Why did Jon Lansman withdraw from the race to become Labour’s new general secretary? Carla Roberts of Labour Party Marxists looks for answers
Jon Lansman might have withdrawn his candidacy for Labour Party general secretary, but the charade continues.
In his statement, tweeted on March 10, Lansman assures us that he is withdrawing “with my aims fulfilled” and in order “to focus on my role on the NEC”. You see, all he ever wanted was to “open up the contest”. Apparently, he had “a number of party members get in touch to let me know they are applying for the role.” Therefore, “I reiterate my call for Labour Party members, especially women, with talent and experience to consider submitting an application.” He says that now the party “must draw a clear line between our renewed and reinvigorated mass-membership party and previous eras of command and control, where the views of members and affiliates were too often ignored”. Because he had put in his nomination, “NEC members have begun a productive, comradely debate about the future of the party”.
So much bullshit – where do you start?
Firstly, there already was a woman with “talent and experience” running for the position, even before Lansman declared his candidacy. She is called Jennie Formby.
Secondly, we do not believe for a minute that Lansman was just standing to inspire others to follow suit. Nothing quite says to a woman ‘Come and apply for this job’ better like the leader of a mass organisation with excellent access to the mainstream media going for it himself! Still, Owen Jones seemed to believe Lansman:
Bennism holds party democracy to be sacred, and on a point of principle Lansman believes important positions should be open and contested. Rather than seeking conflict with Unite, above all else Lansman is standing to open up the contest.
That says more about Owen’s trajectory towards politically naive La-La-Land than it does about Lansman. He clearly wanted the job – there is no doubt about it.
Thirdly, who are the other candidates that Lansman managed to inspire through his action? There is a certain Paul Hilder, a very managerial type of candidate who avoids talking politics – but seems to have vast experience in all sorts of sectors and roles, particularly in self-promotion. He previously tried for the general secretary position in 2011, so that one is not down to Lansman.
The only other female candidate who has – very quietly – thrown her hat in the ring is someone called Maria Carroll. On March 11 she tweeted that Jon Lansman “is encouraging members to apply and I am inspired to apply. So I’m seeking your views here.” She has been outspoken against aspects of the witch-hunt based on trumped-up charges of anti-Semitism and is no doubt serious. But we would have advised her not to stand. As we go to press, no other candidates have emerged, so Lansman’s talk about others applying as a result of the contest being ‘opened up’ by himself seems to have been a little inaccurate. [Update March 16: Ex-NUT leader Christine Blower features on the shortlist with Jennie Formby, though we doubt if this is thanks to Jon Lansman]
Fourthly, thanks to the media’s interest in the left tearing chunks out of each other, we got a glimpse of the “debate about the future of the party” among members of the national executive committee following Lansman’s candidacy. It could be described with a lot of different adjectives, but Lansman’s “productive” and “comradely” are certainly not among them!
Not only did John McDonnell come out publicly for Formby in order to put pressure on Lansman not to run: Jeremy Corbyn was said to have called him twice before he finally relented. And we have heard talk of other, rather heated phone calls that current and former NEC members made to Lansman.
Fifth, had Lansman indeed been chosen as general secretary, his place on the NEC would have been taken by rightwinger Eddie Izzard (runner-up in the constituency labour party section). So much for his “focus on the NEC”, where pro-Corbyn members only have a very slight majority (21 to 17). If somebody is on holiday or falls ill (or disagrees!), that majority is in serious jeopardy.
Democracy à la Momentum
Lastly and most absurdly is Lansman’s claim to have done it all for the rights of ordinary Labour Party members – and his desire to put an end to the “era of command and control”. Owen Jones must be pretty much the only person on the planet who seems to believe that one. Apparently, Lansman’s “lifelong obsession is creating a grassroots-led party, and a democratisation agenda taken to its logical conclusion may well face moments of opposition from both union hierarchies and Loto” (the leader of the opposition’s office). Pass the sick bucket.
Do we really need to remind Jones that Lansman simply abolished all democratic decision-making structures and imposed his own constitution on Momentum during the infamous Lansman coup of January 10 2017? A few weeks ago, he got rid of Momentum’s youth wing in a similar way. A rather unusual “democratisation agenda”.
