Momentum launches bid to oust Tom Watson

Labour's ruling NEC is likely to approve a motion to abolish the party's deputy leader tomorrow – a move that will dominate this week's conference.

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Momentum chair Jon Lansman made an unsuccessful bid to abolish the post of Labour deputy leader at this evening’s meeting of the party’s ruling national executive committee, in the most public challenge to Tom Watson’s authority from the left yet. 

Sources from the Corbynite campaign group confirmed Lansman, who sits on the NEC as a representative of constituency Labour parties, proposed a motion to scrap Watson’s elected post this evening, accusing him of undermining the leadership with his interventions on Brexit. 

The motion passed by 17 votes to 10, only to be ruled out of order by Unison’s Wendy Nichols, the NEC chair.  Watson, who is also a member of the NEC, was not present at the meeting.

A two-thirds majority is required to overturn decisions by the chair, which Lansman and his supporters failed to reach. The motion has been tabled in advance of tomorrow morning’s NEC meeting and as such will be in order, meaning only a simple majority of votes will be required to refer the proposal to conference - Labour’s sovereign decision-making body - in Brighton, which begins on Sunday. 

Corbynsceptics concede that should the motion reach the conference floor, it is likely to pass. “The delegates are with Jez, though they’re split on Europe,” one source said. “Most of the unions won’t back it, but they could still do it.”

Momentum have justified the move by accusing the parliamentary Labour party of refusing to heed what is said was a clamour for a change of deputy among members. 

The support of a fifth of Labour MPs is required to trigger a challenge, a threshold Watson’s opponents have no realistic chance of meeting. The West Bromwich East MP also sailed through his reselection process this week, further curtailing the left’s recourse to oust him through established democratic processes.

The likelihood of the motion’s passage means this year’s conference will be the second in a row to feature a row over the future of the deputy leadership. 

At last year’s conference in Liverpool, NEC-backed motion to create a second leadership role for a woman MP - intended to clip the wings of the incumbent - was withdrawn by the local party that tabled it before it could be voted on by delegates after it was unexpectedly endorsed by Watson, who saw the creation of a second deputy as an opportunity to put further pressure on the leadership over its Brexit position. 

The fallout from Lansman’s move is likely to overshadow a conference that was always set to be dominated by factional rows on Brexit, and has upset a PLP already restive after a summer overshadowed by trigger ballots. 

“We needed a good conference, or at least a non-disastrous one, to regain momentum after the week the Lib Dems have had,” complained one frontbench Remainer. “If this is a serious proposition and it passes,” said another MP who resigned from the frontbench over Brexit, “it is going to cause an all-out war.” Others are speculating that the move is a attempt to distract the PLP from the row over the party’s Brexit position. 

But regardless of the outcome, one thing is inevitable: that the biggest story of Labour’s conference that voters see is likely to be the latest iteration of its forever war. As much as Dominic Cummings has made clear his intentions to ignore convention and disrupt coverage of the opposition’s moment in the spotlight, it appears that Labour is about to do his job for him.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.