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Labour in crisis: Tom Watson criticises Hilary Benn sacking

The Guardian logo The Guardian 26/06/2016 Anushka Asthana and Rajeev Syal
Corbyn (left) and deputy leader Tom Watson. © AFP/Getty Images Corbyn (left) and deputy leader Tom Watson.

Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, is to meet Jeremy Corbyn to discuss ways to “hold the party together” after eight senior members of the shadow cabinet resigned in protest against the current leadership. 

Watson said he was “deeply disappointed” by Corbyn’s decision to sack Hilary Benn in the early hours of Sunday morning, which came after it emerged the shadow foreign secretary was involved in a coup against the leader.

A string of Labour MPs have since resigned from the shadow cabinet in an apparent coup against Corbyn, triggered by the result of the EU referendum and the leader’s decision to dismiss Benn.

Those who have quit are:

  • Gloria De Piero, who speaks for young people.
  • Heidi Alexander, the shadow health secretary.
  • Seema Malhotra, the shadow chief secretary.
  • Ian Murray, the Scottish secretary.
  • Lilian Greenwood, the transport spokeswoman.
  • Lucy Powell, the education spokesperson.
  • Kerry McCarthy, the environment and rural affairs spokesperson.
  • Vernon Coaker, the shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
  • And Lord Falconer, shadow secretary of state for Justice.

Four or five other members of the shadow cabinet are also thought to be considering their positions, with Lord Falconer, Chris Bryant, and Angela Eagle among them.

Watson said he was “saddened” by the shadow cabinet resignations. He added that his focus was to hold the Labour party together, adding that he will meet Corbyn on Monday to discuss the “way forward”.

“My single focus is to hold the Labour party together in very turbulent times. The nation needs an effective opposition, particularly as the current leadership of the country is so lamentable,” he said.

“It’s very clear to me that we are heading for an early general election and the Labour party must be ready to form a government. There’s much work to do. I will be meeting Jeremy Corbyn tomorrow morning to discuss the way forward.”

The attempted coup has triggered a fierce response from Corbyn supporters, with Len McCluskey threatening MPs who are tweeting and briefing against the leader that they could face mandatory reselection. Unite’s general secretary said his union would find it difficult to maintain its opposition to rules making it easier to remove sitting MPs if the hostility continued.

In an article for the Guardian, McCluskey writes: “Unite has hitherto opposed any plans to change the party rules governing mandatory reselection of Labour MPs. That, too, we have looked on as a divisive distraction.

“But those MPs who have missed no opportunity to tweet and brief against the party’s elected leader over the last 10 months will find that their disloyalty finds no favour with party members and will make this an increasingly difficult line to hold.”

He also warned that if MPs tried to block Corbyn from standing again in the face of a leadership challenge it could “split the party”.

How the nation voted © PA How the nation voted It comes as Momentum, the campaign group that supports Corbyn, moves to shore up support for the leader among its 100,000 supporters, with phone banks already being set up and an email urging activists to turn up outside parliament tomorrow to protest as Labour MPs meet to consider a no confidence motion in Corbyn’s leadership.

“We cannot let this undemocratic behaviour succeed,” they have written.

But shadow cabinet members resigning said they felt no choice but to take action because David Cameron’s resignation means a general election could take place by the end of the year.

De Piero told Corbyn in her resignation letter that she had a “warm personal relationship” with the Labour leader but added: “I do not believe you can deliver that victory at a general election, which may take place in a matter of months. I have been contacted by many of my members this weekend and it is clear that a good number of them share that view and have lost faith in your leadership.”

Powell told Corbyn that she had enjoyed her role, which included pushing the government to drop plans for forced academisation. She said she found her leader “decent, principled and kind”, but added: “However, it is increasingly clear that your position is untenable and that you are unable to command the support of the shadow cabinet, the parliamentary Labour party, and most importantly the country.”

Greenwood told the Guardian that she had told Corbyn it was no longer “appropriate for me to serve in the shadow cabinet”.

“The Labour party needs unity, and I have concluded that this can only be achieved under new leadership.‎ The EU referendum has exacerbated fault lines within the party and our supporters, and those divisions are still widening.” she added.

However, Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary, said he would stay put, saying he did not see the sense of Labour plunging itself into civil war. “I have never taken part in a coup against any leader of the Labour party and I am not going to start now. It is for our members to decide who leads our party and 10 months ago they gave Jeremy Corbyn a resounding mandate,” he wrote on Twitter.

Jon Trickett, an ally of Corbyn, told the Guardian that the country needed strong opposition. “We need to get on with the business of offering an alternative vision of a Britain outside the EU to the one offered by [Michael] Gove and [Nigel] Farage, which is a small-minded, inward looking and chauvinistic.” He said he was 100% behind Corbyn.

And the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, said Corbyn was going nowhere, and questioned if his opponents had got enough sleep since the EU referendum last week, in a move that could anger colleagues. He said: “We are on the path of building a majority government for Labour … I think they should calm down and listen to their members.”

The resignations came as more than 170,000 people signed up to a petition entitled a “vote of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn after Brexit”.

Emily Thornberry, the shadow defence secretary and a Corbyn ally, said the public would not forgive the parliamentary party if it launched a bid to unseat its leader. “Now is not the time to be indulging in a leadership campaign. I really don’t understand why this is happening now,” she said.

Meanwhile, every Labour MP received a letter from Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey, who have submitted a no-confidence motion to be voted on this week. They say they were motivated to act against an “ineffective leadership” because of the “very real prospect” of a general election this year. “We believe that under Jeremy’s leadership we could be looking at political oblivion,” they wrote.

“We all see at first-hand the terrible problems that exist in our constituencies and we can’t do anything about them while the Tories run the country. We believe Jeremy is standing in the way and preventing us from securing the confidence of a majority of voters. Ukip is targeting our traditional heartlands,” they added.

A spokesman for the leader insisted he had no intention of resigning. “Jeremy Corbyn is the democratically elected leader of the Labour party and will remain so,” the spokesman said.

Another ally added: “They don’t have a candidate, they don’t have a programme, they don’t have the supporters to win a leadership election. Rather than self-indulgent destabilisation, they should work with the Labour leadership to respond to the a momentous national event that needs a united Labour party.

“He is not going to resign, and if there is a challenge he will fight it. Anyone that resigns can be replaced. It is obviously disappointing and a distraction. If they want to challenge Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership they can collect the nominations and stand. He will be standing for election.”

Diane Abbott, the shadow international development secretary and Corbyn’s staunch ally, said some of her colleagues had been planning to launch a coup for months, whatever the result in the EU referendum.

She called the challenge to his leadership was “a recipe for unhappiness” and called for the party to fall into line, saying his opponents could not challenge either the unions who back Corbyn or the membership, which overwhelmingly supports him. “This has been planned for a long time. There has been a plan to challenge Jeremy for a long time, because many have failed to reconcile themselves with his victory last year.”

Benn turned on Corbyn after being sacked as shadow foreign secretary in a late-night phone call, telling the Labour leader that MPs and shadow cabinet members have “no confidence in our ability to win the election” under his leadership.

Corbyn let go Benn after the Observer revealed that the shadow foreign secretary was preparing to lead a coup against him.

The mass resignations from the shadow cabinet will destabilise his leadership, and are likely to trigger a direct challenge. Corbyn’s team believe that he has the automatic right to be back on the ballot paper, knowing that he might struggle to get enough MPs to nominate him. But others disagree.

A Labour source said: “When Jeremy Corbyn nominated Tony Benn in 1988 against the democratically leader of the time, Neil Kinnock, Benn and Kinnock had to get nominations.”

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