Watson wants answers from Corbyn over plot to abolish deputy leader role

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand

Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson has said he wants answers from Jeremy Corbyn over a grassroots plot to abolish his role in the party.

Mr Watson says the foiled plan - put to Labour's National Executive Committee (NEC) by Momentum founder Jon Lansman - "undermines" the party and now he wants to know how much his boss knew.

"I don’t know what Jeremy knew and didn’t know, but I’d like to," he told ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand.

He added: "I want this week to be the most positive week we can have, I want us to unify, I want us to talk about what our vision for the country during and after a general election is."

On the first morning of the Labour Party Conference in Brighton Mr Corbyn did little to ease talk of disunity in the leadership when journalists asked him about the failed plan to remove the deputy leader role.

He dodged a question on whether he knew about the vote to remove the role, but did say: "Tom Watson is the deputy leader of the party and I enjoy working with him."

Mr Watson said he was “disappointed” by the actions of Mr Lansman in attempting to have the role of deputy removed and claimed the party had been “undermined”.

"Not only has he undermined me, I think he’s undermined Jeremy, I think he’s undermined the party and frankly I think he’s undermined the Momentum delegates."

Labour's NEC was due to discuss the issue but Mr Corbyn used the meeting to call for the post of deputy leader to be reviewed - rather than have a vote on abolishing Mr Watson's role.

After the meeting Jeremy Corbyn said: "Our NEC left this morning in a happy and united mood."

The Labour leader sought to display a united front amid a chaotic start to the party conference.

Mr Corbyn's announcement means the proposed vote to remove Mr Watson has for now been taken off the table.

A source said: "Jeremy Corbyn proposed that the motion not go to a vote and instead that there be a review of the position of deputy leader and other positions in support of the leader.

"This will consider how democratic accountability can be strengthened to give members a greater say, expanding the number of elected positions, and how diverse representation can be further improved.

"The NEC agreed to his proposal."

Mr Lansman tweeted his support into the review, saying: "I welcome & fully support Jeremy's proposal to review Tom Watson's position. 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."

Mr Watson - who found out about the motion when he was at a restaurant on Friday night - described the move as a "straight sectarian attack on a broad church".

He said: "What it shows is that this conference is supposed to be a platform for what could be a general election in six weeks.

"It's a straight sectarian attack on a broad church party.

"And it's moving us into a different kind of institution where pluralism isn't tolerated."

A number of high-profile Labour figures have condemned the move by Lansman.

Former prime minister Tony Blair labelled the move "undemocratic", while former leader Ed Miliband and Tottenham MP David Lammy also criticised the motion.

ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand said Gordon Brown has appealed to Mr Corbyn and John McDonnell, telling them every former leader and senior figures within the party will publicly condemn the move to oust Mr Watson if it goes ahead.

And UNISON’s Dave Prentis told Paul Brand the plot to oust Mr Watson was “counterproductive, naive, stupid”.

Meanwhile a shadow cabinet source close to the Labour leader said Mr Corbyn had come out of the deputy leader controversy "looking very good".

On Friday, a Momentum source told ITV News: "We just can’t afford to go into an election with a deputy leader set on wrecking Labour’s chances. Labour members overwhelmingly want a deputy leadership election, but our outdated rule book won’t let it happen.

“You need 20% of Labour MPs to trigger an election, and they just won’t let the members have a fair and open election.”

But, Labour MP Yvette Cooper tweeted: "This is completely mad and incredibly destructive. Country faces serious challenges & General Election could be imminent.

"@UKLabour conference (should) be about country & about pulling together. Instead we get this."

Mr Corbyn’s indecisive stand on Brexit, coupled with disagreements on policy between him and his deputy, has sparked repeated clashes between himself and Mr Watson.

Mr Watson has said the party should campaign for a new Brexit referendum to be held before a general election.

Mr Corbyn has said that a Labour government would secure a “sensible” Brexit deal and put that to a referendum, with the other option being to stay in the European Union.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn with deputy Tom Watson. Credit: PA

More than 90 motions from party MPs are thought to have been submitted on Brexit, the majority supporting a remain stance, which could mean campaigning against a deal secured by Labour negotiators.

Efforts to find an agreed form of words for a conference motion will take place at a behind-closed-doors meeting, with a vote on the party’s position expected on Monday.

Some activists have mounted a campaign to push the party to support the remain cause in any second referendum, despite Mr Corbyn’s hints he could stay neutral in a public vote.

Scottish and Welsh Labour are both committed to the remain cause and members in Northern Ireland have submitted a motion to conference warning that “any form of Brexit threatens jobs, workers’ rights, migrants, the NHS, public services and the environment”.

Meanwhile, Mr Corbyn is expected to address a rally at The World Transformed festival which runs alongside the Labour event on Saturday night, while his keynote speech will bring the conference to a close on Wednesday.

More than 13,000 people are expected to attend the five-day conference in some capacity, including 1,200 voting delegates.