They didn’t shoot the Deputy
Tom Watson survives as Deputy Leader, at least for the time being. But what does this tell us about the state of the Labour Party?
At last year’s Labour Party Conference, the National Executive Committee backed a motion to create a second, female, Deputy Leader. This year, the NEC backed a motion to abolish the position of Deputy Leader entirely. These motions, supported by many of the same people but diametrically opposed to each other, have just one obvious thing in common: both would reduce the power of Labour’s elected Deputy Leader, Tom Watson.
Both were withdrawn before reaching the Conference floor: last year’s because Watson himself backed it, giving its earlier supporters second thoughts, and this year’s following uproar from across the party, which led Jeremy Corbyn to propose a review instead. “We need to make sure the deputy leader role is properly accountable to the membership while also unifying the party at conference. In my view, this review is absolutely the best way of doing that”, tweeted Momentum’s Jon Lansman, who had proposed the change in the first place, hours earlier, and yet had somehow come around to the view, at least in public, that not doing it was better than doing it.
Lansman’s argument for his motion was explicitly that Watson had been disloyal, particularly over Brexit. This is not, self-evidently, a principled argument for a constitutional change. But politics is about power, and power is about numbers, and Lansman had the numbers. So why did he pull back?
It is not entirely clear what involvement Corbyn himself had in the proposal: conflicting reports are available, and he left Friday’s NEC meeting before Lansman’s motion was discussed – conveniently, some think. But Corbyn evidently decided to tell Lansman to ditch it on Saturday morning. Perhaps he knew about it and approved of it in advance and then backed down. Or perhaps it was proposed by a key ally, without his knowledge or approval, and supported by a majority of NEC members from his own wing of the party who either thought he agreed with them, or else didn’t care what he thought. Neither possibility reflects particularly well on his control of his supporters or his judgement.
So Tom Watson survives as Deputy Leader, at least for the time being. But what does this tell us about the state of the Labour Party?
First, it shows that for some people controlling the party is everything, even if that gets in the way of other objectives, like winning elections. Defenestrating Tom Watson, whatever the merits of the argument for it (full disclosure: I used to work for him and I think it’s a rubbish idea) was always going to get in the way of enabling Labour to portray itself as a united party ready for government, and to take attention away from the many policy announcements the party has been planning for months. Some people didn’t care, but plenty of very senior Corbyn allies did.
Second, it demonstrates that while Corbyn and his allies have hegemonic power within the party, they still feel vulnerable, not least because of what they fear might happen to their project if Labour is defeated again. It was their vulnerability, not their dominance, that led to this move in the first place – you don’t bother to remove someone who you think is no threat – and it was their vulnerability that led them to pull back. Corbyn would still win any leadership challenge, but provoking one in the run-up to a general election, from furious MPs angry at Watson’s removal – as might well have happened if Lansman’s bid had succeeded – would be disastrous for a party already behind in the polls and a leadership trying to project a united front.
And third, it gives us another example of Jeremy Corbyn’s weirdly passive leadership style. When he wants to advocate for a policy, or an ideological approach, or to oppose austerity or military intervention, he can do so with conviction and passion. That makes it all the more striking when he hides behind member opinion or party process on key questions like rule changes, MP deselections, antisemitism or which side to take in a future Brexit referendum. When Corbyn wants something to happen, his control of the party means it can. That also means that when he doesn’t step in to stop something, we can draw conclusions about his preferences.
Dawn Butler, a shadow cabinet minister who had spent a tricky Saturday morning media round trying not to express any opinion on the biggest Labour story of the day before she knew what her leader thought of it, had found a better line to take by the time she gave her speech in the afternoon. “If we don’t get our sh** together,” she said, “Boris Johnson is going to win.” That’s an analysis that all wings of the party can get behind.