Illustration by John Watson

The pretty intolerant left

Former Momentum chair Jon Lansman on the election, the left and the Middle East crisis
July 10, 2024

In 2015, Jon Lansman’s brother needed a kidney transplant. Lansman was running Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership at the time, working 18-hour days. He still donated a kidney (which, unfortunately, wasn’t a good match) and took hardly any time off to recover. “After about three days, I took a cab into the office. It wasn’t a good idea.” 

In May 2020, the 66-year-old stepped down as chair of Momentum, the left-wing organisation he co-founded in the wake of Corbyn’s successful leadership bid. Later that year, he also resigned from Labour’s National Executive Committee. Life now runs at a different pace. When we meet in Highbury, north London, the week before Britons go to the polls, Lansman looks relaxed and tanned. He has just come back from Spain. Yes, he felt guilty going, he tells me as we sit at the large kitchen table in his partner’s sunny flat, but the holiday was booked before Rishi Sunak called the election. 

It’s hard for him to be less involved this time round. Lansman, neat in a black shirt and black smartwatch, has done a bit of canvassing, but not daily. The lifelong activist is living in Islington North, the constituency where Corbyn is running as an independent.  

“It’s complicated for me here,” he says, before reeling off a position on his former political ally: “I do think he’s been very badly treated. I don’t think he’s an antisemite. I don’t think he handled antisemitism at all well.”  

Lansman, as he points out to me, has Labour posters in his windows. One is a drawing of Angela Rayner smoking, under the legend “Queen of the North”. Lansman is quietly hopeful that a Keir Starmer government will be less cautious than the Starmer election campaign. There have been hints that policy on things like a wealth tax will be different to the messaging. “I want a Labour government,” he says, “and I suppose I’m more tolerant of… political difference. Maybe I was once much more narrowly focused in my ideas, but I’m more tolerant of people’s changes… I think most of the left, unfortunately, is pretty intolerant.”  

Lansman insists Momentum was “pluralist”, though some of its groups were problematic. “Continuous attacks” from the Parliamentary Labour Party meant that “we had to continuously mount defensive actions to protect people”. Lansman got behind Corbyn to broaden the debate inside Labour, to build up a campaigning database and pursue an anti-austerity agenda, he says. “I confess, I just didn’t think he would win.” (And Corbyn, he tells me, didn’t want to win, either).  

In this election, the powerful grassroots campaigning machine Lansman wielded has been less visible. Most of the candidates who would normally galvanise Momentum’s membership were kept out, Lansman explains. Starmer’s “ruthlessness” has meant many people have left the party. That is “certainly tragic for the Labour left. I don’t think it’s healthy for politics”—though Lansman admits there were some “very intolerant” members he is happy to see gone. 

Lansman, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in north London, has been the target of anti-Jewish abuse himself. “I got it from both sides, and that was one of the worst things—well, it’s horrible.” The past nine months since Hamas’s 7th October attack on Israel, and the ensuing Gaza war, have been difficult, particularly for a non-Zionist Jew. “No one allows any space to be a non-Zionist.” 

As a young man, Lansman spent time on an Israeli kibbutz, and he still has family in the country. “There are lots of false narratives about Zionism,” he says. He would have supported the creation of Israel because of the Holocaust, and because most of the Jews who immigrated to the new state were refugees. “Why can’t the left get that?” People “don’t know the left supported Zionism,” he says. Worse, “they rush to hate.” 

One bright spot has been Standing Together, the Jewish-Arab grassroots movement, arguably on the Israeli and Palestinian left, which since 7th October has been rallying against violence and for peace. Members of the movement have also been taking part in direct action, such as protecting trucks carrying aid into Gaza from right-wing Israelis trying to stop them. This has been “a beacon of light in a sea of darkness,” says Lansman. Momentum and Standing Together have, in fact, collaborated, with the former training the latter on how to use data and social media to mount an effective campaign. Now, he says, Momentum has much to learn from Standing Together’s example.  

 So what’s the answer to this intolerance? It might be generational, a residue of the anger over Blairism. The left “see anyone who’s not one of them… as the other, as the enemy. I don’t share that view.” It’s important to talk to people you don’t agree with. “They’re human beings,” he says. “You can agree to differ about things. And people change, as well."