Watson’s threat to split Labour (and deliver a general election to the Tories)

Labour faces the threat of a serious split which could torpedo its electoral prospects. The consequences for those who are already suffering the effects of nearly a decade of austerity would be disastrous. Yet from the very first day after the members had the audacity to elect Corbyn, sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party have clearly thought (and acted accordingly) that it would be better to have no Labour government than one with Corbyn sitting in Downing Street. You have to wonder whether this is what Watson now thinks. Read on below or download a PDF here threatofsplit

His video response to the departure of the MPs to the ‘independent group’ was nothing less than a threat to split the Labour Party. It was no accident that he said their departure from Labour was ‘premature’. The implication was clearly that he would organise a breakaway unless he gets the ‘change’ he wants. His video was notice that he was going to organise a factional struggle to win control of the Party, either imprisoning Corbyn or removing him. Watson, of course, who is a serial abuser of Corbyn in the mass media, was up to his elbows in the previous coup attempt, working closely with previous General Secretary McNicol, who tried to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper.

Underlying all this, including the issue of antisemitism, real or imagined, is the question of what sort of Labour government do we want. Under New Labour there was a mass exodus of members in disgust not only with Iraq but with their privatisation agenda and much else. One of the reasons why Corbyn won his first election was the disgust amongst members at the party’s official position of abstention rather than voting against the government’s welfare reforms. Only 48 Labour MPs voted against. Needless to say, Watson wasn’t amongst them.

It was always clear, especially with the huge influx of members, some of whom were returners, that there would be a conflict between those who wanted the party to make a clean break with the politics of New Labour, and those who were its defenders. Watson’s decision to set up a Future Britain Group, which is, according to him, seeking to organise the more ‘social democratic’ wing of the PLP, indicates that he and others are not happy with the economic/political programme which was reflected in the Manifesto. The setting up of this group in the PLP indicates a coordinated struggle against Corbyn and his supporters. It will be interesting to see exactly what constitutes ‘social democratic’ policies for them. Obviously they are not satisfied with support for nuclear weapons – who could ever forget Watson’s comments that if he were Labour leader he would be prepared to commit mass murder, pushing that little button – and nuclear power. They want more, though what exactly is not yet clear.

Watson’s recent meeting with Labour peers has been reported in the press. He told them that his new group of “Labour moderates” would be called Future Britain Group, which would meet next week and would focus on “long-term post-Brexit challenges”.

Watson’s five demands to Corbyn

Robert Peston reported on Watson’s meeting with Jeremy Corbyn, which apparently focused on five points. This was what Watson told the peers. His ‘demands’ were:

1. MPs should elect some members of shadow cabinet to improve the bridge between parliamentary party and leadership
2. The plan to allow members to elect council leaders should be dropped or moderate councillors would defect to Independent Group
3. A stop must be made to attempts to deselect moderate MPs or more will defect (to the Independent Group, again)
4. Labour’s social media code should be toughened and Mr Corbyn should use his own social media accounts to call out bullying
5. The Jewish community is unlikely to be reassured if Labour member Lord Falconer heads review of Labour anti-Semitism, even though Watson rates Falconer. Watson told Mr Corbyn a non-Labour member must replace Falconer and head the review.

Point 1 is designed to change the political balance of the Shadow Cabinet and to place Corbyn in a political straight-jacket.

Point 2 is designed to preserve the separation of Labour groups from the members and to prevent increased accountability.

Point 3 Is absurd. How precisely is Corbyn supposed to stop CLP members from holding their MPs to account, and exercising their right to remove them if they are not satisfied with them? It is up to the membership of CLPs to determine whether or not they support sitting MPs or wish to replace them. No MP should have a job for life.

Point 4 is entirely one sided. Watson has been content to support the bullying of Corbyn by members of the PLP. He was happy for Ian Austin to stand up in the House of Commons, tell Corbyn to “sit down and shut up, you’re a disgrace”. He was happy for MP Joan Ryan to put out a leaflet in the General Election telling her constituents not to worry, Labour would never be elected under Corbyn, so they could safely vote for her! Is this what Watson means by “a more tolerant party”; tolerating any abuse of it elected leader or the membership?

Point 5 is ironic given Falconer’s politics. He is hardly a disinterested observer. This is a man who provided legal advice for the National Coal Board on recognition of the scab UDM. In other words he assisted the state to defeat the NUM. The problem with Watson’s formula is that the “Jewish community” he refers to is the part of it he supports – those who support the Israeli state – rather than the Jewish Labour members who do not. The “Jewish community” he is referring to will never accept that Labour is doing enough to deal with antisemitism, real or imagined. Indeed the Jewish Labour Movement (Labour’s affiliate) and the Campaign Against Antisemitism has just declared that the issue cannot be dealt with so long as Corbyn remains leader. Moreover, they have reported the Party to the Equality & Human Rights Commission to investigate it as being “institutionally antisemitic”. Currently the EHRC has asked the LP for a response to the complaints.

Tom Watson’s “steamroller” as Robert Peston has called it is presented as a means of “saving the Labour Party”. But it is a means of splitting it. His refusal to call on the ex-Labour MPs to call by-elections is tantamount to support for their continuation as MPs, despite the fact that they were elected on a Labour ticket. Watson could have handled the situation much differently. He could have demanded an emergency NEC meeting to discuss the break-away and how to minimise the damage. Instead, he chose to go straight to the media to attack his own party. He said that Luciana Berger had been forced out of the party by “antisemitic thugs”, though without presenting any evidence. Some Labour MPs have lauded the “bravery” of MPs who have joined together with ex-Tory supporters of austerity with a view to launching a “centrist” party. Nobody was forced to abandon the very idea of a Labour Party and seek to build a “centrist” one.

Meanwhile those Jewish Labour members who reject the designation of Labour as “antisemitic” face abuse and threats, though this does not appear to be a problem for Watson; one which does not merit attention. Stella Creasey called for an “investigation” of Hackney North CLP for having the audacity to express an opinion that calling Labour “institutionally antsemitic” was a slander. Is it now obligatory for all CLPs to accept that the party is antisemitic or else they will be denounced as being antisemitic?

Reject Watson’s demands

Recently, after the departure of the MPs, John McDonnell said that we need to listen to people like Tom Watson, whilst at the same time rejecting the label of “institutional antisemitism”. Compromise with somebody who is trying to destroy you is not a clever strategy. Listen to Tom Watson and it is clear that he wants to defeat Corbyn and McDonnell. He wants to row back in the direction of New Labour. The leadership needs to reject Watson’s five demands which are designed to put the PLP back in the saddle, with the membership reduced once again only to foot soldiers.

This much maligned membership which has widely been denounced as a “Corbyn cult” has recently shown that its support for him is not uncritical. They are not slavish camp followers as the debate on the EU and Brexit has shown. If they think Corbyn is wrong they will say so. The issue, however, is not Corbyn, but whether the party completes its break with the neo-liberal politics of New Labour or whether it moves back towards it.

The question needs to be put to Watson, do you prefer no Labour government, to one led by Corbyn? He is either with the ‘independent group’ whose main political aim is to prevent the election of a Labour government, or against them. They have not been ‘driven out’ of the Labour Party they have chosen a different political course in which they can comfortably sit together with Tories who supported austerity. Is he really prepared to torpedo Labour’s electoral prospects with all the disastrous social consequences which will follow?

Martin Wicks
March 8th 2019

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