As if to prove the point, Momentum is currently engaged in a fake-democratic decision-making process over its submissions to the Corbyn Review. It really sums up the way Lansman operates.
To begin with, he asked Momentum members to put forward their own ideas. When it transpired that concrete proposals (pushed by Labour Against the Witchhunt) to end the purge of leftwingers were doing very well, leading the field with the most ‘backers’, he mysteriously managed to ‘inspire’ over 60 members to go online at 11.30pm on the day submissions closed. And, hey presto, his own lame proposal to slightly tweak the trigger ballot (as a safe alternative to the mandatory reselection of parliamentary candidates) won! Incidentally, had the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty helped to push LAW’s proposal on the witch-hunt, rather than submit its own a few days before voting ended, Lansman might have struggled to win. But the AWL, sectarian to a fault, insisted on an almost identical set of proposals – minus all references to the anti-Semitism witch-hunt, which, of course, it implicitly supports.
In any case, the LAW and AWL proposals combined had far more backers than any of the other 120. But that is not the reason that Lansman picked up on one point contained within both proposals for the last round of ‘online voting’. The reason for him asking Momentum members a question on rule 2.1.4.B is simply that he also wants to see it reformed. However, while the LAW and AWL proposals called on the Labour Party to delete the first part of rule 2.1.4.B, Lansman simply wanted to tighten it.
Under this witch-hunter’s rule, which automatically bars from membership anybody “who joins and/or supports a political organisation other than an official Labour group or unit of the party”, dozens, if not hundreds, of Marxists and socialists have been auto-expelled from the party, including supporters (or alleged supporters) of the AWL, Socialist Appeal and Labour Party Marxists.
So in his online questionnaire put to all Momentum members, Lansman stripped our proposals of all context – and managed to turn it around, so it would actually lead to the opposite outcome of that intended by LAW and the AWL:
Labour’s rulebook says membership of organisations other than the Labour Party can make people ineligible for membership, but the wording is imprecise. It should be clarified that this applies only to organisations whose objectives or methods are clearly incompatible with Labour’s.
Lansman’s proposal will do nothing to end such auto-exclusions. After all, you will just need to show that Socialist Appeal or LPM are in favour of “Marxism” or “revolution” or even just opposed to the “market economy”. The latter formulation was used in court to uphold the expulsion of Socialist Appeal supporter Jack Halinski-Fitzpatrick, when Labour’s barristers ‘proved’ that SA’s programme was incompatible with that of the party. Apparently, being sceptical of the “market economy” puts you in a direct clash with the party’s adherence to the “dynamism of the market” in the Blairite clause IV.
In reality, there is actually no such rule in the party’s constitution – yet. Clearly, in this case, the Labour Party’s bureaucrats found a sympathetic judge. A rule dealing with issues of programmatic “incompatibility” refers only to organisations that want to affiliate to the party – which, clearly, Socialist Appeal was not doing at the moment. This is about an individual’s party membership.
So Lansman’s reformed rule would, if anything, give the bureaucrats in the compliance unit more power to witch-hunt leftwing activists.
Momentum’s questionnaire also proves once again that online ‘referenda’ or online voting on complex political issues only appear democratic. It all depends on who asks the question and to what purpose. Clearly, as with so many referenda, answering Lansman’s question with either a straightforward ‘yes’ or ‘no’ was highly unsatisfactory.
However, as expected, his proposal won the day. Momentum has now reported that question 4 of 15 – “Should Momentum campaign for this rule change to clarify the eligibility for membership of people who support organisations other than the Labour Party?” – received 3,183 ‘yes’ votes (84%), while only 308 said ‘no’ (8%) and 296 abstained (7%).
Truth of the matter
But back to Lansman’s application for general secretary. Why did he withdraw? The man clearly wanted the job – he wanted it so badly that he even risked falling out with Jeremy Corbyn over it. The short answer is: he messed up.
He had hoped to peel away support from Jennie Formby by appealing both to the right through critiquing the unions and to the soft left, by presenting himself as some sort of champion of members’ rights.
Well, it blew up in his face, big time. He could not keep all his different tactical plates spinning. The man does seem to suffer from a serious case of over-inflated ego and a sense that everything he touches will turn to gold. But critiquing the unions, while simultaneously relying on union delegates on the NEC to vote for him was, to say the least, a high-risk strategy. At worst, pretty stupid.
Lansman also did not seem to take into account the fact that his allies on the NEC might not be as easily controlled as the membership of Momentum. One of the main reasons for his withdrawal can probably be summed up in two words: Christine Shawcroft. Or, more precisely, her outburst on Facebook: “It is time to support disaffiliation of the unions from the Labour Party.”
Lansman and Momentum quickly tried to disassociate themselves from her angry and inane remark, but it did not help that the rest of her (very rare) online comments were focused on praising Lansman. Combined with his own suggestion that the general secretary should be elected by members and his publicly stated “dissatisfaction that the role should be chosen behind closed doors by Labour’s NEC, which in practice would mean a deal struck between major trade unions for their preferred candidate”, this indicates that Shawcroft probably thought she was doing Lansman a favour and was acting in his interest.
Well, she did not. All hell broke loose and pretty much every left organisation felt the need to issue statements in defence of the union link. We hear that union after union got on the phone to Lansman and Corbyn, demanding to know what on earth he was playing at. The tacit support of some rightwing unions for Lansman – as their best hope to stop Jennie Formby – quickly evaporated after Shawcroftgate. Lansman had to withdraw for the simple reason that he did not want to be seriously humiliated in the NEC vote on March 20.
And he may have just managed to ruin his political career in the process. For example, can Corbyn and Seumas Milne continue to rely on this man to deliver the required votes at conference? Last year, Momentum managed to text delegates ‘live’ with voting instructions, swinging quite a few decisions. But Lansman has proved to be a loose cannon. Yes, one with well over 200,000 pro-Corbyn members on his database. But still, Jennie Formby would be well advised to work out alternative methods of engaging directly with the ‘Corbyn army’, many of whom do not yet attend Labour meetings.
The witch-hunt continues
In reality, of course, the union link was never really under threat. We have never heard Lansman (or Shawcroft) publicly complaining about the role of the unions before his ill-considered candidacy. It is unlikely they have only now found out that even the representatives of leftwing unions tend to vote against individual Labour Party members on disciplinary questions. They knew, but they chose to tell us about it now, in the context of Lansman’s candidacy.
Clearly, Shawcroft was very upset when the NEC disputes panel – now chaired by her – did not follow her advice to dismiss all cases brought before it by the unelected bureaucrats of the compliance unit (they still operate under the instructions of Iain McNicol, who remains in post until March 20). It decided by a clear majority to refer three cases to the national constitutional committee (NCC), which has a robust rightwing majority and clearly makes politically biased judgments. Even Ann Black admits that this committee is “seen as increasingly politicised”, as she writes in her latest NEC report. Bizarrely though, she thinks that is a bad thing only because it leads to a lack of complaints, as “members [are] reluctant to come forward”.
Yes, that is exactly the main problem in the Labour Party at the moment, isn’t it? Too few members are being fingered to the compliance unit! In November 2016, Christine Shawcroft reported that there had been 11,000 complaints against Labour Party members since Corbyn’s election the previous year, “as well-resourced rightwing hit squads scented a golden opportunity and began trawling through known Corbynistas’ Facebook and Twitter accounts”. There must have been thousands, if not tens of thousands, more since then – though no official figures have been published.
To further underline how wrong it was for Ann Black ever to have been featured on the slate of the Grassroots Centre Left Alliance, her report then goes on to praise McNicol for having “continued” a “trend towards neutrality and fairness to those of all factions and of none”. Needless to say, Jon Lansman supported this GCLA slate uncritically until very recently.
Shawcroft knows, of course, that, once a member is suspended and referred to the highly political NCC, he or she has little chance of getting a fair hearing. She quite rightly wants the NEC to deal with all disciplinary cases. But it seems that all union reps on the NEC – even those from pro-Corbyn unions – take a cowardly approach. For each complaint, the apparatchiks working for the compliance unit prepare a report for the NEC disputes panel containing the allegations. Handily, the top page of each file (there are sometimes dozens of them at every meeting) contains a “recommendation on further action”.
