Man and Momentum

Momentum founder Jon Lansman talks socialism, sectarianism, and the left's antisemitism problem

Jon Lansman, Momentum founder and a newly elected member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee, and D.D. Guttenplan, JQ editor, began talking politics when they first met as undergraduates nearly 40 years ago.  Resuming the conversation more recently, they began recording this interview in early 2016, and concluded it in May 2018.

JQ: Tell me a bit about how you first got involved in politics.

Jon Lansman: In 1970 there was a general election in Britain and my school ran a kind of mock election.

JQ: Where was this?

Jon Lansman: This was in North London. I stood as a Maoist candidate. My understanding of Maoism was not perfect by any means. I got four votes including mine. So I was very interested in politics from an early age.

I joined the Labour Party when I was not quite 16. You weren’t supposed to join until you were 16 in those days; now you can join at 14. We had two general elections in 1974. I joined just after one of those and helped knock on doors. I suppose politically at the time I was on the left.

JQ: Did you come from a left family?

Jon Lansman: Not at all. My parents were not political, though at the time they voted Tory. In fact after I joined the Labour Party my dad joined the Tory Party. He was a bit of a rebel. He was very much a one nation Tory.

My parents were members of an Orthodox synagogue. They were in the rag trade, they had a shop that was open on Saturdays – so they weren’t actually that Orthodox. My aunt emigrated to Israel, and I spent most of one summer working on a kibbutz – Sde Boker, which was [David] Ben Gurion’s kibbutz. I was very attracted to the kibbutz as a kind of idealistic communal socialist way of working.

[When I got there] I was disappointed by the absence of children’s houses, because the idea of being able to get away from my parents – I was a child of the ’60s. They were reactionary and I was rebellious. The other thing was the way they used British and American Jewish kids as labour – there was no political education really going on…. So that was somewhat disillusioning. I also spent a lot of time on the West Bank, which did seem like an occupied territory. It wasn’t like it is now, but it was depressing.

JQ: You didn’t find your political home?

Jon Lansman: No. There were aspects of it, then, which I thought were still idealistic. This was the same time, by the way, as I joined the Labour Party.

JQ: So in a sense, there were two paths: the path to emigration, and the path to the Labour Party?

Jon Lansman: Exactly. And it kind of reinforced my – the politics of joining the Labour Party. But I hadn’t really moved very far to the left at that point. If I’d voted in the 1975 European Referendum, which I was about two weeks too young to vote in, I would have voted to [go] in. Whereas I later switched to wanting to be out – although I switched back again by ’83 when the Party reversed its policy.

While I was a student I stayed active in my constituency party at home. I [also] joined the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. So I was attracted to the left, to what Tony Benn was saying at the time. I studied economics as an undergraduate – I was at Cambridge – and I was very attracted to the ideas of the Cambridge Economic Policy Group.

JQ: Wynne Godley?

Jon Lansman: Exactly. They were putting out a radical alternative that was fairly close to what Tony Benn and his supporters were arguing. There was also a book, The Socialist Challenge, by Stuart Holland who later became an MP and was a very close associate of Tony Benn, that had some influence over me.  Probably the best statement of the alternative economic strategy that the left was then arguing for. And so my ideas really coalesced around the Bennite left. But I guess it started from – I was a child of the 60s and the radical rebelliousness of being a kid in the 60s.

JQ: What was the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy trying to do?

Jon Lansman: The Labour Party – even in the 70s when I joined – was something much closer to a mass party. There were hundreds of thousands of people who were members. They weren’t necessarily very active. Often their membership fees were collected in cash on a weekly basis. So there was a network, people would distribute newsletters. There were meetings of your ward, which is a very local, small unit of local government that elects councillors to the local authority.

There was a real party, there was a sense of it being a movement and there were links with trade unions, organic links. They sent delegates to constituencies. I grew up in Southgate, a North London suburb that was not Labour – it was a Tory stronghold – but there still was a feeling that there were organic links with the working class in the community, and in many places there were direct links with workplaces. A union branch in a factory town would have delegates on the constituency party in that town. It discussed policy and sent motions to Labour Party conference – which, you genuinely had the feeling, did feed into the policy of the party.

