people… We were missing generations. That was the real problem, and a problem we always knew we were going to have.” He also concedes that Starmer was a “strong” candidate. “His opening video was an extremely good video that presented a completely left face. That wasn’t all of Keir, actually. We’ve yet to see how representative that will be.”
While Lansman says there will be issues on which he and the new leadership will disagree strongly, such as on the controversial ‘spycops’ bill, he has “been as collaborative as I could be on the NEC since he was elected”. He is clear: “I will work to elect Keir as Prime Minister at the next election as hard as I can. If I disagree with things he’s doing, I will do it as constructively and comradely as I can… I don’t want the Labour Party to fail, and I hope that nobody in Momentum or on the left of the Labour Party wants Labour to fail. There is certainly no alternative to the Labour Party when it comes to getting into government and implementing transformative policies.”
Lansman is determined that the left must not abandon the party as a focus, calling himself “Labour through and through”, and positive that the ‘sealed tomb’ created in the Blair era should not await the left either. “I’m not expecting to be in the wilderness for another 40 years. Should I live that long! I think objectively the left is in a vastly stronger position than it was in its previous height in the 80s.” His counsel? “If I was going to say one thing about Momentum: I think it has to stay Labour. It can’t seek to supplant Labour as a movement. It was a movement to transform Labour into the movement we need. And it needs to be as broad and consensual as possible. That would be my advice to Momentum’s leadership.”
Jon Lansman is now living in Cornwall, “on the edge of the Labour world” as he puts it. “I’ve had more of a rest than I expected to have, and I did need it. I’d had five years of 24/7 activity… I did not stop. I really was exhausted.” Yet his work in the party is not done. He is planning to write more. He wants to “get to a point where I don’t just get abuse for factional reasons, for intra-left sectarian reasons“. And “there are people on the left” who he “simply wouldn’t work with anymore” because, he says: “Antisemitism for me was a wedge issue.” But this does not spell the end. He wants to ensure that the Labour left avoids “repeating the mistakes of the 80s, when I think it did cut itself off” – and believes he can help limit the lack of institutional memory in the party. With a smile, he sums up: “My legacy isn’t complete.”
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