"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. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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