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Labour conference: Move to abolish deputy post ditched

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Media captionTom Watson speaks to Radio 4’s Today programme about the bid to oust him as deputy Labour leader

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has quashed a motion at his party conference to oust his deputy, Tom Watson, by abolishing the position.

Mr Corbyn suggested the role should be reviewed instead, and was backed by the ruling National Executive Committee, a Labour source said.

A group of Labour MPs had urged the NEC to avoid an “internal civil war” when it should be preparing for an election.

Mr Watson called the move to oust him a “sectarian attack” on a “broad church”.

Speaking ahead of the party conference in Brighton, he told the BBC he found out late on Friday in a text message that a motion had been tabled by Jon Lansman, founder of Labour grassroots group Momentum.

He said he felt Mr Lansman “and his faction” were so angry with him over his calls for Labour to “unequivocally back remain” and have another public vote on Brexit, that they would “rather abolish me than have a debate about it”.

After his intervention, Mr Corbyn told reporters outside the conference centre that he “enjoyed” working with Mr Watson.

He later said: “The NEC agreed this [Saturday] morning that we are going to consult on the future of diversifying the deputy leadership position to reflect the diversity of our society.

“And the conference will move on to defeating austerity, to the green industrial revolution, green new deal that we are putting forward and giving the people a final say on Brexit.”

Mr Lansman said he fully supported Mr Corbyn’s proposal to review the deputy leader post.

“We need to make sure the 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,” he said.

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Image caption Jeremy Corbyn fields reporters’ questions as he arrives at the Labour party conference

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said he was “disappointed” at the attempt to oust Mr Watson, and was “glad” it had been stopped.

“I think it’s been dealt with, it’s been withdrawn swiftly,” he told the BBC.

“What we need to do now is to move on to discuss the policies and the programme that we need going into a general election.”

Analysis: Labour message ‘damaged’

By BBC political correspondent Susana Mendonca

Let’s face it – no-one likes finding out by text that they’re getting ditched.

But this wasn’t the morning after a bad date, this was the morning after the latest instalment in the saga that is Labour’s fractious relationship with itself.

And the deputy leader wasn’t happy at being told by text last night that a plot was afoot to ditch him by abolishing his post.

A “sectarian attack”, “pluralism not tolerated”, a “drive-by shooting” even, Tom Watson told the Today programme.

If this conference was supposed to be a moment for Labour to come together, place the focus on its policies and show the country it’s a unified force ready to lead after a general election, well, it didn’t start well.

The Parliamentary Labour Party’s letter to its governing body described the move as a “gross act of suppressing dissent”.

“These kinds of things happen in Venezuela,” said Mr Watson. Music to the ears no doubt of the Conservatives who’ve long been making those comparisons in relation to Labour’s leadership.

Jeremy Corbyn appears to be trying out a bit of damage limitation with talk now of a “review” of the role rather than immediate abolition.

But the damage to Labour’s message ahead of its conference appears to have been done.

The row over Mr Watson’s position threatened to overshadow Labour’s party conference.

On Saturday morning, in an interview on BBC’s Today programme, Mr Watson said the move by Momentum was “moving us into a different kind of institution where pluralism isn’t tolerated”.

He went on to appeal to Momentum activists to focus on showing people they were serious about changing the political economy of Britain rather than having “a sort of sleight-of-hand constitutional change to do a drive-by shooting of someone you disagree with”.

Shortly after, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), which represents Labour backbenchers, wrote a letter to members of the National Executive Committee – including Mr Corbyn – saying the move was counterproductive and sent the country a message “we are more interested in internal battles” than constituents’ lives.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who led Labour from 1994 to 2007, said abolishing the deputy leader post would be “undemocratic and politically dangerous”.

Dawn Butler, shadow women and equalities secretary, said Momentum’s move had “come out of the blue” but she could understand the frustration with the deputy leader who had not been seen at shadow cabinet meetings “for a while”.


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