Spell on a kib­butz in­spired key Cor­byn aide’s hard-left pol­i­tics

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The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY ROSA DO­HERTY

THE MAN lead­ing the in­flu­en­tial grass­roots move­ment sup­port­ing Jeremy Cor­byn formed his political ideas dur­ing a spell on a kib­butz. In his first in-depth in­ter­view, Jon Lans­man, founder of the Mo­men­tum pres­sure group, told the JC that it was a trip to the Negev as a teenager that sparked his in­ter­est in left-wing pol­i­tics.

Mr Lans­man said life on a kib­butz in the 1970s had made him less of a Zion­ist, but, he added: “It was ac­tu­ally a very politi­cis­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. What I liked about it was the pi­o­neer­ing spirit, the sense of com­mu­nity and rad­i­cal­ism of it.”

Mr Lans­man’s Mo­men­tum group led the grass­roots cam­paign back­ing Mr Cor­byn ahead of his shock vic­tory in last sum­mer’s Labour lead­er­ship con­test.

The for­mer aide to the late left-wing MP Tony Benn also de­scribed how trauma of los­ing his wife to can­cer had wiped out much of his political am­bi­tion and made him seek a back­room role in­stead.

HE IS cred­ited with be­ing one of the key fig­ures be­hind Jeremy Cor­byn’s elec­tion as leader of the Labour Party — the driv­ing force be­hind an in­creas­ingly in­flu­en­tial hard-left move­ment.

So it is a sur­prise to find Jon Lans­man sit­ting at a desk in a run-down of­fice, where, in­stead of aides bustling around him, there are sparsely pop­u­lated meet- ing rooms and eerily quiet cor­ri­dors.

Mr Lans­man is the founder of the con­tro­ver­sial “Cor­bynista” pres­sure group, Mo­men­tum, which was set up to cap­ture and re­tain the grass­roots en­thu­si­asm sparked by Mr Cor­byn’s cam­paign, but whose op­po­nents fear will purge the party of mod­er­ates. It is be­com­ing, they say, a “party within a party”.

Hav­ing spent more than 30 years in the political shad­ows, rel­a­tively lit­tle is known about Mr Lans­man. But in his first in-depth in­ter­view, he de­scribes what hap­pened be­hind the scenes in the as­ton­ish­ing lead­er­ship con­test that saw Mr Cor­byn take power, and how the “rad­i­cal­ism” of kib­butz life in Is­rael sparked a fer­vour in him that has fu­elled his ca­reer.

“I was in­volved from the very be­gin­ning,” he says. “I wanted to have a can­di­date from the left and I was ac­tively en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to stand. Var­i­ous other peo­ple had de­clined and I even­tu­ally set­tled upon Jeremy as some­one I wanted to per­suade to stand.”

Ini­tially Mr Lans­man, who is editor of the Left Fu­tures blog, was not con­vinced that the Is­ling­ton MP was the right man for the job, but he quickly changed his mind.

“Jeremy was not the first per­son you thought about as hav­ing the same con­ven­tional lead­er­ship qual­i­ties that the me­dia and other Labour MPs think are nec­es­sary.

“But ac­tu­ally I came to see the rea­son he did well was be­cause he didn’t have those qual­i­ties. He had other things in­stead and peo­ple who made this hap­pen were, if not mem­bers of the party, ac­tive po­lit­i­cally — more than most.”

Last sum­mer’ s lead­er­ship con­test was sparked into life when the JC chal­lenged Mr Cor­byn with a se­ries of ques­tions about his as­so­ci­a­tions with Holo­caust de­niers, ter­ror­ists and an­ti­semites.

Mr Lans­man, 58, is re­laxed about how he and his col­leagues on Team Cor­byn han­dled the episode.

“I do re­gret we weren’t able to deal with the con­cerns in a more timely way ,” he says. “There was a missed op­por­tu­nity to use the Jews in the team but we were op­er­at­ing with a small staff. We should have been more in­volved from the start, be­cause we could have helped an­swer those ques­tions.”

Brought up in a “typ­i­cal Ortho­dox fam­ily” in Southgate, north Lon­don, Mr Lans­man first went to Is­rael aged 16 just af­ter the Yom Kip­pur War to visit an aunt who had made aliyah.

“I worked on a kib­butz in the Negev and my aunt lived in Beer­sheva. It was ac­tu­ally a very politi­cis­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. When I did my bar­mitz­vah I saw my­self as a Zion­ist and I think af­ter I went there I felt it less.

“I was more in­ter­ested in the kib­butz and what I liked about it was the pi­o­neer­ing spirit, the sense of com­mu­nity and rad­i­cal­ism of it.”

Is it the spirit that he wit­nessed in 1970s Is­rael that now fu­els Mo­men­tum — seen by many as a hot­bed of anti-Zion­ist fer­vour on Bri­tain’s political left?

Mr L an sm an does not tackle the point head on, but ex­plains: “I think Labour politi­cians look as if they all come from the same mould, you don’t have the di­ver­sity you used to have, peo­ple with real ex­pe­ri­ence of life.

“Peo­ple come out of univer­sity and treat pol­i­tics as a ca­reer and it means you end up with peo­ple who look and sound the same. It is dam­ag­ing for the Labour Party. Jeremy of­fered some­thing dif­fer­ent. He is get­ting real peo­ple in­volved again.”

The fail­ure to re­spond to the Jewish com­mu­nity’s con­cern about Mr Cor­byn’s ties to Holo­caust de­niers was down to “prac­ti­cal” rea­sons, Mr Lans­man says.

“One of the prob­lems is the ques­tions re­lated to meet­ings that hap­pened be­fore elec­tronic records. You have to check the cor­re­spon­dence on pa­per and it can take many days to do the nec­es­sary checks. It makes it hard to re­spond in­stantly be­cause you haven’tgot­the ev­i­dence.”

D istinct ions should have been drawn, he be­lieves, be­tween how Mr Cor­byn re­sponded to such is­sues as a back­bencher, and as the leader of the party. He can no longer dodge re­spond­ing sim­ply to avoid “sat­is­fy­ing his crit­ics”. Now there is a re­spon­si­bil­ity to re­act, and the Cor­byn camp missed the boat last sum­mer.

“Per­haps we were too slow to move and recog­nise that as a can­di­date for leader you have to re­spond to those things.”

But Mr Lans­man says there is no rea­son why Zion­ist Labour sup­port­ers can­not find a place in the Cor­byn Labour Party.

“I have Zion­ist friends in the party. Jeremy sup­ports the ex­is­tence of Is­rael, he wants peace and co­ex­is­tence. Why should Is­rael sup­port­ers not have a place in Labour? Of course they should. I’ve been ar­gu­ing for two states long be­fore it was ac­cept­able within the Jewish com­mu­nity to ar­gue for two states.

“I re­mem­ber ar­gu­ing with my great-aunt when I was 13 that there were Pales­tini­ans and

they should have a home­land.

“What we are say­ing will strike a chord with peo­ple in the com­mu­nity and we ab­so­lutely need to mend and build bridges. For me it is a pri­or­ity and that is why I am talk­ing to the

“Yes, of course the vast ma­jor­ity of Bri­tish Jews are sup­port­ive of Is­rael as a Jewish state — and ac­tu­ally so is Jeremy — but they are far from sup­port­ive of all aspects of what is cur­rently hap­pen­ing there. The Labour Party has to be con­cerned with a broad view, and the pur­suit of peace.

“I don’t think you can fault Jeremy on his con­cern for peace. He is not a war­mon­ger, he doesn’t want killing and death.

“I think Jews in Bri­tain want peace too. I think Jeremy’s mes­sage of fair­ness for the Pales­tini­ans is not some­thing that will be re­jected by the Jewish com­mu­nity.”

Mr Lans­man be­lieves he has a grip on how Jews feel — partly through his reg­u­lar read­ing of this news­pa­per. He says he uses the iPad edi­tion to “keep up with what hap­pens com­mu­nally and else­where” ev­ery week.

“The other im­por­tant thing is on all of the other is­sues — on an­tisemitism, kashrut — Jeremy of­fers some­thing to the Jewish com­mu­nity. He is to­tally com­mit­ted to things Jewish peo­ple have a nat­u­ral sym­pa­thy for, so it is quite frus­trat­ing that Is­rael and Pales­tine has to dom­i­nate.”

He ac­knowl­edges that it is go­ing to be “an up­hill strug­gle” to carry the com­mu­nity with Labour but says: “I think we will take a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber if we can present the case in the right way.”

Mr Lans­man crit­i­cises com­mu­nal lead­ers for fail­ing­torep­re­sentsec­u­larJews: “Thecom­mu­nitylead­er­ship are re­ally not speak­ing for the whole com­mu­nity in all sorts of ways. It’s too in­flu­enced by religious el­e­ments and that’s not healthy. “They are not speak­ing for sec­u­lar Jews. There is no real place for us, we don’t have much of a say, and are not rep­re­sented by the Board of Deputies.” How­ever he ac­cepts there is still “work to do” to im­prove Labour’s re­la­tions with com­mu­nity lead­ers.

But how would he chal­lenge the an­tisemitism that has seeped into hardleft pol­i­tics? “I crit­i­cised Ken Liv­ing­stone for writ­ing off the Jewish com­mu­nity be­cause he thought they were ‘wealthy’ so they wouldn’t vote for him.”

“It is still the case that Jews in Bri­tain are so­cially more pro­gres­sive than their non-Jewish neigh­bours with the same so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus.

