Back in January I interviewed Jon Lansman about his life and his political journey with the Labour left: from prominence in the 1980s to exile through the Blair years to Corbyn’s unexpected leadership win.
“The things I fucking do for socialism!”
This is what Jon Lansman exclaimed to Tom Watson on 15 June 2015, or at least, something similar. He can’t quite remember which word the expletive modified.
It was the deadline day for MPs to nominate candidates for the Labour leadership contest and Lansman was helping Jeremy Corbyn. Yet as a kidney donor he had an appointment to have a large sample of blood taken.
Tom Watson (“a tough cookie”) had promised to help Corbyn obtain the required number of nominations to stand if Lansman could prove he was close to the threshold.
Lansman ended up trying to relay the names of those voting Corbyn via text at the same time as the phlebotomist was taking blood out of his arm. It was just after he left that he rang Watson.
Corbyn got just enough nominations, and Lansman became director of an official campaign company. The MP for Islington North went on to win the contest, and Lansman founded Momentum, the grassroots pro-Corbyn group.
I met Lansman, 59, at the organisation’s headquarters at Euston. With his glasses, smart-casual clothes and mane of whitish-silver hair, he could pass for a tech entrepreneur. I interviewed him in a small semi-underground room overlooking a carpark.
Lansman’s trajectory has matched the rise, fall and resurgence of the Labour left since the 1980s. He has a rather perplexing reputation as both a fierce, relentless backroom operator and a gentle, kindly figure.
Lansman gained notoriety at the tender age of 24 while working on Tony Benn’s deputy leadership campaign in 1981. Dennis Healey, Benn’s opponent, accused the young activist on live television of orchestrating heckling at two demonstrations, at which he was not even present.
Healey made the accusation while Lansman was visiting his girlfriend’s grandmother in Aberystwyth. The next morning there were, he reckons, “a hundred journalists and TV cameras and other reporters” in the street. It was a “baptism of fire”.
His compares his deep early involvement in politics to “the young people upstairs” in the Momentum office, where a dozen people in their twenties and early thirties are working on laptops and discussing strategy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a photo of Jeremy Corbyn adorns one wall. On another there is a map of every constituency: a sea of blue engulfing little islands of red.
Lansman’s first stint in politics was furious but fast, “a period of intense political activity which in a sense burned me out in my 20s and very early 30s”.
The hard-left firebrand moved out of London with his wife Beth to Hertfordshire, and worked as a freelance management consultant.
Beth became ill and died from breast cancer in 1999, leaving their three children behind, then aged 11, 8 and 7.
After this, Lansman tells me, struggling to find the words, work “kind of took a nose-dive”.
“My ambition, in any kind of material sense, pretty much disappeared.”
Lansman’s exile from politics occurred at the same time as that of the Labour left in general, as Tony Blair took the party towards the centre and three election wins.
The former Prime Minister comes up repeatedly in our interview. Although Lansman claims to have never considered leaving the Labour Party, he was “deeply hostile” to Blair by the end of his premiership (he uses this phrase three times in 20 seconds).
“Blair was really not a Labour person in the public eye, in public opinion.”
He is also very critical of the management of the party in the New Labour years, where there was “a very authoritarian structure” and “party conference was a rally”.
He thinks this lack of challenge resulted in the Iraq war: “terrible, devastating and ultimately murderous decisions”.
After Blair stepped down, Lansman returned to politics, working for the late Michael Meacher, a veteran MP of the Labour left.
Lansman was nominally employed as a researcher, although he admits his task was really “to organise the left of the Labour party”. He believed this helped lay the groundwork for its revival.
He says it made the Labour left less dominated by a bloc of MPs in parliament. This group “was very small, very marginalised, had people with big egos who fell out with each other on a personal basis, which isn’t the basis of any strong movement”.
He re-entered politics not “for self-advancement or money or career” but “because I believed in it”.
I ask Lansman why commentators got it wrong in the 2015 leadership election, when Corbyn was at first regarded as an outsider. What did they miss? He says it is partly about the changes in journalism he has witnessed first-hand.
“They’re operating in 24-hour news organisations, and are expected to do the work that used to be done by probably a dozen people and it’s not surprising therefore that they barely have time to leave their desks.”
He also thinks the concentration of political journalists in Westminster “in the bubble, talking to people in the bubble” is to blame.
“It does give you an understanding of the workings of parliament, but it doesn’t give you an understanding of the workings of the Labour party.”
When newspapers had labour correspondents Lansman believes these did provide an understanding of how unions worked. He himself briefed labour reporters about the Benn campaign in 1981.
The son of “suburban, conservative-voting” Jewish parents, as he puts it, was political from a young age.
He grew up in the world of the “post-60s… it was a time of young people being interested in challenging the ideas of their parents’ generation… there was a social revolution going on.”
Lansman studied Economics at Cambridge. One would expect him to have been involved in student politics but he tells me he didn’t participate much. This is strange, because I know he stood for a union election on a ticket with Andrew Marr.
“I did eventually get involved,” he admits, although “only in my third year”. “I really had resisted it up to then,” the political obsessive tells me.
I ask him if he won. He didn’t. There is a pause. I start to speak but he interrupts, keen to tell me how narrow the defeat was: had the Liberal candidate gone out first instead of the Tory he reckons he could have won on transfers.
I ask Lansman if he is tempted to stand for a different election, as an MP.
“No,” he tells me, “I’m much too interested in politics.”
In Lansman’s view, MPs “have enormous self-belief and usually big egos” but end up getting “bogged down in a lot of stuff”.
The Momentum founder has bigger fish to fry: to “change society in a big way… we need to make big changes in the way that the economy works and the way that society works” (he emphasises that second big with a real boom).
Now he thinks that with Jeremy Corbyn it is possible to “fundamentally change the Labour party” and make it “committed to radical change”.
“If I can help make that happen, that’s the biggest contribution I can make.”
I ask Lansman if he is worried about the insulating effect of echo chambers and bubbles. He tells me one of Momentum’s “founding principles” was pluralism.
The idea is to debate differences of opinion within Momentum but ultimately “take those differences into the Labour party” and resolve them there.
Is Momentum doing enough to be plural? “We’ve had some robust debates in Momentum recently… no I don’t always think it’s doing a good enough job,” he tells me.
“I think continuous self-improvement is a good principle for life.”