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21 September 2019

What went on with the failed move against Tom Watson?

The move was a departure from Jeremy Corbyn's usual method of approaching intra-party conflict. 

By Stephen Bush

Jeremy Corbyn has pulled the plug on moves to abolish the post of deputy leader after a NEC vote to scrap the role plunged Labour into 12 hours of public in-fighting. The NEC will instead conduct a wider review into the post and the number of democratic positions at the top of the party.

Both the row and the U-Turn typify the surreal nature of the last 12 hours. One of the things that Jeremy Corbyn has proved over the course of his leadership is that he is good at picking his battles as far as the struggle for control internally is concerned. He has tended to avoid big controversial moves like scrapping the deputy leadership, and to instead prioritise smaller and longer moves like reviews into party structures that accomplish the same objective over the longer term.

In 2017, he put forward a manifesto that unified the Labour party, one that was significantly less radical than the positions he announced and adopted at Labour conference in 2017 and 2018. He opted to consolidate his power base within the party by elevating Jennie Formby, a representative of Unite, whose interests do not always overlap with his own base on the Labour left, rather than advancing the cause of Jon Lansman, when he was given the opportunity to secure his preferred general secretary. In the flush of his powers, he backed limited tweaks to the party’s reselection processes (albeit ones that most observers thought would be more consequential than they look to have been).

This week’s decision to disaffiliate Labour Students is a case in point: everyone in the Labour party privately admits that the body is undemocratic even by the standards of internal Labour politics, it has no purchase among the average Labour-supporting students, and was therefore ripe to be moved against. Doing so tipped the balance of forces, as far as the selection and deselection of parliamentary candidates, and the leadership in the event of a vacancy, towards the Labour left in a small but significant direction.

So what should we make of this move, launched by Momentum’s founder Jon Lansman, to remove the deputy post? It’s a distinctly uncautious move that basically ensures that, however radical or interesting the policies announced by Labour conference, the story, as far as most of the press but most importantly the broadcasters are concerned, will be red-on-red infighting.

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And it’s not clear to me what Corbyn would have gained from it. The fact that a majority exists on the ruling national executive committee to remove Watson from it, in of itself, indicates that there is little point. Corbynites have once again won re-election to the constitutional arrangements committee by heavy margin. There seems to be no immediate prospect of Labour’s Corbynsceptics finding a way to elect one Corbynsceptic to the membership section of the NEC, let alone to find a NEC majority.

Corbyn has essentially neutered Watson everywhere that matters as far as the internal Labour battle is concerned, but Watson will retain his ability to hurt him in the press because he will still be treated by the majority of the newspapers and the BBC as a big beast, whose interventions on Labour politics should be treated as significant Labour news. That doesn’t feel like a price worth paying for a bad week in which an election could be very close indeed, not least because there is lower-hanging fruit, such as Labour’s BAME representation and indeed the lack of distinct representation for Labour’s women’s conference, which could be used to further extend the Corbynite majority on the NEC.

What should we make of that? The well-briefed line is that Lansman and Corbyn’s chief of staff, Karie Murphy, embarked on a freelance operation along with Corbyn’s three frontbench representatives, four of the trades unions and the nine Corbynites elected by the lay membership without Corbyn’s prior knowledge. It’s certainly possible, but it smells off to me.

In any case, you’re still left with an audacious move by essentially every other Corbynite power broker at the top of the party, that would be unusually risky if backed by Corbyn and would be even more so if it was an organised freelance operation. What else could be going on?

Well, I look at my copy of the Labour rulebook and it tells me two things – that the removal of Labour Students from the party’s structures makes it marginally easier to get a Corbynite candidate on the ballot for the party leadership and to prevent others from reaching it, and that removing the post of deputy leader means that, in the event of a vacancy at the top, it cannot be filled by Watson.

That also blocks off the one plausible path I can see to a Corbynsceptic majority on the NEC: as acting leader, Watson would be able to appoint three members of the NEC, which taken with his own vote and the remaining Corbynsceptics on the NEC would produce a narrow Corbynsceptic majority. (Albeit one that wouldn’t be able to agree on anything other than being relieved that Corbyn had gone.)

But then again: I look at Rebecca Long-Bailey having a pretty good day at the office when she filled in for Corbyn at PMQs. I look at John McDonnell’s recent interviews with the Times and the FT. And I see either Corbyn, or his allies, abandoning all caution to remove a neutered foe whose only relevance will be if there is a vacancy at the top. 

And I think about the continual rumours that Corbyn is planning his exit, which I have always in the past dismissed as the wishful thinking of Corbynsceptics with no viable way to retake the Labour party.

And I think, could it be that this time, the rumours are true?

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