Tom Watson: Labour 'must stop fighting and unite' after failed coup
Battered but unbowed – Tom Watson has vowed to fight on as Labour divisions between moderates and the hard-left dominated a calamitous party conference.
The Labour deputy leader has set his sights on bringing some much-needed unity to his party after surviving a clumsy and poorly orchestrated coup to oust him.
The move, which was led by Momentum boss Jon Lansman, failed when Jeremy Corbyn – who insists he knew nothing about the plot – was forced to step in following a furious reaction from senior MPs and former Labour Prime Ministers’ Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
It was designed to be a savage blow for Mr Watson, forcing him out of office in a most undemocratic manner in a bid to seal a hard-left takeover of the party.
But the plan appears to have backfired spectacularly, with Mr Watson receiving huge support from Labour moderates including delegates at the Labour First fringe meeting, who gave him a standing ovation.
Mr Watson, who said he had been expecting a quiet conference focusing on Labour’s groundbreaking policies such as the abolition of prescription charges, now hopes to galvanise members into positive action during his conference speech today.
The West Bromwich East MP said he was frustrated that the coup had stopped Labour from getting its core messages out to voters.
“Jon Lansman has not only undermined me and the Labour Party, he has undermined Jeremy Corbyn, because he has made it harder for us to use the conference as a way of talking about Labour’s positive message for change,” he said.
“I am determined that nothing else gets in our way, and what I am going to attempt to do today is to try to unify the party.
“I only want to hear Labour members talking about what our manifesto should be and how we can transform areas.
“I want a clarion call to all Labour Party members that we need to be on general election footing.”
Mr Watson, who described the bid to scrap his position as a “straightforward sectarian attack”, was expected to address his party’s Brexit stance among other key issues during his speech in Brighton.
He received a further boost in the internal battle over Brexit policy after Unison went against Mr Corbyn and backed his pro-Remain stance.
However, a conference motion to 'back Remain now' was thrown out amid mass confusion, with some delegates questioning the result of a vote that was settled on a show of hands.
Last night rumours swirled that Momentum activists were planning to stage a walk out during his speech.
Mr Watson has the support of his local party in Sandwell, as demonstrated by his unanimous re-selection as their candidate at the next election.
His anti-Brexit position – though certainly not a popular one in the Black Country – is backed by the majority of the party’s MPs. It also has the benefit of being crystal clear, unlike the conflicted messages touted by Mr Corbyn.
The move to oust Mr Watson is emblematic of the Labour Party’s problems under its current leadership.
A party desperate for unity – or at the very least the appearance of it – managed to use its last conference before a potentially generation defining general election to once again collapse into open civil war.
Mr Corbyn – who claims he is ready to serve a full term as PM – has been criticised for failing to show leadership or responsibility.
Warley MP John Spellar summed up the feelings of a number of moderate backbench MPs when he said: “Lansman and his clique have already decided Jeremy is going to lose the election, which is why they are desperately cooking up schemes to secure control of the party after he’s gone.
“Meanwhile the rest of us are trying to win that election.”
It comes against a backdrop of a party whose members are lurching further and further to the extremes of the hard left.
As well as getting rid of Mr Watson, new polling shows that a significant number of them also want to scrap the monarchy, while other popular policies include a general strike to bring down the government.
Dudley North MP Ian Austin, who quit Labour in protest at its lurch towards the hard left under Mr Corbyn, has founded a new centre-left group Mainstream, which is tag-lined “the campaign against extremism”. He described Mr Watson’s treatment as “disgraceful” but said it was typical of the way his old party has behaved under its current leadership.
Calling for “tolerance and respect to be restored to political debate and for extremism to be driven from public life”, he pledged to “shine a spotlight on those who peddle extremist views”.
It is a message clearly directed at events on the south coast, where Labour sources on the south coast have described a feeling of unease and distrust among delegates.
“This was supposed to be where the party came together but instead things are falling apart. The lack of trust is palpable,” one member told the Express & Star.
When the dust settles, Labour may look back on this conference as the beginning of the end for Mr Corbyn.