JQ: Sounds pretty democratic.

Jon Lansman: It wasn’t. It was in theory pretty democratic. It had a democratic structure. The problem was the Parliamentary Labour Party.  MPs may have been selected by the local party, but once they were selected – if it was a safe Labour seat – they were essentially there for life. It was very difficult to get rid of them even if you didn’t like them, even if they were useless, even if they were corrupt.

That’s what it was all about. At least that’s what we would argue. We lost that battle in the early 80s. So the right got to write the history, and their argument was that we tore the party apart. We were splitters. Our argument was that actually it was the Parliamentary Party that had become aloof from the grassroots. What we were trying to do was reunite the party by ensuring that party representatives were accountable to the people who put them there.

JQ: Let’s talk a little bit about Militant and why it is or isn’t relevant to now?

Jon Lansman: The Labour Party, partly because of its links to the trade unions, there’s always been the potential for influence by forces to the left of the Labour Party. In the days when the Communist Party was much bigger, it was a significant force within a number of trade unions. It was a small minority, but as a campaigning and organising force it was very significant in the 1970s.

There were other forces to the left. Trotskyist organisations that were never as big as the Communist Party had been. But some of them were significant in some unions – in particular in public sector unions, some white collar unions. Some of these organisations did assume a policy of entryism – which I would define as joining the Labour Party not because of commitment to the Labour Party, but as a vehicle for building their own much smaller organisation.

JQ: Right.

Jon Lansman: I’ve never been a member of a Trotsky organisation or the Communist Party.

JQ: I wouldn’t have asked, but good to have it on the record.

Jon Lansman: There’s a lot of people on the left who had that experience – including people who are now on the right of the party. There were people in Tony Blair’s cabinet who had been members of the IMG [International Marxist Group] or other Trotsky organisations. Denis Healey was a member of the Communist Party in his youth. John Reed, who was the Home Secretary in Blair’s government, was a former member of the Communist Party. So it’s not uncommon.

My view is that in essence the Blairites were a Stalinist tendency. What they did was to turn the Labour Party, although it still had some of the forms of a democratic party, into an authoritarian party in which all power lay in the leader’s office.

JQ: And Militant?

Jon Lansman: They were deeply sectarian. They never worked with anybody else. They were actually a nuisance on the left. People were irritated by them, but they came under attack because they were an easy target. They were not popular with large sections of the left. It was easy to undermine their legitimacy by exposing the fact that they had a secret organisation with its own agenda that was not really about promoting the Labour Party.

JQ: What is Momentum? What’s it’s purpose, what’s it’s role, and how does it function under the laws of the Labour Partywhich are in a sense designed from the days of Militant to prevent internal caucuses?

Jon Lansman: There have always been pressure groups operating within the party. The difference about Militant was that it was alleged to be an entryist organisation. This is a group of people whose aims and objectives, it was argued, were not compatible with the aims of the Labour Party, who organised secretly in order to get control of bits of the party operation for their own purposes, not for the benefit of the Labour Party as a whole.

I don’t quite buy into that narrative. If Tony Blair wants to define himself as a socialist and be in the Labour Party, I’m not going to kick him out. If there’s someone who regards himself as a revolutionary socialist who holds some views I don’t agree with, and it depends on what revolutionary socialism means, but if that means they’re against capitalism – I’m against capitalism.

JQ: It says on our Labour Party card that we’re democratic socialists.

Jon Lansman: Exactly. If they identify as socialist, it seems to me that’s fine. I think the recent issue about who on the left should be admitted to the Labour Party, there’s been this big concern about antisemitism in the Labour Party ….

JQ: We’ll come on to that in a minute. I do want to get to that. How’d you start Momentum? What was its base?

Jon Lansman: We didn’t start it in an ideal way. [In September 2015 Corbyn’s] victory was so huge that we didn’t have time to prepare…. Although we’d done the groundwork to gather the data on supporters, and we finished the leadership campaign with a database of 100,000 people.

JQ: I’ve been a member of the Labour Party for a long time. I voted for Corbyn, but that was a secret ballot, so you have no way of knowing that. I didn’t pay or do anything new when Corbyn announced as leader because I didn’t have to, so I’m probably not on your database?

Jon Lansman: Probably not. During the course of the election campaign we sent out emails and texts to people whose mobile phone numbers we had, if they were on the Labour Party database, asking whether you supported Jeremy. If you hit the button to say yes, you might be on our database.

JQ: Interesting.

Jon Lansman: What happened was very quickly, as we’d expected, the onslaught of hostility hit us. Hit Jeremy in particular and John McDonnell.

JQ: Also, Corbyn has this unfortunate habit of answering questions.

“Is there any circumstance to which you can imagine launching nuclear weapons?”

“No.”

I thought that was an earthquake. Here’s somebody who’s the leader of a major party in a major nuclear power, and he’s just said this. Is he going to survive?

Jon Lansman: I think that was a special case. He certainly answers questions honestly, and it’s what is very refreshing about interviews with Jeremy. There have been some interviews which have been (a) good watching, good television, and (b) are illuminating and change people’s attitudes towards politicians, because most politicians don’t do it. That is a very important aspect of Jeremy, but being a leader you get hit with the repercussions of being honest. Jeremy has got to find a way of staying true to himself and his principles and staying honest, while also trying to manage the hostile media, which is horrible.

JQ: Which is there.

Jon Lansman: Which is there, which we didn’t really have during the leadership campaign. We had a bit, but nothing like as bad because we were the interesting story. This was an outsider who was taking off….

JQ: So he wins, this onslaught begins, you have this database. What do you do with it?

Jon Lansman: We’ve got 100,000 people who support Jeremy, and we know where they live or where they make their phone calls from. We can use this to support Jeremy, and we did straight away. For example, in the [December 2015] vote over bombing Syria, email communication and social media was used to support Jeremy and to support what Jeremy was arguing. Two weeks before that vote, I think we would all have been surprised at the idea that two thirds of the Parliamentary Labour Party were going to vote the same way as Jeremy. Probably no more than 10 per cent had voted for Jeremy in the [leadership] election, but two thirds voted the same way against bombing Syria. That was a result of the pressure on MPs that came from Momentum supporters. There were others as well. Stop the War organised support, organised lobbying as well, and of course people doing it independently. That’s what it’s for.

There are two aspects to Momentum that in some ways pull us in different directions. One is outward looking. Jeremy talked during the campaign about social movements. The Arab Spring was a social movement. It arose spontaneously. It wasn’t planned. Obviously the existence of social media was an enormous tool that assisted the development of the Arab Spring and in most cases it ended badly, and I think there were some good reasons why it ended badly. Lots has been written on that.

JQ: Black Lives Matter is a social movement in the US

Jon Lansman: Exactly. We want in part to be an outward facing organisation that’s rooted in communities and workplaces campaigning on things that matter to people and would make a difference to people. That’s what Jeremy was arguing for, and that’s what we want Momentum to do.

JQ: So that’s the outward looking part.

Jon Lansman: The other aspect is arguing for Jeremy’s politics within the party, and we will do that too. These two things are linked by the way. Just like we might campaign in London for rent controls and for public house building to stop the social cleansing of large areas of London, we will campaign inside the Labour Party for policies that will deliver on the promises that are the demands we’re making of City Hall.

So the two are linked, but within the party we want to argue for progressive policies. We won’t necessarily take a line on everything. What we want is the debate to happen inside the party and to be resolved by the party.

JQ: What’s changed since you set it up?

Jon Lansman: In 2016 you had the coup – I call it the chicken coup – with Owen Smith [running to replace Corbyn as party leader]. Things changed quite a lot after that. Mounting that challenge was a massive tactical error. We were confident of winning, and that was where Momentum really came into its own.

It pulled together people who had been involved in the first campaign with the people who were volunteering, many of whom we took on as staff during the course of that [second] leadership election. We went from 3 full time staff to 55, many of whom we retained at the end of the campaign, or continued to be very active volunteers, or went to work in the Leader’s Office. It consolidated Momentum’s position leading the left of the party.

We had another mass influx of members, and in particular young members. In 2014, the biggest cohort, in age group terms, in the party, was people in their 60s. Now, it’s people in their 20s. [Labour] used to be a very old party, now it’s much more representative of the population as a whole.

JQ: And then you had the General Election.

