Alex Wickham

Letting the hard left off the leash

Letting the hard left off the leash
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If there is one word that strikes fear and loathing into the hearts of Labour MPs, it is Momentum. This mixed bag of Trots, tankies, cranks and hipsters who delivered Jeremy Corbyn the leadership has become his Red Guards. Its name is synonymous with the new wave of hard-left entryism into Labour, calls to deselect moderate MPs, picketing offices, harassing staff and tweeting bile. So it doesn’t quite fit the public persona that its founder and chief commissar, Jon Lansman, is such an affable fellow.

The 59-year-old Lansman is full of contradictions. He is the leader of Britain’s most notorious and divisive political movement, yet Labour colleagues agree he is ‘a lovely man’, ‘a loveable rogue’. He’s a veteran Bennite, but his many company directorships are registered to a million-pound riverside apartment at Shad Thames, described by estate agents as ‘spectacular’. As well as a statue of Karl Marx and books on Lenin and Stalin, he keeps an enviable wine collection and some comically bourgeois art. The blog he edits, Left Futures, rails against ‘crooked capitalism’ and ‘asset-stripping bosses’. But it is owned by a shady company called Ortonovo Holdings, which is controlled by Lansman and his son Ben, a property magnate some of whose methods have been, perhaps unfairly, compared to asset-stripping. The Lansman family manage a complex web of at least 24 property companies, one of which is registered in Luxembourg, and hold assets well into the millions. It’s not the backstory of a man plotting a socialist revolution.

Raised in an orthodox Jewish family in North London, Lansman attended the independent Highgate School. His political awakening came at 16 when he travelled to Israel to work on a kibbutz. Radicalised by its utopian collectivist spirit, on his return to England he signed up to the Labour party. It must have been a shock for his father Bernard, who responded by joining the Conservatives and becoming a Tory councillor in Hackney. As one Labour moderate puts it: ‘He’s another middle-class intellectual rebelling against his own family.’ Lansman denies he was just a bolshie teenager rejecting the politics of his father: ‘Maybe my dad was rebelling against me.’

Cambridge beckoned, where Lansman read economics and met like-minded comrades. He became good friends with a Chairman Mao-obsessed firebrand called Andrew Marr, or ‘Red Andy’ as he was then known. When Lansman ran for union president, the future BBC political editor stood on the same ticket and even did his campaign’s cartoons. It was during those student years in the late 1970s that Lansman befriended Labour’s election agent in Hornsey, a bearded 29-year-old tub-thumper named Jeremy Corbyn. Lansman joined Corbyn at the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and was one of the most ardent advocates of mandatory reselection, the bête noire of Labour MPs.

In 1981, aged just 24, Lansman became a trusted member of Tony Benn’s inner circle during his campaign for Labour’s deputy leadership. He was even immortalised in the 1983 BBC political drama The Campaign, which told the story of the battle over mandatory reselection, and was played by a young Robert Glenister. Crucial to the Benn campaign was a group Lansman helped run called the Rank and File Mobilising Committee (RFMC). Its tactics were unprecedented: sending senior left-wing politicians to rallies across the country, launching vicious attacks on ‘right-wing’ Labour MPs, criticising the PLP on issues like nuclear weapons and rapidly forming a new core of united hard-left supporters. Lansman was even accused by Denis Healey of orchestrating barracking at Labour meetings, though he was later cleared. Remind you of anything? It is hard not to see the RFMC as a precursor to Momentum.

Lansman left politics in the 1990s, when his wife Beth died from breast cancer at just 39. He devoted his time to bringing up their three young children, and became a trustee of the charity Breast Cancer Care. There he worked with Cherie Blair, and despite their huge political differences he says ‘she was a good patron’ and that they had a positive relationship. In 2010 he returned to Westminster as a researcher to the Labour MP Michael Meacher and set about completing his life’s mission of reshaping the party in his image.

