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Tom Watson: an alliance between Momentum and Unite could 'destroy' Labour

Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson has accused Momentum's Jon Lansman of attempting to seize control of the party.

Momentum chief Jon Lansman and Unite’s Len McCluskey are plotting to seize control of Labour and “destroy” the party as an electoral force, deputy leader Tom Watson has claimed.

Watson’s comments – made in an interview on the Today programme and Twitter spat with Lansman – follow the Observer’s revelation of an apparent plan for Unite to affiliate to “and fully participate in” Momentum if McCluskey is re-elected as the union’s general secretary in April. 

A secret recording leaked to the paper also showed Lansman urging Momentum members to work to secure changes to Labour rules – specifically the so-called "McDonnell amendment" reducing the threshold of parliamentary support required for a leadership candidate to stand from 15 to 5 per cent – to secure a left-wing successor to Jeremy Corbyn.

A spokesperson for the Corbynite campaign group claimed Lansman’s comments were merely “aspirational”, while Unite have denied they have any formal plans to affiliate to Momentum.

Tom Watson – who hails from the party’s old right – has repeatedly warned of the danger posed to Labour by hard-left entryism. But his latest comments mark his first explicit attack on Momentum. He told Today he had a duty to speak out against the hard left’s “secret plan” to seize control of the party, adding that the alleged collusion between McCluskey and Lansman had the “tacit approval” of the Labour leadership. He said: "Enough is enough, this has got to stop... I'm afraid there are some people who do not have our electoral interests at heart".

Watson's remarks came after he and fellow Labour MP Jess Phillips rowed publicly with Lansman over the alleged plot on Twitter. He told Lansman: “You’ve revealed your plan. If you succeed you will destroy the Labour Party as an electoral force. So you have to be stopped.”

As for Momentum, representatives and allies of the group have sought to characterise Watson’s intervention as an attempt to influence the outcome of the impending Unite general secretary election.

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor and a key ally of Jeremy Corbyn, told the BBC: "This is not civil war...What [Watson] is trying to do is influence the election of the general secretary of Unite and he has dragged the Labour Party into this, completely unnecessarily."

Ballots will be sent to the super-union’s 1.4 million members next week, and McCluskey faces a concerted challenge from its West Midlands organiser Gerard Coyne – a long-time ally of West Bromwich East MP Watson – a perceived centrist who has criticised his rival’s fondness for playing “puppet master” to the Labour leadership.

In a statement released after Watson’s appearance on Today, Unite’s acting general secretary Gail Cartmail said Watson and other Labour MPs were “engaging in an unprecedented pattern of interference” in the election, while Momentum NEC member Christine Shawcroft accused him of mounting “a concerted attempt to interfere in the internal election in Unite...which is really shocking”.

McDonnell added the controversy was “all about Tom and the internal battle that he is trying to wage within Unite”.  

In a joint statement released after this morning's meeting of the shadow cabinet, Watson and Corbyn urged the party to remain united and stressed the Labour leadership "represents the whole party and not any one strand within it". In a coded rebuke to Lansman, they added: "No one speaks for the leadership except the leadership themselves and their spokespeople."

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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