Jon Lansman: We had a very good election. The first time you and I spoke, [Momentum] had a couple of thousand members – which seemed very good, because it was bigger than any other left organization around the Labour Party. But when the coup happened, and Owen Smith stood, we got up to 20,000 in a couple of weeks. We’re now up to 40,000, so we’re bigger than the Green Party – and we’re putting on 500 a week, about 1500 to 2000 per month. If [this government] runs the full term we will most certainly be quite a lot bigger than the Tory Party at the next election.

JQ: Wow.

Jon Lansman: Because we know that we can expand that much. We’re recruiting, primarily, though social media rather than offline, although we need to do more offline recruitment. And people are paying by Standing Order – that’s what enables us to employ staff. So I mean we’ve now got over 20 staff, when we had three, when we first spoke.

JQ: The Jewish Quarterly should be so lucky! Maybe we should encourage someone to launch a coup?

Jon Lansman: Yeah. Well the coups bring in members, and bring in money….

JQ: Is it fair to say that Momentum is now the ideological engine of the Labour Party?

Jon Lansman: We are the mainstream of the Labour Party now. There are people to the left of that. Not many. But the new [Momentum] constitution did involve conflict. There were people who opposed it, and quite a lot of them left. So Momentum really is the mainstream. Obviously the right are still there, still organizing. They’ve got lots of money – they haven’t got so many people, but they have rich donors, whereas virtually all of our money comes from the membership.

JQ: Let’s talk about antisemitism and why it’s come up again now, how it’s being used, and how it relates or it doesn’t to Jeremy/Momentum, bearing in mind we’re two Jews sitting here talking and that the one thing you knew about Jeremy in terms of his foreign policy views is that he was a very strong supporter of Palestine?

Jon Lansman: Right. Well I’m a very strong supporter of a Palestinian state, too. As are lots of Jews in Britain, as in the United States. By the way I should also say that I am also, partly because I’m a Jew, doing some work for Jeremy in trying to build better relations with the Jewish community. I’m talking to Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Labour Movement, which is a longstanding affiliate since the very beginning of the Labour Party–  used to be called Poale Zion.

I wouldn’t support Jeremy if I thought he was an antisemite. He doesn’t have an antisemitic bone in his body. Anti-racism is absolutely a core part of his beliefs. Though he is absolutely a supporter of a Palestinian state, he is also a supporter of two states in what was [historic] Palestine living peacefully side by side. Jeremy wants peace in the Middle East, he wants peace in Israel/Palestine. Actually the pursuit of peace is another major plank of Jeremy’s political being. Any meetings that he’s had with people who are currently at war or in conflict are driven by his desire for peace. So yes, he has had meetings with Hamas. By the way, representatives of the Israeli government also have meetings with Hamas. By the way, the Israeli government was not uninvolved in the origin of Hamas. So for some supporters of Israel to abuse Jeremy because he has had meetings with Hamas . . . .

JQ: In March, the writer Medhi Hassan Tweeted:  “You can agree that antisemitism is definitely a problem on some parts of the left and needs to be loudly denounced, while also agreeing that Jeremy Corbyn’s political opponents are cynically using it as a stick with which to beat him. You can walk and chew gum at the same time.”  When you and I first talked about this Shami Chakrabarti hadn’t even published [her report on antisemitism in the Labour Party].

Jon Lansman: Unfortunately it’s now a much bigger problem. I realize now that to start with, we underestimated how big a problem it was. If you look at the data, the number of people who are regarded as serious antisemites in Britain is about 5 per cent. So you might say, “Well if there’s 5 per cent antisemites in the country, what’s the proportion in the Labour Party?” You’d expect it to be lower– and I think it most certainly is lower.

However there is a much wider group of people who hold one or more antisemitic prejudices, like “All Jews are wealthy” or “Jews exercise too much influence in the media.” I think that’s the problem we’re having in the Labour Party. It’s akin to people who hold other unconscious biases or misogynistic beliefs. The way you deal with those people is through education and training.

JQ: But when you say it’s a bigger problem than you thought within the Labour Party, what do you mean?

Jon Lansman: We’ve now got quite an aggressive group on the left, including within Momentum, of people – many of them by the way are Jewish, or Jewish anti-Zionists – who deny the problem, describe it as just a smear, as purely opportunistic. And while I agree it’s possible for there to be a problem and also for it to be used opportunistically, that’s what happens in politics when you have a problem.

If people are exposing a valid problem, you have to deal with it. And actually, the motivation of the person exposing the problem is irrelevant. You have to deal with it

There is antisemitism, and it is a problem, and I want to deal with it, because …. having grown up as a North London Jew, the fight against antisemitism is core to my political roots. Antisemitism and the Holocaust were …. what brought me to where I am politically. Those were the primary drivers [that] started me on my political journey.

But there’s also a lot of opportunism here…. A lot of the stuff in the media about Labour and antisemitism is actually driven by the Tory party. [The outgoing] chair of the Board of Deputies, Jonathan Arkush, who is a Conservative, [was] far more prepared to take a stance which is controversial in party political terms than any of his predecessors – including predecessors who were members of the Conservative party. I think that’s a shame. I think it’s a shame for the Jewish community, but it’s also a shame for British politics.

There is a sense in which people view racism as being about wealth and power and of course in the classic antisemitic trope, Jews are wealthy and powerful and therefore they can’t be the victims of racism. And so the trope itself –

JQ: Feeds into it.

Jon Lansman: Exactly. The other thing is the role of Israel-Palestine conflict, where people whose commitment to Israel is based on their support for American imperialism. So within the Labour Party [the Blairite group] Progress are winding up the problem and using it opportunistically. There is a significant difference between the behavior of Jewish and non-Jewish people on the right of the party.

JQ: You were [also] talking about the continual call for expulsions….

Jon Lansman: There are cases where expulsion is appropriate. I’m not claiming that there are large numbers of people on the right of the party who are deliberately trying to fuel the problem, but there are people who are behaving in a way which clearly does fuel the problem, and they are doing it to undermine Jeremy’s leadership. However I have not encountered any Jews in the Labour Party for whom that’s the case.

JQ: I’m going to move on. What do you think the American left can learn from Britain and Jeremy Corbyn, what do you think Britain can learn from Bernie Sanders and the US?

Jon Lansman: One of the most remarkable things is you got two old socialists appealing to enormous numbers of young people. I think what that reflects is a massive generational shift in politics. The values of the Labour movement in Britain in its origins and the values of FDR have been almost destroyed by Thatcher and Reagan, but also by neoliberals in the UK Labour party and the US Democrats. There’s a new generation now that have been incredibly disenchanted with politics, incredibly disenchanted with what previous generations have done.

They’re suddenly hearing from these two old people arguments that they haven’t heard since they were born. They sound new, whereas actually they’re old. They’re just as relevant as they used to be, in fact more so. That for me is the biggest thing. Young people are the future and for politics they’re a different future.

JQ: One of the things that strikes me, it may be very different here in Britain, but in the US you have a lot of young people organised in what you would call extra-Parliamentary politics: Fight for $15, the Climate Justice Campaign, Black Lives Matter, anti-rape or sexual consent organising on campuses. A lot of those people see electoral politics as irrelevant at best and at worst a kind of distraction which will drain their energy from doing things that might actually matter. People have been captivated by the Sanders phenomenon. But there hasn’t been an effort to really bring together the electoral politics and the movement politics which in fact are providing a lot of the energy.

Jon Lansman: I think it’s terribly important to do that. I think now we’re probably in a stronger position [in Britain]. I don’t think it necessarily looked stronger when Blair was running the Labour Party, but now the Labour Party has been at least partly liberated. The social movements you’re talking about in the States, they’re there partly because political parties have been so hollowed out. Electoral politics has actually been in a worse state for longer in the US than it has in Britain. Even under Blair, the Greens in Europe have been – I can be critical of the Greens in Germany and even in Britain, but they’re undoubtedly progressive forces for change in Germany and in Britain. They attract a lot of young people. Political parties have been activist forces for change in a way that simply has been ….

JQ: Not true.

Jon Lansman: Not true in the US. In that sense we’re in a stronger position. It’s not long – less than 10 years, probably less than eight years – since I was at Labour Party meetings where I was the youngest person in the room.

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