Lansman did not believe Corbyn could win the Labour leadership last year, nor did he think he was the left’s best candidate. Friends say he was always more closely aligned with John McDonnell and believes the now shadow chancellor is the more talented politician. Nevertheless, Lansman and a former Trotskyist called Simon Fletcher established the successful ‘Jeremy Corbyn For Leader’ campaign, which evolved into Momentum. The campaign used all the techniques Lansman had pioneered in the 1980s, with a new digital edge. Lansman’s role was so instrumental that he was in the room when Corbyn secured the final nomination to get on the ballot with seconds to spare. But he was not rewarded for his efforts.

Shortly after Corbyn was elected, Lansman met with Seumas Milne, Labour’s new strategy chief, and Andrew Fisher, his pugnacious policy aide. Sources with intimate knowledge of the meeting say Lansman expected to be appointed as Corbyn’s chief of staff, but was informed he would be given no role. His relationship with Milne has been less than comradely ever since, boiling over again when he remonstrated with Corbyn and his aides about their handling of Labour’s anti-Semitism scandal. Lansman is praised by Labour moderates for his role in patiently explaining to Corbyn both what anti-Semitism is and why it is a problem on the left, and for ordering comrades to stop using ‘Zionist’ as a term of abuse. Not everyone in the leader’s office agreed.

There are also growing tensions within Momentum between Lansman and younger members of the group. Lansman’s hardline, up-against-the wall stance is blamed for Momentum’s poor public image by activists who want a more collegial approach. As one Labour source puts it: ‘He’s got this sort of internal Chinese wall where he thinks you can be nice to people to their face and horrible to them politically. He’s tough and he thinks people should toughen up. He’s battle-hardened and loves the game and thinks the others are just naive hipsters.’

A love of the game is revealed in a remarkable hard-left attempt to take over the Labour party’s compliance unit. The leader’s office believes the compliance unit is a key asset of the moderates because it has rooted out and expelled so many pro-Corbyn entryists. John McDonnell suggested abolishing it entirely, but when that idea was dismissed the Corbynistas came up with another plan: to install Lansman’s son in a key role. Max Lansman, a lawyer in his twenties who shares many of his father’s political views, was seen as the perfect candidate to keep an eye on things. Labour sources describe this as a ‘coup attempt’ and say it was a plot to undermine the compliance unit from within. The plan might have succeeded if not for one problem. As a student just a few years ago, Max was the treasurer of a political party at Leeds University. Unfortunately, it was the Green party, not the Labour party. Turns out the man the Corbynites wanted to put in charge of combating entryism was himself an entryist. A Labour spokesman does not deny the takeover attempt: ‘We don’t comment on staffing matters.’

Lansman now sees Momentum as a movement for the future. It succeeded in its first task of taking over the leadership. Now its challenge is to irrevocably transform the party. Deselecting MPs is the tip of the iceberg; Momentum’s leaders want left-wing control at every level, from Labour’s headquarters to its Westminster staff to its Shadow Cabinet aides. Lansman himself has been granted a pass giving him unfettered access to the parliamentary estate, ostensibly as a bag-carrier to shadow minister Imran Hussain. A key Momentum organiser, Laura Murray, has been appointed as a political adviser to shadow cabinet minister Grahame Morris. (It helps that she has a close personal relationship with Corbyn’s son Ben.) James Schneider, the telegenic Momentum spokesman, is tipped for parliament.

Lansman’s final battle will come when Corbyn loses the next general election. In 1983, after Michael Foot’s ‘longest suicide note in history’, Lansman published his own manifesto for where the party should go next. It blamed electoral defeat on ‘the party machine’ being ‘in the hands of the right’. It offered ‘an aggressive reaffirmation of the arguments for a genuine socialist alternative’, arguing Labour should become even more left-wing. And it delivered a stark warning to the party’s moderates. Lansman wrote: ‘This is a debate which the right cannot win. The support among activists for the policies which the right want to overturn is too overwhelming. In the end the best the right can hope to achieve is to take us down with them.’

Now, 33 years later, Lansman is preparing to make the same argument all over again: that whatever happens with Corbyn, Labour must not slip back into the hands of the right. He lost that fight in the 1980s, but he is determined to win it this time round. Lansman describes his life by invoking his Jewish roots: ‘After decades in the Wilderness, heading for the Promised Land.’ He is at last out of the Wilderness, but he will not reach the Promised Land until Labour’s future as a party of the hard left is secure.