“I don’t think he was an­ti­semitic but it was just wrong. It showed a com­plete mis­un­der­stand­ing of the com­mu­nity. He was sloppy with his lan­guage on Jews and Zion­ists. You have to be very care­ful. I’m crit­i­cal of any­one on the left who does that.”

He de­fends Mo­men­tum’s de­ci­sion to join with the Stop the War Coali­tion to lobby MPs to vote against the bomb­ing of Daesh in Syria, but ad­mits the anti-war group had been “stupid” for blam­ing the Paris ter­ror at­tacks on the West and al­low­ing on­line bul­ly­ing and threats to take hold.

“I think even Stop the War them­selves have ac­cepted they were stupid for pub­lish­ing those ar­ti­cles. There were some very si l l y things pub­lished, and wrong things. I’m com­pletely against trolling peo­ple and abus­ing pe o p l e o n Twit te r a nd so­cial me­dia.

“I think the level of abuse has b e e n ex­ag­ger­ated and I don’t think it comes from Mo­men­tum sup­port­ers. Maybe one or two, but gen­er­ally I don’t think so.”

Mr Lans­man has worked for Tony Benn and Michael Meacher, both prom­i­nent fig­ures on Labour’s left, but for years he was in the political wilder­ness.

In De­cem­ber, Labour Friends of Is­rael vice-chair Re­becca Si­mon picked up on the ap­par­ent se­crecy around him, telling a Lim­mud con­fer­ence au­di­ence that other than the fact he was Jewish and “Jeremy’s friend”, no one knew any­thing about him.

Af­ter so many years as a back­room ad­viser and co-or­di­na­tor, how does he now cope in the me­dia spot­light?

“I’ve never talked about my­self be­fore,” he says. “I’ve never sought pub­lic at­ten­tion.

“Be­ing thrust into the lime­light is hard. There have been news pieces about me and my fam­ily which have been based on lies and dis­tor­tion.

“I am per­haps a le­git­i­mate tar­get, but my fam­ily, why? It is just dread­ful.” The father-of-three ex­plains his pen­chant for the back­room as be­ing in part due to his wife’s death from breast can­cer 17 years ago. “Not long af­ter our third child was born, my wife Beth went to the hos­pi­tal with a lump. Three years later they had failed to di­ag­nose it. She had a tu­mour the size of a ten­nis ball.

“My youngest was eight when Beth died. It was tough but you do learn to cope. That ex­pe­ri­ence re­ally made me lose my in­ter­est in the world of work. I didn’t feel much am­bit io n an d that was wh y I sought a backr oo m me n - tal­ity.”

The Lans­man fam­ily still found hu­mour in those dark times; when nonJewish Beth took to wear­ing a wig dur­ing chemo­ther­apy treat­ment, a rabbi mis­took it for a shei­tel.

Mr Lans­man says he marks Jewish fes­ti­vals such as Pe­sach and Chanu­cah with fam­ily events, but strug­gled to tell his par­ents that he no longer goes to shul on Yom Kip­pur.

Rabbi Jonathan Ro­main, of Maiden­head Syn­a­gogue, had of­fered to help Beth com­plete a con­ver­sion, but the Lans­mans dropped the idea when it was clear Jon would also have to take part in lessons.

“As an athe­ist, it did not feel right to put her through a con­ver­sion when I wasn’t com­mit­ted to it,” he ex­plains.

He tells me that his father be­came a Con­ser­va­tive coun­cil­lor in Hack­ney in part as a re­bel­lion against his son join­ing Labour — and was so well-re­spected that on his death he was lauded by Labour op­po­nents as well as Tory col­leagues.

An in­di­ca­tion, per­haps, of the “kin­der pol­i­tics” Mr Cor­byn has said he wants to see in mod­ern Bri­tain, but a long way from what op­po­nents say is the abu­sive na­ture of many Mo­men­tum sup­port­ers.

See­ing the wider pic­ture and work­ing col­lab­o­ra­tively is, Mr Lans­man says, a pri­or­ity for Cor­byn’s Labour.

“You can’t just take up the cause of one side, you have to take into ac­count the in­ter­est of an­other. I think to some ex­tent Jeremy al­ways has.

“That is about mov­ing from op­po­si­tion to govern­ment. That doesn’t mean he will have to change his prin­ci­ples, he is not some­one who de­parts from those — he has in­tegrity.

“Mo­men­tum has an im­por­tant role to play in ad­vo­cat­ing and sup­port­ing the pol­icy, and de­vel­op­ing the move­ment, that Jeremy wants to see built.”

Bri­tish Jews sup­port Is­rael as a Jewish­state— an­dac­tu­allyso doesJeremy

Is­rael in­flu­ence:

Jon Lans­man

Jeremy Cor­byn

PHOTO: ROSA DO­HERTY

Jon Lans­man at work in Mo­men­tum’s Eus­ton of­fice

Lans­man was against Bri­tish forces bomb­ing Syria

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