Jon Lansman, Momentum founder and a newly elected member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee, and D.D. Guttenplan, JQ editor, began talking politics when they first met as undergraduates nearly 40 years ago. Resuming the conversation more recently, they began recording this interview in early 2016, and concluded it in May 2018.
JQ: Tell me a bit about how you first got involved in politics.
Jon Lansman: In 1970 there was a general election in Britain and my school ran a kind of mock election.
JQ: Where was this?
Jon Lansman: This was in North London. I stood as a Maoist candidate. My understanding of Maoism was not perfect by any means. I got four votes including mine. So I was very interested in politics from an early age. I joined the Labour Party when I was not quite 16. You weren't supposed to join until you were 16 in those days; now you can join at 14. We had two general elections in 1974. I joined just after one of those and helped knock on doors. I suppose politically at the time I was on the left.
JQ: Did you come from a left family?
Jon Lansman: Not at all. My parents were not political, though at the time they voted Tory. In fact after I joined the Labour Party my dad joined the Tory Party. He was a bit of a rebel. He was very much a one nation Tory.
My parents were members of an Orthodox synagogue. They were in the rag trade, they had a shop that was open on Saturdays – so they weren't actually that Orthodox. My aunt emigrated to Israel, and I spent most of one summer working on a kibbutz – Sde Boker, which was [David] Ben Gurion's kibbutz. I was very attracted to the kibbutz as a kind of idealistic communal socialist way of working.
[When I got there] I was disappointed by the absence of children's houses, because the idea of being able to get away from my parents – I was a child of the '60s. They were reactionary and I was rebellious. The other thing was the way they used British and American Jewish kids as labour – there was no political education really going on…. So that was somewhat disillusioning. I also spent a lot of time on the West Bank, which did seem like an occupied territory. It wasn't like it is now, but it was depressing.
JQ: You didn't find your political home?
Jon Lansman: No. There were aspects of it, then, which I thought were still idealistic. This was the same time, by the way, as I joined the Labour Party.
JQ: So in a sense, there were two paths: the path to emigration, and the path to the Labour Party?
Jon Lansman: Exactly. And it kind of reinforced my – the politics of joining the Labour Party. But I hadn't really moved very far to the left at that point. If I'd voted in the 1975 European Referendum, which I was about two weeks too young to vote in, I would have voted to [go] in. Whereas I later switched to wanting to be out – although I switched back again by '83 when the Party reversed its policy.
While I was a student I stayed active in my constituency party at home. I [also] joined the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. So I was attracted to the left, to what Tony Benn was saying at the time. I studied economics as an undergraduate – I was at Cambridge – and I was very attracted to the ideas of the Cambridge Economic Policy Group.