"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.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage