Momentum chair: ‘Enthusiasm for an alternative government will grow stronger, not weaker'

Exclusive: Jon Lansman speaks to The Independent about being elected to Labour’s governing body, his hopes for a Jeremy Corbyn-led Government and the Brexit negotiations

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Tuesday 23 January 2018 22:49
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Jon Lansman, one of Momentum's founders now has a position on Labour's governing body
Jon Lansman, one of Momentum's founders now has a position on Labour's governing body

Writing in his 2014 book The Blair Supremacy, Labour Party historian Lewis Minkin described how it was Tony Blair’s intention to put the parliamentary left into a “sealed tomb”.

It is a phrase that appears to have weighed heavy with Jon Lansman, a veteran left-winger who is now at the height of his influence as one of the founders of the powerful Jeremy Corbyn-backing organisation Momentum. “I don’t want to be put back into a sealed tomb until I’m good and dead,” he says.

“I don’t want that to happen to anyone else, ever again. We’re a pluralist party.

“He [Blair] didn’t succeed, but that was his objective. We escaped. I want an inclusive pluralist Labour Party that remains a coalition. It is, as far as I’m concerned, a progressive alliance and I want to see it win elections for many years to come on a principled basis. I think that does depend on people with socialist values not being put back into a sealed tomb.”

Just last week, alongside two other candidates backed by Momentum, Mr Lansman was elected to Labour’s governing body, the National Executive Committee (NEC). Members casted 65,163 votes for him. “At last the 21st century version of the socialist party I joined 44 years ago,” he posted on social media. A friend of Mr Lansman referred to his election as a “LANslide”.

Once on the fringes of the party, he is now very much at the centre, and a close ally to Labour’s leadership. “People have been reporting that it was a life ambition,” he says in café close to Momentum’s temporary headquarters close to Aldgate East underground station in London.

“It’s a very recent ambition. Actually, for a few years I’ve been working and supporting members of the NEC – but it’s much easier just to do it yourself sometimes and now I have that opportunity.”

Mr Lansman, who was 24 when he helped to run Tony Benn’s ultimately unsuccessful campaign for deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1981, says he is sure that Benn would have “been pleased and very encouraging, as he always was” with the result.

“When I last saw him, which was a couple of months before he died, he didn’t expect any of this to happen,” Mr Lansman says. “I think he’d have been enormously surprised but absolutely delighted and he’d probably come up with all sorts of precedents as to why this was always quite likely to happen but he didn’t think that at the point he died.”

He adds that before last Monday’s results came through members were “so colossally underrepresented” on the body but now have nine out of 39 directly elected representatives. He hints, however, that the party could go further. “Look, it’s not my top priority but I still think it underrepresents,” he says. “If there were more places that really represented young members, BAME members, women members, then that would certainly restore the balance.

“I certainly would like to see more places elected by members of the party, yes.”

Mr Lansman, who was on the key backroom operators as Corbyn sought to secure the required nominations from Labour MPs to stand on the leadership ballot paper in 2015, also makes clear that reducing the threshold last year from 15 per cent to 10 per cent “was a good first step”, but more needs to be done. Every section of the party should be able to have a candidate on the ballot paper that represents their politics, he believes.

“There are a number of ways of doing it,” he says. “You could have a further reduction in the threshold.” Pressed on this, he adds: “Yep, it could be 5 per cent. Or you could have some method of allowing different sections of the party to get trade unions from constituency parties as well as MPs to get people on the ballot paper.

“There are a number of ways to do it but the important thing is the effect. The effect should be to open up the contest so that everybody has a candidate on the ballot paper.”

But Mr Lansman is undoubtedly a divisive figure within the Parliamentary Labour Party, with some critics of the leadership believing he could use Momentum as a vehicle to push for deselections of MPs critical of Mr Corbyn. It’s a claim he objects outright, saying: “We have made it clear that we are not going to campaign to reselect anyone, at all, anywhere.

“Momentum nationally is not going to campaign to deselect any MP and we will stick by that. We are not going to campaign to deselect any MP.”

Regarding Brexit, Mr Lansman believes the Labour leadership has “absolutely the right position in the circumstances”, adding: “We want to win the votes both of people who voted Remain and people who voted for Brexit. Our task as a party is to properly critique whatever it is the Tories come back with, if indeed they come back with anything.”

But when pressed on the contentious issue of a second referendum and the apparent dismissal of the idea from the top echelons of Labour, he believes some people in the party had a different agenda.

“I think its right not to pre-judge the outcome of the negotiations,” he adds. “I think we have to wait for it. Unfortunately I think that many of those in our party who are trying to pre-judge the outcome are people who are doing it who have a different agenda – an agenda of undermining Jeremy.”

Asked who he was referring to, Mr Lansman replies: “I’m not going to get into making accusations against an MP but I think people are enthusiastic – sometimes for the wrong reasons.”

Jeremy Corbyn in 2017: A look at the Labour leader's spirited year

Unsurprisingly, he says his number one priority is to win the next election and put Mr Corbyn in Downing Street – a goal he now believes is in touching distance. And it’s one his Twitter profile boasts of: “After decades in the Wilderness, the Promised Land is not far off.”

“I think he’ll be a remarkable prime minister, different from prime ministers that have gone before,” he adds. “ Someone who never set out to be prime minister. Someone who isn’t there because of ambition but because of his values, his decency and in many ways his ordinariness – and that’s very much to his credit and advantage I think.”

He also dismisses anonymous briefings from Shadow Cabinet ministers that his close ally Mr Corbyn could be too old to fight the next election. Just last week frontbenchers pointed out, in comments reported by The Independent, that Mr Corbyn would have to commit to being in government until aged almost 80, should he fight the campaign in 2022.

“Jeremy has a punishing schedule,” Mr Lansman says. “He works seven days a week, extremely long hours and he still looks fit and healthy to me. I am therefore confident he can on for a long time so I don’t see that as the slightest problem and suggesting it is, is just wishful thinking on some people’s parts. I’ve got every confidence he can do it. It’s ageist to suggest that he’s not capable – we’ve had prime ministers who are far older. There are plenty of younger prime ministers who have been a lot less fit than Jeremy.”

And he believes the “enthusiasm for an alternative” is going to get “stronger, not weaker” as long as Theresa May remains in Downing Street. He adds: “I think that the collapse of Carillion is a really serious problem for the Government. It’s already conceded the argument on austerity. It’s now going to have concede the argument on the role of the state because they’ve made such a mess of it.

“It’s been so exposed by this collapse. What ideological space do they have left? They are in disarray, they are deeply divided and they’ve got no kind of intellectual coherence. We have.”

Pressed on what space Momentum would occupy should Corbyn eventually win power, Lansman says it’s not unusual for organisations to carry on. Last week, insiders at the organisation told The Independent that Momentum now has more than 35,000 members, overtaking Ukip’s activist base and closing in on the Green Party. They now aim to have a greater membership than the Conservative Party in time for the next general election.

“Let’s remember that Progress was set up and grew out of Tony Blair’s campaign,” he says. “It outlasted his leadership of the Labour Party and is still there and thriving. I’m quite happy if it carries on for many more years doing so. We’re no different in once sense from Progress in seeing ourselves as possibly having a future. Maybe we won’t, many we’ll decide at some point to close shop.”

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