"There's a mood of 'anyone but Tom'. And people think: 'Hey, I'm anyone!'." Photo: Getty Images
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What's going on in the Labour deputy leadership race?

The parliamentary Labour party is desperate for someone to stop Tom Watson. That's one reason why it's unlikely to happen.

Note: on 12 September 2015, Tom Watson was elected deputy leader of the Labour party.

John Healey has pulled out of Labour’s deputy leadership race, urging his supporters to help those candidates who have yet to secure the 35 nominations they need to get on the ballot.

Although the Wentworth & Deane MP has a low profile outside Westminster, he is well-liked throughout the party and was widely expected to secure the backing of 35 MPs that he needed to get on the ballot. What’s going on?

It all comes down to the question that explains the race for the Labour party leadership: “will someone please stop Tom Watson?”

Although Watson is well-liked by members – “They see him as Mother Teresa,” sighs one MP – the parliamentary Labour party is less sold. “I’ve never been more opposed to any candidate in my life,” says one MP. Another senior MP says they will “chuck the whole thing in” if Watson becomes deputy leader. “He’s a bully and a liability,” says a third.

Although others disagree – “the movement always comes first for Tom,” says one left-wing MP – the antipathy extends into the party’s headquarters. One senior official says glumly: “Tom is going to come straight back in here and start running the show again, bullying the staff and throwing his weight around.” “He always wants to seize more power, and he can’t resist abusing his power,” says another.

But that opposition to Watson may only help him in the leadership contest. "The problem with the fact that the mood in the PLP is 'Anyone but Tom'," one MP observes, "is that a lot of people around here think 'Hey, I'm anyone!" That's why no fewer than four other candidates are desperately scrabbling for the nominations they need to make it on the ballot paper. (A fifth, Caroline Flint, has already secured the 35 nominations she needs to get on the ballot.)

"These candidates are all in the last chance saloon," one insider says, "Angela: elected in 1992. Ben: elected 1997. Stella: doesn't play well with others.”  Rushanara Ali, the MP for Bow & Bethnal Green, is said to fear that she is falling behind her peers having stood down from the frontbench in 2014 over the bombing of Isil in Iraq.

Healey was expected to do well, partly because he is respected across the party, and also because, in the words of one MP, there are plenty of people “from the same bit of the party as Tom who don’t want Tom”. But that doesn’t seem to have been enough for him to get 35 names. “He wasn’t organised,” says one MP bluntly. “He stepped down because he couldn’t get 35 MPs,” says another. The question is, who benefits now he’s gone?

Some of Healey’s supporters will doubtless swallow their reservations and back Watson. Others may decide they are willing to stomach their objections to Creasy as the non-Blairite candidate best placed to stop him personally. But the biggest beneficiary will probably be the most inoffensive candidate left standing, Angela Eagle, or the one remaining minority in the race, Rushanara Ali.

 

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Now listen to Stephen discussing the Labour leadership race on the NS podcast:

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.