Jon Lansman interview: ‘It’s my objective to give Labour members more power'

Exclusive: the Momentum founder tells The Independent he wants to remove the 'glaring inadequacies' in the way the party is run

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Monday 18 September 2017 10:05 BST
Jon Lansman, co-founder of Momentum, at rally in support of Jeremy Corbyn, July 2016
Jon Lansman, co-founder of Momentum, at rally in support of Jeremy Corbyn, July 2016 (Rex)

The founder of the powerful Corbyn-backing Momentum group has said it his “objective” to push for changes to Labour’s ruling executive ahead of a major battle over the issue at this month’s party conference.

Speaking exclusively to The Independent, Jon Lansman said Labour’s National Executive Committee needed more grassroots member representation, giving them greater sway over determining policy, leadership contests and candidate selection.

A behind-the-scenes row over NEC control has already flared ahead of September’s gathering after The Independent revealed a plan by the right wing of the party to rein in Jeremy Corbyn’s power by drafting extra members likely to be hostile to his leadership.

But the activist leader’s intervention now sets the stage for a major struggle over the heart of the party in Brighton, where Momentum will once again hold its own festival on the doorstep of Labour’s official conference.

Highlighting the “glaring inadequacies” in the way the party is run, Mr Lansman said: “Out of 35 members, half a million members have just six representatives [on the NEC]. It’s absurd.

“I would like to see constituencies having more or less the same number of representatives as the unions and that’s my objective.”

“It’s not about precise numbers; it’s about fair representation from members in the decision-making process of the party.”

The veteran left-winger, who was instrumental in the setting up of Momentum – the grassroots campaign group that grew out of Mr Corbyn’s leadership of Labour – also hinted he would oppose a compromise deal on changing the rules for a future leadership contest.

Under a proposed rule-book change – dubbed the “McDonnell amendment” – a future contender in a Labour leadership contest would need 5 per cent of MPs to nominate then, rather than the 15 per cent that currently exists. The Independent revealed earlier this month that left-wingers are prepared to compromise at 10 per cent.

Asked what the next steps would be for Momentum, Mr Lansman replied: “Looking at how the party is operated there is a glaring deficiency – given our experience of the value of members and what members can do if you mobilise numbers of them, because they are ordinary people who know their communities.

“It is vital that they are fully engaged in the process of the party, in determining policy, in picking candidates, in electing leaders – all of the decision-making in the party. It’s important they feel ownership of the party.

Explaining his mission to involve members more in the party, he cited the decision by Tony Blair’s government to invade Iraq in 2003. “The way the Labour Party has been structured in recent years, in the last couple of decades, it’s been an incredibly centralised party in which there has been no room for debate or dissent and that has led to some bad decisions being made,” he said.

“For example, Iraq – Chilcot said one of the reasons for it was the lack of challenge. There wasn’t even debate in the Cabinet, let alone in the party.”

“The same for austerity,” he continued. “At the last national party forum before the 2015 election we put a motion calling simply for a Budget that invests in jobs and ends the failing policies of austerity. Now Ed Balls, [then Shadow Chancellor], knew perfectly well austerity was failing – he said it would in his Bloomberg speech. But he couldn’t break out of that, he thought there wasn’t the political space to break out of that.

“Jeremy Corbyn created that political space by ensuring there was debate in that leadership election. As a result of that you struggle to find a single person in the party who now supports austerity – that has shifted the ground of British politics.”

But when pressed on a report in The Independent that the Labour leadership is prepared to compromise on a crucial rule-book change for future leadership contests, Mr Lansman appeared uninterested in a deal.

“At the moment there’s only one proposal on the table, which is 5 per cent,” said Mr Lansman. ”I much prefer 5 per cent to 15 per cent. I want to see the 5 per cent.”

Mr Lansman, who has known the Labour leader since the 1970s, also said he now believed Mr Corbyn will make it to Downing Street. “I was involved, first of all in persuading him to stand in the nomination stage in the first leadership campaign and in every stage Jeremy has risen to the next occasion.” he said.

“It’s been a learning process, but he has come most of the way to being prepared to go into Downing Street. OK, he hasn’t got ministerial experience – neither did Cameron or Blair – but I have every confidence that Jeremy can do it.”

“I’m confident we can win [the next election]” he added. “We are preparing to win that’s why we’re are training people in persuasive canvassing for example which we did during the course of the election but we want to do in all of the new marginals.”

But he attributed Labour’s failure to win power in June to starting at “a very low level” when Theresa May called the snap election, with Labour then languishing in the polls and the Conservatives experiencing record highs.

“Unfortunately starting at a low level was the penalty we paid for two years of more internal strife than we should have had – and I do not claim any responsibility for that,” he added.

Pressed on whether he believed Labour was pursuing the right Brexit strategy, Mr Lansman – after a five-second pause – said he had his “own opinion”.

“I think that where we are is that Tories have got us in this position,” he said. “Labour wasn’t at the time in favour of a referendum. Cameron pushed a referendum thinking he’d win and he lost it. May was on the side of remaining, then on the side of hard Brexit, and now she’s on the side of softish Brexit.

“They’ve got the responsibility as the Government to negotiate a deal with the EU. We’re in Opposition and our job is to press them on the important things and ensure that anything come back which is unacceptable – which doesn’t deliver a future which gives people the prospect of growth, investment and secure jobs and rising incomes – is rejected.”

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