Labour Doesn't Need Trot Scare Stories - It Needs Unity

20/08/2016 11:35 | Updated 20 August 2016
Danny Lawson/PA Archive

Tom Watson hit the headlines last week with his over-heated claims that Trotskyists were swarming into the Labour Party. Tom the Trot-Finder got a lot of attention - too much perhaps.

Because raising a storm about what the miniscule Alliance for Workers Liberty may or may not be doing is far from being the most damaging intervention our Deputy Leader has made recently in his campaign to save the Party from itself.

I had to rub my eyes when I read these remarks by Tom in his recent interview in The Guardian: "I think it's highly likely there'll be an early election. I mean, if you're Theresa May, with a majority of 12, with your Brexit fanatics already saying you're not going quickly enough to get us out of the European Union, with having sacked too many people from the frontbench who are just looking for the opportunity for her to stumble, and with a double-digit lead in the polls, then even though on day one you might not think you're going to have an early election, I think it's almost inevitable you'll get to a point where you have to. If you were Theresa May, why wouldn't you? Honestly, why wouldn't you? You'd get your own mandate, you'd have the easiest run at the election you could imagine, and in all likelihood you'd come back with a bigger majority. Why wouldn't you do that?"

Tom is no fool, and those comments are not likely to have been accidental. They amount to a virtual encouragement to the Prime Minister to press the button for the much-trailed early election.

Let's say that Mrs May read that article and thought "yes - he makes the case well, let's go for it." What would happen to the Labour Party then?

I like to look on the sunny side of life, but even I have to recognise that our Party is scarcely in a shape to meet the challenge of a general election right now. We need a period of unity, self-discipline, policy development and talking to the public rather than ourselves - as I hope we will get once the leadership election is over - before we are ready to face the electorate with any realistic prospect of success.

A general election in the immediate future would risk a further major weakening of Labour in parliament, since divided parties never win votes.

But perhaps there would be a silver lining for Tom in that a defeat could create the conditions for a change in the Party leadership. I am reluctant to say that Tom Watson would be prepared to sacrifice dozens of Labour seats to see off the left in the Party, but it does look a bit like it.

This intervention by Tom is the worst, but far from the only, error of judgement he has been involved in over the last period.

For the record, his evidence on far left infiltration of Labour is just about the dodgiest dossier produced since Alistair Campbell left Downing Street or Tony Blair's claims of WMD in Iraq. It pitches together the larger Trotskyist groups which are commenting on Labour's struggles but emphatically not joining it - like the SWP - with groups of impenetrable obscurity which may be trying to enter Labour but even aggregated amount to a heap of nothing.

On my calculation, if every allegation in Tom's bill of indictment were true, it would mean that a full 0.1 per cent of our 515,000 members were members of entryist factions. Or to put it another way, 99.9 per cent of the people in the Labour Party are loyal and legitimate members - but the public have now been given a very different impression.

In fact, it is that 99.9 per cent that Tom Watson seems worried about, rather than the straw man of Trotskyism. He has advocated one measure after another to marginalise the members' participation in the Party's life.

He was one of the moving spirits behind the plan to exclude 130,000 members from voting in the leadership election, and in getting that exclusion enforced by the judges.

He has backed the complete shut-down of Party meetings over the summer, stifling debate and democracy by giving credence to media allegations of bullying and bad behaviour which are sustained by hardly any evidence at all.

He voted for hiking the registered supporters' fee to £25 and narrowing the window of application to just 48 hours, moves which make sense only if one is trying to minimise participation and involvement.

Now, in the same Guardian interview as he came over all come-hither to Teresa May, Tom Watson has urged scrapping the leadership election system altogether. This, of course, was the system introduced to nearly-universal approval in the Party just three years ago because it broadened the franchise and gave every vote the same weight.

Labour's right-wing loved the plan then - even Tony Blair praised it - because it was seen as a way of diluting union influence in the Party. Beware what you wish for, I suppose.

But now Tom and others want to row back on equal votes. He wants to revert to a scheme which would give 230 MPs the same say as all the Party members.

If you think each MP - the conduct of some of whom over the last few months has perhaps been less than ideal - is as good as 2,300 Party activists then this is the plan for you. The rest of us will pass.

Tom also wants to go backwards by having those MPs, rather than the Leader, choose the shadow cabinet. Were that to be enacted, we would have institutionalised division with a left-wing Leader presiding over what would likely be a "new Labour" team, with some of its members seeking to undermine him at every turn.

Now, each of these positions advanced by Tom might be debatable. But add them all up and it amounts to a fairly comprehensive assault on the rights of the Party membership and indeed, the principles of democracy.

His silences are eloquent too. Last weekend millionaire Labour donor Michael Foster compared Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to "Stormtroopers". Could anything be more offensive - even Tom himself hasn't gone further than "rabble"? Had anyone from the Left said such a thing about, say, Progress, there would rightly have been an uproar, doubtless led by Tom. But not a peep so far.

This all seems to be underpinned by a view, not unknown in those parts of the trade union movement where Tom cut his teeth, that the members have overstepped their proscribed role and are interfering in the business of their betters.

That is bad enough. But willing the Tories on to an election which would prove a disaster for Labour - because that would give yield the leadership outcome which our members do not look like giving him - is far worse. It is not conduct worthy of a Deputy Leader and misguided. If Tom thinks that forcing an early election of a fractured party, within months of Jeremy's re-election and following a period of continued destabilisation within the party - led by that small group within the PLP who would sacrifice all to destroy the left - and before the radical alternative to Tory rule and austerity politics has been developed, argued and won on the doorstep and in workplaces across our nations will force Jeremy out of office, he should think again.