Rather than investigate or challenge these recommendations, it appears that Jennie Formby and the other leftwing union delegates on the NEC automatically vote in accordance with that recommendation.
Jennie Formby (and other leftwing union delegates) clearly deserve to be taken to task over their behaviour on the NEC. In the most recent cases that got Shawcroft so riled up, it appears Formby ‘absented herself’ when it came down to the vote that decided to send three disputed cases to the NCC.
That is why we in LPM agree with Labour Against the Witchhunt, which thinks that Formby should only be given “critical support” by the left:
LAW critically supports Formby for the job. We are concerned about her record on Labour’s NEC, where it appears she has, as recently as last week, failed to oppose the witch-hunting of Jeremy Corbyn supporters by rightwingers, who have weaponised false claims of anti-Semitism, despite Formby herself being the target of such smears. Nobody in the Labour Party can truly be a socialist if they support the purge and that includes the future general secretary.
Formby might have been trying to play it safe before the March 20 NEC meeting, which will decide on the new general secretary. But her behaviour is worrying – and a sign perhaps that her likely appointment will not lead to a swift change of direction, when it comes to the witch-hunt against leftwingers in the party. We also note press reports, according to which “senior backers of Jennie Formby are trying to reassure party staff that there are no planned overhauls, should she secure the job”.
Thanks to Tony Blair, of course, most staff are now on short-term contracts and do not have to be dismissed should they no longer be required. They simply might not get rehired. Others do not quite seem to trust Formby’s peace offering and are jumping ship before they are pushed. For example, Emilie Oldknow, Labour’s executive director for governance, membership and party services (which includes disciplinary processes, suspensions and expulsions), has just announced that she is leaving her post in the summer. Excellent news.
Naturally, Iain McNicol has been a key player in the ongoing civil war. But he is not acting alone. The right is still in control of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the bureaucracy. For the last seven years, McNicol has been in charge of hiring and firing the 200 staff working for the party. No doubt, he was politically biased when doing so. And we hope Jennie Formby will be too!
Take the most recent case of Glyn Secker. On March 7, the secretary of Jewish Voice for Labour received a letter informing him of his “administrative suspension” from the Labour Party, because of “allegations relating to comments on social media that may be anti-Semitic”. The letter, signed by “Sam Matthews, head of disputes”, states that McNicol had “determined to use powers delegated to him … subject to the approval of the next meeting of the NEC.”
As it turns out, the suspension was based on Secker’s ‘crime’ of being part of the Facebook group, Palestine Live, which has achieved some fame in recent days for having counted a certain Jeremy Corbyn among its former ‘members’. The pro-Zionist blogger, David Collier, sent the Labour Party a dossier of over 250 pages, which contain … fuck all. Some members of the group had posted dodgy links. Like people do every day on every single Facebook group.
Incredibly, without any kind of research themselves, most newspapers reprinted parts of the report, as if it was a scientific document. Tony Greenstein has done a good job exposing Collier as the vile blogger, “Gnasher Jew”. But even after days of splashing this non-story across various newspapers, neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Glyn Secker, nor any other of the Labour members suspended for belonging to that group were found to have posted anything even vaguely anti-Semitic. It was just another weapon in the ongoing campaign to smear Corbyn and his supporters.
After five days in which Labour members and branches vocally protested against comrade Secker’s suspension, Sam Matthews was forced to lift it, “because it would not be in the party’s interest to pursue disciplinary action in relation to this matter”. There is no apology – not even a withdrawal of the accusation of anti-Semitism. Just like in the case of the expulsion of Moshé Machover, which was quickly rescinded, it appears that the NEC overruled McNicol, who seems to want to cause as much damage as possible until the very last moment. But what about Sam Matthews? His letter to Secker clearly exposes his political loyalties.
Also, compare comrade Secker’s treatment to that of Jeremy Newmark – until recently chair of the Jewish Labour Movement. Despite the JLM calling in the police to investigate allegations of fraud under Newmark’s watch, he remains untouched by the compliance unit, because, we are told, his behaviour in an organisation affiliated to the Labour Party is a “private matter”.
Rightwingers like Sam Matthews should follow their masters, McNicol and Oldknow, to the door marked ‘exit’.