Jeremy Corbyn personally intervened in Labour’s selection for the Manchester Gorton by-election to back a Momentum candidate, HuffPost UK has learned.
As deputy leader Tom Watson sparked a fresh row over the left-wing movement, party sources said that Corbyn had recommended that Sam Wheeler should be in the running for the traditionally safe seat.
A member of the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) by-election panel was advised by the party leader that Wheeler – seen as a left-wing “rising star” - should be put on the longlist and interviewed.
And Corbyn also made clear to others involved in the decision that he wanted “a broad swath of Left candidates” from which members could choose their final choice on Wednesday, party sources claimed.
Wheeler, who is backed by Unite the union as well as Momentum, is one of ten contenders being interviewed by the party on Monday, ahead of a shortlisting process.
Claims about Corbyn’s personal role in the selection came as Watson accused Momentum and Unite of being involved in a plot to “take over” Labour at every level.
The by-election for Manchester Gorton, which has been prompted by the death of veteran MP Sir Gerald Kaufman, is expected to take place on May 4. The seat has a 24,000 majority.
One rival for the candidacy also suggested that Wheeler was “a careerist”, following a local dispute over claims that she had “copied” his case for standing for Gorton.
Among the 10 contenders for Manchester Gorton’s Labour candidacy are local MEP Afzak Khan, who has been backed by the Usdaw, GMB and CWU unions.
Others in the running are local Manchester and Greater Manchester councillors Rabnawaz Akbar, Luthfur Rahman, Yasmine Dar, Amina Lone, Julie Reid, Mike Amesbury (who is backed by Unison), Nasrin Ali and Zahid Chauhan.
Asked by HuffPost UK if Corbyn had suggested Wheeler should go on the longlist, a spokesman for the party leader said: “We don’t comment on the selection process.”
But a senior Labour source said: “We want there to be a good choice on the shortlist and a strong candidate to represent the people of Gorton.”
Corbyn has until now stayed out of getting personally involved in selection processes for by-election candidates, but some of his allies believe it’s time to do more to get new MPs who reflect the party membership that elected him twice in landslide victories.
Earlier, deputy leader Tom Watson and Momentum’s founder Jon Lansman became embroiled in a bitter row over the group’s activities and intentions.
A leaked recording of Lansman this weekend revealed him saying: “Assuming that Len McCluskey wins the general secretaryship, which I think he will, Unite will affiliate to Momentum and will fully participate in Momentum, as will the CWU.”
Watson claimed Momentum was set on a plot to use donations from Unite the union to help it ‘take over’ the party.
Responding, Lansman said: “For 20 years the left was denied a voice. We will deny a voice to no-one. We face big challenges and we need our mass membership to win again.”
Watson raised the controversy at the Shadow Cabinet’s ‘away day’ on Monday in what the party said was a “robust and constructive” discussion.
In a joint statement, Corbyn and Watson said that the Shadow Cabinet “agreed on the need to strengthen party unity”.
“It recognised the right of groups across the spectrum of Labour’s broad church to discuss their views and try to influence the party so long as they operate within the rules,” they said.
Wheeler impressed Momentum activists when he made a speech welcoming Corbyn at his mass rally in Salford last year to launch his second leadership election campaign.
In a separate development, pro-Corbyn Councillor Julie Reid has hit back at claims that she “copied” her personal statement on Gorton from rival Wheeler.
Momentum activists have tweeted the similarity between the pair’s statements.
Reid told HuffPost that she was standing because she had a record of defending Gorton’s interests, having taken a seat from the Liberal Democrats and highlighted £350m of cuts implemented since the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition of 2010.
Asked about the similarity between her statement and that of Wheeler, she said: “Contrary to that, it’s the other way round. I put a statement on Facebook over two weeks ago.
“That was then copied by this person. And that was then put onto a statement where they were trying to get the backing of a particular union. And it looks like they’ve managed to get hold of my statement because all I did was elaborate on my original statement and it’s almost like they were parodying mine.
“They then tried to say that I’d copied them which I found annoying if anything else. There seems to be some predatory things going on at the moment, certain factions. There’s an arrogance about them. We as Gorton councillors have done the work in the communities, and there was something on Twitter like ‘have you seen the state of Gorton?’
“I just find it offensive actually. I was a supporter of Corbyn, I spoke on his behalf in the hustings in Withington. I have been a member of Momentum and I’m very concerned that this is about getting a careerist into Gorton. Whatever happens today or on Wednesday, some people will disappear, but I won’t be disappearing from Gorton.”
A source close to Wheeler hit back: “It’s unbelievable to say Sam copied anything of hers. He’s born in the constituency and has made his home there. He’s not tainted by the problems of the past. He’s certainly not a careerist. I can’t see him going for any other seat than Gorton.”
The party’s by-election panel was due to announce its shortlist on Monday evening.
A Momentum spokesperson said: “There are no secret plots or deals to take over the Labour party. As Tom Watson rightly acknowledged in his joint unity statement with Jeremy Corbyn, groups across the spectrum of Labour’s broad church have the right to discuss their views and try to influence the party.
“Far from being a sinister entryist organisation, Momentum is a positive force within the Labour Party, helping to mobilise the party’s hundreds of thousands of members to build the campaigning movement that will help Labour win the next general election.”
UPDATE: Neither Wheeler nor Reid made the final shortlist. Khan, Rahman, Lone, Dar, and Ali all made it through. Members will decide the winner on Wednesday.