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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.

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Labour is launching a stealthy Scottish comeback - thanks to Jeremy Corbyn and the Daily Mail

The Scottish Labour strategy is paying off - and hard evidence that it works may be more plentiful come 8 June 2017

When I suggested to a senior Scottish Labour figure earlier this year that the party was a car crash, he rejected my assertion.

“We’re past that,” he said gloomily. “Now we’re the burnt-out wreck in a field that no-one even notices anymore.”

And yet, just as the election campaign has seen Jeremy Corbyn transformed from an outdated jalopy into Chitty Chitty Bang Bang magically soaring in the polls, Scottish Labour is beginning to look roadworthy again.

And it’s all down to two apparently contradictory forces – Corbyn and The Daily Mail.

Kezia Dugdale’s decision to hire Alan Roden, then the Scottish Daily Mail’s political editor, as her spin doctor in chief last summer was said to have lost her some party members. It may win her some new members of parliament just nine months later.

Roden’s undoubted nose for a story and nous in driving the news agenda, learned in his years at the Mail, has seen Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly forced to defend her government record on health and education in recent weeks, even though her Holyrood administration is not up for election next month.

On ITV’s leaders debate she confessed that, despite 10 years in power, the Scottish education system is in need of some attention. And a few days later she was taken to task during a BBC debate involving the Scottish leaders by a nurse who told her she had to visit a food bank to get by. The subsequent SNP attempt to smear that nurse was a pathetic mis-step by the party that suggested their media operation had gone awry.

It’s not the Tories putting Sturgeon on the defence. They, like the SNP, are happy to contend the general election on constitutional issues in the hope of corralling the unionist vote or even just the votes of those that don’t yet want a second independence referendum. It is Labour who are spotting the opportunities and maximising them.

However, that would not be enough alone. For although folk like Dugdale as a person – as evidenced in Lord Ashcroft’s latest polling - she lacks the policy chops to build on that. Witness her dopey proposal ahead of the last Holyrood election to raise income tax.

Dugdale may be a self-confessed Blairite but what’s powering Scottish Labour just now is Jeremy Corbyn’s more left-wing policy platform.

For as Brexit has dropped down the agenda at this election, and bread and butter stuff like health and education has moved centre stage, Scots are seeing that for all the SNP’s left wing rhetoric, after 10 years in power in Holyrood, there’s not a lot of progressive policy to show for it.

Corbyn’s manifesto, even though huge chunks of it won’t apply in Scotland, is progressive. The evidence is anecdotal at the moment, but it seems some Scots voters find it more attractive than the timid managerialism of the SNP. This is particularly the case with another independence referendum looking very unlikely before the 2020s, on either the nationalists' or the Conservatives' timetable.

Evidence that the Scottish Labour strategy has worked may be more plentiful come 8 June 2017. The polls, albeit with small sample sizes so best approached with caution, have Ian Murray streets ahead in the battle to defend Edinburgh South. There’s a lot of optimism in East Lothian where Labour won the council earlier in May and MSP Iain Gray increased his majority at the Scottish election last year. Labour have chosen their local candidate well in local teacher Martin Whitfield, and if the unionist vote swings behind him he could overhaul sitting MP George Kerevan’s 7,000 majority. (As we learned in 2015, apparently safe majorities mean nothing in the face of larger electoral forces). In East Renfrewshire, Labour's Blair McDougall, the man who led Better Together in 2014, can out-unionist the Tory candidate.

But, while in April, it was suggested that these three seats would be the sole focus of the Scottish Labour campaign, that attitude has changed after the local elections. Labour lost Glasgow but did not implode. In chunks of their former west of Scotland heartlands there was signs of life.

Mhairi Black’s a media darling, but her reputation as a local MP rather than a local celebrity is not great. Labour would love to unseat her, in what would be a huge upset, or perhaps more realistically go after Gavin Newlands in the neighbouring Paisley seat.

They are also sniffing Glasgow East. With Natalie McGarry’s stint as MP ending in tears – a police investigation, voting in her wedding dress and fainting in the chamber sums up her two years in Westminster – Labour ought to be in with a chance in the deprived neighbourhoods of Glasgow’s east end.

Labour in Scotland doesn’t feel like such a wreck anymore. Alan Roden’s Daily Mail-honed media nous has grabbed attention. Corbyn’s progressive policies have put fuel in the tank.

After polling day, the party will be able to fit all its Scottish MPs comfortably in a small hatchback, compared to the double decker bus necessary just a few years back.

But this general election could give the party the necessary shove to get on to the long road back.

James Millar is a political journalist and founder of the Political Yeti's Politics Podcast. He is co-author of The Gender Agenda, which will be published July 21 by Jessica Kingsley Publishing.

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