Maybe it is the looming closure of the Gay Hussar in Soho, our lunchtime venue, after 65 years as a haunt of London’s left-wingers. Perhaps it is the photographs of long-departed politicians that line the walls. But the conversation has turned to death.
“I don’t have any fear of death at all,” says Jon Lansman intently. “And having been with my wife when she died, very young, 39, I kind of feel I’ve pretty much experienced it or as close as you can without actually dying. It doesn’t hold any great terror for me.”
The 61-year-old activist sits with his back to the street window. He has been cultivating a large bushy-white beard of late, initially in observance of a Jewish tradition in the wake of another, more recent death: that of his mother. The beard, along with his swirling lime-green and navy tie and blue shirt, gives him something of an art-school Father Christmas look. Lansman describes his mother’s last years. “She had dementia, for a long time she was in a terrible state. She used to say to me, ‘If I go doolally, you’ve got to put a pillow over my head.’ She even made me promise I would... but of course I was lying.”
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.”
Britain’s class-obsessed tabloids emphasise that Lansman is a former public schoolboy. He won a scholarship to Highgate School, which he found “grim”. “I was very academic and completely unsporty,” he says. The youngster studied maths and economics at Cambridge university, spent six months exploring the Sahara, then drove a laundry van before winding up in politics. By 1981 Lansman had become a researcher for Tony Benn, then the standard-bearer for the left, and was notoriously accused by rival Denis Healey of “orchestrating heckling” against him at various demonstrations — which he denies.
I ask what Benn would make of the Corbyn phenomenon. “I think he would be amazed. I don’t think he [Benn] had the slightest inkling of it.”
The current leadership is still seen by most MPs as a startling break in Labour’s 118-year history. For Lansman, New Labour was the real aberration, with its courting of big business and the disastrous Iraq war. “They [the Blair government] had open borders so they talked tough on asylum, they were generous in benefits so they talked tough about scroungers and that shifted people against us in the wrong direction; it was a terrible, terrible political failure,” he argues. “To be intensely relaxed about the filthy rich [a reference to a famous Lord Mandelson quote]... it alienated a lot of core voters, it was unforgivable.”
It turns out Momentum was nearly called something else. ‘Swarm’. That was suggested to us. Swarm was a very bad idea
Lansman has himself brought up the subject of wealth. It seems a reasonable moment to ask about the claims that he is a champagne socialist like his mentor Benn, who renounced his hereditary peerage but lived in a glorious house in Holland Park.
Media critics like to report that Lansman lives in a swish Thames-side apartment at Butler’s Wharf, although those articles often ignore the fact that he is renting. And while he has a comfortable lifestyle, some of this stems from the proceeds of compensation payment from the NHS after it failed to correctly diagnose his wife’s breast cancer in time.
I also ask about the property company run by his brother and his son, another staple of press coverage: this prompts a rare flash of agitation from Lansman. “It’s all completely ethical... the press have been targeting my younger kid. It’s a burden. It’s complete lies. It’s been explained to them. They keep printing it.”
To clear the air, I ask about the red wine: “It’s OK.” And his main course, a veal goulash? “Actually this is good... I don’t eat meat all the time but I do like meat. I hope it’s ethically reared.” My plate of kacsasult is two large hunks of gloriously crispy duck in an ambiguous bright orange sauce: pure comfort food.
In recent months Corbyn has been heavily criticised for his handling of allegations of anti-Semitism among Labour’s membership, which this week prompted the veteran MP Frank Field to resign the party whip. Some have featured figures from Momentum, for example its former vice-chair, Jackie Walker, whose comments on the issue resulted in suspension from the Labour party.
This is paradoxical, given Lansman’s background. He tells of how his father tried to join the local golf club in order to use its squash court: “They were declined membership... in the 1960s, before the Race Relations Act. He was told by others it was because he was Jewish.”
He says he finds it “strange” that some of his leftwing allies cannot acknowledge their “unconscious bias” in relation to anti-Semitism. “I’ve had times when I’ve woken up and I look at my iPad... there’s one morning I remember, not many weeks ago, when I was just horrified at things on my Facebook page from people who I regarded as friends.” Even then, however, he insists that Labour is not “absolutely riddled with anti-Semites”, suggesting that perceptions have become “out of sync” with the reality.
Lansman has been among those in the Corbyn inner circle trying to defuse the row that has broken out over how to define anti-Semitism, arguing privately for the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance “examples” that the party has so far resisted on the basis that they could inhibit legitimate criticism of Israel.
I raise the recent Commons speech by Luciana Berger, a Jewish moderate MP, who reduced observers to tears as she described living with a deluge of hate-filled messages. “I suspect most of it is coming from real hardcore fascists, actually, and I don’t think much of it will come from inside,” says Lansman slowly.
So why did Berger mention that many of the messages had the hashtag “JC4PM” [Jeremy Corbyn for prime minister]? “I’m not saying she’s not getting any unpleasantness from people in my party, unfortunately she is... but not the majority.”
Lansman expresses an almost naive bewilderment about the level of bile inside and outside the party. “I certainly wish people would calm it down,” he concedes. “I don’t think there’s any excuse for that kind of thing.”
Desserts have arrived: an anaemic pair of pancakes with lemon for me and a large portion of apple strudel and ice cream for him, washed down with two Americanos.
Now Lansman’s focus is ensuring Momentum will continue long after he has stepped down, a moment that could come as early as next year. “It’s not going to happen this year... maybe next time. I do want to hand over.” He believes that the political wind is now in Labour’s sails, not least because of demographics. “If we can hang on to young people, more people join in... I’m afraid old people are sadly leaving,” he says, picking at his strudel.
With as long as four years to go until the next election, sceptics suggest that grassroots Corbynistas could lose their enthusiasm. There is also the matter of Brexit, which is driving a wedge between the leadership and its members. The last few months have seen a groundswell of dissent from anti-Brexit members, many of whom want the Labour conference in September to hold a vote on backing a second referendum. Lansman believes this is being orchestrated by unfriendly MPs, suggesting they may be “cynically trying to use Brexit in order to be unhelpful to the leadership”.
He says he never shared the all-out Euroscepticism of his idol Benn and did vote Remain in 2016, despite believing the EU needs “major reform” and suffers a democratic deficit. Now he admits: “I think I would have been much more engaged with it if I thought there was a chance that it was going to go the way it did... I am a cosmopolitan anti-nationalist.”
Most of the other clientele have now drifted out into Soho. As we drain the red wine, Lansman talks of some of the hobbies he would like to indulge upon retirement, including a musical taste that ranges from jazz to British folk. A few months ago he went to watch The Grateful Dead in Mexico alongside other bearded beatniks of a certain age.
Yet it’s hard somehow to see him giving up the perpetual battle. There has been growing speculation over the summer that some despondent Labour MPs could form a breakaway faction, recreating the SDP split of the early 1980s. Many fear being pushed if they do not walk.
Earlier, Lansman said that Labour MPs didn’t need to fear an ousting by Momentum, and that he did not want to stick the Blairites in a “sealed tomb” — a phrase once used by New Labour about the left. But now he strikes a more combative note: “As long as there are perhaps between 12 or 25 or 30 people who are very hostile, who are just waiting for Jeremy to go so they can turn the clock back, then... we’ll keep having that fight.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.