Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496