It is a rare glimpse into the private life of an éminence grise who — having helped engineer the rise of Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn — is often portrayed as a cartoon villain of the hard left. As the founder of the pro-Corbyn pressure group Momentum, Lansman is now one of most influential figures in British politics.
Inevitably, he has his detractors: more on that later. But first there is a decision to make. A few years ago Lansman donated one of his kidneys to a stranger, having originally offered it to his brother, who was suffering from polycystic kidney disease. (The siblings did not have the right tissue match.) So... is he allowed to drink at lunchtime?
“The marvellous thing is they told me there was no problem drinking — and actually apparently having a kidney transplant extends your life expectancy,” he says. “It’s probably because they look after you... I get at least annual check-ups.” We order a carafe of Merlot and peruse the menu: an array of schnitzels, dumplings and stews straight out of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
On the face of it, Lansman is a mass of contradictions. Momentum has been accused of tolerating anti-Semitism; Lansman is Jewish. Corbyn is seen as the enemy of the rich; Lansman is a man of means. Momentum is seen by many as viciously tribal; Lansman is affable.
A backroom organiser for the Labour left in the 1980s, Lansman was marginalised during the New Labour years. In the 2000s, having lost his wife to cancer, he dropped politics and worked only part-time as a consultant, devoting himself to bringing up his three young children.
He re-emerged again in 2010 as the brains behind a website called Left Futures. Then in 2015, when few thought Corbyn could reach the ballot during Labour’s leadership race, it was Lansman who drummed up support from MPs. Soon afterwards he set up the Momentum pressure group as a kind of praetorian guard, defending the leader from his many enemies and organising social events and pro-Corbyn “slates” when political roles become vacant.
Momentum was dismissed as a “rabble” in its early days but is now seen as a formidable political organisation, feared by Labour centrists for the bellicose language of its members: many want to deselect Corbyn’s opponents in the party. It turns out the group was nearly called something else. “Some names we looked at were as good. Some of them were very much worse,” he says. “‘Swarm’. That was suggested to us. Swarm was a very bad idea.”
Lansman used to be secretary of another leftwing pressure group that is now lost to the mists of time: “It was the Rank and File Mobilising Committee, in 1981. We were not good at branding in the 1980s, now we are better.”
For most Labour members of parliament, that is not a cause for celebration. They resent Lansman, who has never held elected office apart from a spell as a councillor in Hertford, an experience he describes as “deathly”. MPs believe Lansman has opened a Pandora’s box of self-righteous aggression directed by Momentum members against anyone who criticises the leader. Alan Johnson, the former Labour home secretary, says Momentum represents “malice dressed as virtue”. One sitting MP says: “I quite like Jon, but he reminds me of Dr Frankenstein. His attitude is: ‘I put together all those dead body parts and built the monster but it’s not my fault if it goes around killing people.’”
Somehow it is hard to reconcile this metaphor with the friendly idealist sitting next to me, who is ladling a lurid pink gloop into his mouth — cherry soup. “It’s cold,” he says. “A yoghurt soup. I like it, actually, it’s kind of sour, the cherries are sour cherries.”
In person Lansman does not seem particularly tribal, recounting admiringly how his former boss Michael Meacher used to work closely with rightwing Tories where necessary. He says of his own father, who joined the Tory party partly in protest at his son’s radicalism: “He had a real public service ethos... he was a one-nation Tory.” Lansman also describes having amiable chats with Nigel Farage, the former leader of Ukip: “I will talk perfectly happily to anybody who will talk to me.”
So how does he feel about all the aggro from leftwing campaigners, many in Momentum, against people in their own party? He tries to sound reasonable: “MPs who do a decent job... and treat their members reasonably really have nothing to fear. The left are actually a bunch of softies, they don’t like sacking people”. He says he can’t take responsibility for everything his group’s 42,000 members say and do. “I’m not a manager. I like to think I’m a strategist, yes, but I absolutely cannot control everything that is going on. Momentum is a very different kind of organisation, it’s much less hierarchical, horizontal, culturally very different. Our members want to do politics themselves, not just to take orders.” That seems like a cop-out.
The Gay Hussar is an evocative venue for Lansman, whose parents — moderately Orthodox Jews — were in the “rag trade” in Hackney in north-east London. Opened in 1953 as a meeting place for Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, many on the left, it soon became a favoured hang-out of union leaders and MPs, despite being more than a mile from Westminster. Aneurin Bevan used to eat here, as did Barbara Castle — and TS Eliot.
In theory, politicians don’t frequent the Gay Hussar any more. Yet the door swings open, and in steps John Cryer, chair of the Parliamentary Labour party, with his wife Ellie Reeves, also an MP. They stop at our corner table for some brief pleasantries. Later the maître d’ of the since-shuttered restaurant tells us that he has had 140 emails in recent days from political types, mostly wanting a last supper.
Most of the figures in Corbyn’s orbit have known him for aeons and the Momentum chairman is no exception: they first met briefly in 1974, when Lansman still wore dungarees. “Jeremy was a hyper-activist, he’s always been a hyper-activist and still is a hyper-activist, I think, at heart.”