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11 June 2015

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.

By Stephen Bush

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.

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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: