LONDON: A vote to oust the deputy leader of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party was ditched on Saturday after a big backlash to the proposal prompted Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s leader, to intervene.
The surprise attempt to abolish the role of deputy leader by one of Corbyn’s close allies caused uproar among many Labour members and has overshadowed the start of the party’s annual conference in the southern England city of Brighton.
Corbyn has tried to put a lid on the row by proposing that Labour carry out a review of the role, currently held by lawmaker Tom Watson, who has clashed with the leader on a number of issues, notably Brexit.
The proposal to get rid of the deputy’s role had been scheduled to be put to a vote Saturday of Labour’s governing body, the National Executive Committee.
The move against Watson has laid bare the divisions in the party — Watson has espoused a number of viewpoints that have offended many of Corbyn’s left-wing supporters but have appealed to the moderate wing of the party.
Heading into the conference on Saturday, Corbyn tried to put a brave face on the row and said he enjoyed working with Watson.
“The NEC agreed this morning that we are going to consult on the future of diversifying the deputy leadership position to reflect the diversity of our society,” Corbyn said.
Questioned by assembled reporters, Corbyn refused to say when he first knew about the attempt to oust Watson, nor whether he had full confidence in his deputy.
Watson told BBC radio before the proposal was ditched that the attempt to oust him was akin to “a straight sectarian attack on a broad-church party” and that he believes his position on Brexit was behind the move. He said the move against him came as a shock and that he was in a Chinese restaurant in Manchester Friday evening when he found out about it.
The row exploded Friday when Jon Lansman, the founder of the pro-Corbyn grass roots Momentum group, proposed a motion for Watson’s job to be scrapped.
Lansman said in a tweet he welcomed Corbyn’s proposal to review the role of deputy leader and added that the party needs “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.”
Watson received widespread support including from former Labour prime minister Tony Blair, who said the move to oust Watson “would be undemocratic, damaging and politically dangerous.”
Watson, who was elected deputy leader of the Labour Party in September 2015 at the same time as Corbyn took the helm, is a prominent supporter of a second Brexit referendum and is urging Labour to campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union in any further vote.
Labour’s move recently to back a second referendum on any Brexit deal has not been welcomed by everyone in the Labour Party, even though a large majority of members are in favour of staying in the EU.
The party’s official Brexit position is still in flux and set to be debated further over the coming days.
A draft statement Saturday from Labour’s governing body suggests the party go into a general election without specifying whether it would support remaining in the EU in the promised second referendum.
However, the statement said the party would get the issue “sorted one way or another” with a referendum within six months if Labour formed the next government.
An election is widely expected to be held in the next few months whether or not the country has left the EU on the scheduled Brexit date of Oct. 31.
Pro-EU Labour activists fear the NEC’s approach could be a way of stopping debate on their call that Labour back remaining in the EU.
“This move is just plain wrong,” said Clive Lewis, a Labour lawmaker in the party’s Treasury team.