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Labour conference was ripe for an almighty row over Brexit, but that fight has been eclipsed by the personality politics right at the top of the party. On Saturday, Tom Watson narrowly survived an attempted ousting from his position as deputy leader. Jon Lansman, a long-time ally of leader Jeremy Corbyn, engineered a vote at the party’s ruling body on scrapping Watson’s post. Watson survived by one vote.
Tom Watson embodies a moderate Labour tradition – he has always been at odds with Jeremy Corbyn. And whenever the fight for the next leader of the Labour Party gets underway, he wants to be positioned either as a contender or a kingmaker.
The Corbynite left, and Lansman in particular, don’t want their hard work undone by an ideological opponent taking over. And the failed attempt to oust Watson was just that – Corbyn’s ideological wing of the party trying to squander the influence of moderates who may reverse the impact Corbyn, Milne and McDonnell have made on Labour in recent years.
And with this move, all signs are pointing towards a party leader who is at least considering his resignation.
It failed. But this move wasn’t bad politics just because of that. It played straight into the Tory spin of the Labour Party as coup-mongering and divided – detracting from the fact that the Tories, too, are coup-mongering and divided.
Mostly, it was an unnecessary risk. The Corbyn-ising of the Labour Party doesn’t go away when Corbyn does. He and his ideas are still overwhelmingly supported by the membership and Momentum, the far left grassroots campaign outfit, still exert disproportional influence.
The Corbyn-ising of the Labour Party doesn’t go away when Corbyn does. He is still overwhelmingly supported by the membership and Momentum still exert disproportional influence. Hampering a centrist like Tom Watson is unnecessary because so long as the membership still decide the leader, a proxy Corbyn will most likely win. This is, of course, in lieu of some serious charisma and leadership coming onto the scene, who will lap up the vote regardless, and drag the party back centrewards. The problem is that no one has managed to identify any plausible candidate.
So Corbyn is not in a bad position, assessed by the stamp he’s made on the direction of the Labour Party under his premiership. Whoever wins the next leadership contest need not be like Corbyn down to the letter, but will understand that to win over a membership overwhelmingly pro-Corbyn, they’ll have to lean into Labour’s further left instincts. For now – until someone arrives to reverse the trend – it looks as if Corbyn has succeeded in dragging the party in his direction. Trying and failing to throw Watson under the bus was messy, petty and a gift to the Tories.
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