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What is Labour's "McDonnell amendment" - and why does it matter?

Labour's left is pushing for a change to the leadership election rules. What could it mean for the future of the party?

Nearly two years may have passed, but the parliamentary Labour party barely need reminding how Jeremy Corbyn won a place on the 2015 leadership ballot. Moderate MPs, almost all of them unsympathetic to his politics, were persuaded to lend him their nominations to “broaden the debate". Corbyn squeaked over the threshold of 35 nominations and on to the shortlist with moments to spare. The trajectory his leadership has taken since means few, if any, will be so generous come the next leadership contest.

The consequences are naturally problematic for the left. Barring some unforeseen compromise or an influx of Corbyn loyalists, they face being locked out of a future leadership race by the arithmetic of the rules. At present, these require candidates to be nominated by 15 per cent of Labour’s MPs and MEPs.

The battle, however, is not yet lost – and like all great factional battles within Labour, it will be fought and won on the conference floor. With an eye on Corbyn’s inevitable departure, the Labour left is pushing for an amendment to the leadership rules. This would lower the nomination threshold from 15 per cent to 5 per cent. The reduced quota of 12 MPs – down from 37 – would all but guarantee a left-wing contender (or, indeed, contenders) a place on the ballot.

Dubbed the McDonnell amendment in honour of the shadow chancellor John McDonnell – whose two abortive bids for the leadership in 2007 and 2010 were scuppered by his inability to reach the 15 per cent threshold – the rule change will be floated at Labour conference in Brighton in September.

Critics of the proposed change (and there are many of them) say it undermines the fairly fundamental principle of parliamentary democracy. By contrast, its proponents speak with varying degrees of sincerity on the need to better represent Labour’s new mass membership. Indeed, Momentum’s Jon Lansman – a veteran of the Bennites’ long war with moderates in the eighties – was last week revealed to have told new recruits that securing the amendment was “absolutely crucial” to the future of the project.

But will it pass? Though Labour moderates have been spooked by the prospect of the amendment ushering in infinite Corbynism, many remain bullish as to their chances of seeing it off. The rule change will definitely be debated on the conference floor, but many moderates, having secured a series of important victories at a regional level last year, are confident that the make-up of conference delegates – plus the likely support of unions including Usdaw, the GMB and Unison – will allow them to block the left on this occasion as well.

Ultimately, whether or not the left will get their way depends on their ability to organise effectively at this grassroots level. 

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

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear