The battle over control of Labour is set to deepen in the run up to the party’s annual conference, embroiling theparty in the contest for the leadership of the largest union and casting a shadow over the spring local elections.
The public hostilities, which have been simmering since the failed coup attempt against Jeremy Corbyn last summer, exploded with a row over accusations that the leader’s supporters are engaged in a “secret left wing plot”.
In what many MPs and members see as open civil war, Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson issued a furious statement warning that the party’s electoral future is at stake.
His outspoken attack followed publication in a national Sunday newspaper of a transcript of a recorded speech by Jon Lansman, head of the Momentum group, in which he urged rule changes to give any successor to Corbyn a better chance.
Lansman also told the audience at a new party branch that Unite the union would affiliate to, and therefore fund the work of, Momentum if it retains Len McCluskey as its general secretary in an election to be decided next month.
“Crucially” Mr Lansman urged support for a rule change that would lower the qualifying threshold for prospective leadership candidates from 15 per cent to 5 per cent.
On his way to a fractious shadow cabinet meeting Mr Watson challenged his former close friend to formally distance Unite from any plan to fund Momentum. “Enough is enough,” he said. “This has got to stop.”
Mr Watson was reported to have been “cheered to the rafters” at a later meeting of MPs, while Mr Corbyn was taunted by shouts of “so-called leader”. But some critics said Mr Watson’s explosive reaction to the Lansman tape was due more to his desire to influence the Unite election following a falling out with Mr McCluskey’s failure to stand down last year when a majority of MPs refused to back him. The record loss of Copeland to the Tories has exacerbated tensions.
Gail Cartmail insisted Unite is not engaged with Momentum in any talks about rule changes, affiliation or future and said Mr Watson had only to pick up the phone to check the facts.In a joint statement Mr Corbyn and Mr Watson called for party and agreed that “groups across the spectrum of Labour’s broad church have right to discuss their views and try to influence the party so long as they operate within the rules”.
Members from all sides now see the row over the leadership threshold as a “proxy” for an unfinished long-term fight for the heart and structure of the party, with Momentum organising on. The left and groups such as Labour First and Progress, regarded as the remnants of New Labour each seeking to maximise delegates to the annual conference in Brighton in September.