Labour’s deputy leader says left-wing supporters of Jeremy Corbyn are involved in a plot which could destroy the party as an electoral force.
Tom Watson was reacting to claims that the grassroots Momentum group – which helped make Mr Corbyn leader – is hoping to get financial support from Britain’s largest trade union, Unite.
Momentum’s Jon Lansman was reportedly taped saying that if Len McCluskey was re-elected as Unite general secretary, the union would affiliate to his group rather than just to Labour.
Mr Watson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme “enough is enough, this has got to stop… I’m afraid there are some people who do not have our electoral interests at heart”.
He said: “We have never seen the biggest union organising a political faction in the Labour Party with the tacit approval of the leadership.”
Mr Watson said he had a duty to “call out” what appeared to be a “secret plan” to take over the Labour Party and he urged Mr McCluskey to publicly state Unite would not fund Momentum under his leadership.
Following a shadow cabinet meeting, Mr Watson and Mr Corbyn issued a joint statement saying they “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”.
“No one speaks for the leadership except the leadership themselves and their spokespeople,” they added.
Ahead of Monday’s meeting, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said Mr Watson’s comments were “disappointing” and suggested he was trying to influence the outcome of the contest for Unite leader – in which incumbent Mr McCluskey – a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn – is being challenged by Gerard Coyne.
The ballot papers for the contest will be sent out later this week, with the result to be announced next month.
Mr McDonnell dismissed talk of any kind of plot to take control of the party, insisting “this is not civil war”.
“It is all about Tom and the internal battle that he is trying to wage within Unite,” he said.
In the recordings, which were revealed by The Observer newspaper, Mr Lansman says: “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.”
He went on to tell activists it was “absolutely crucial” that they secured a change to the party’s rules to ensure that whenever Mr Corbyn stands down, they are able to get a candidate on to the ballot paper to succeed him.
Currently, a candidate must obtain the support of 15% of Labour MPs and MEPs in order to stand – a threshold a new left-wing contender is unlikely to be able to meet.
Christine Shawcroft, a member of Momentum who sits on the party’s National Executive Council, said Labour’s MPs could not have a “veto” on the wishes of the membership when the time came to electing Mr Corbyn’s successor.
“We have a mass membership now and it wants its voice to be heard,” she told Today. “There is a democratic deficit in the Labour Party where the structures we have do not reflect the support for Jeremy Corbyn that has been shown by the mass of the members”.
Friends of Mr Watson say they believe there is an orchestrated attempt by Momentum and Unite to take control of the machinery of the Labour Party.
They claim there are plans to introduce mandatory reselection of MPs, remove critical councillors, take over regional Labour parties, change the leadership rules, and ignore restrictions on the activities of non Labour Party members.
One said the situation was more serious than the 1980s because now Labour was facing a threat from within its own organisation rather than an external group like Militant.
It was claimed that despite denials by Unite an assurance had been given by Mr McCluskey’s allies that he was willing to fund Momentum.
Mr Watson, she suggested, was “rather right-wing” and wanted to return to a “command and control” system for running the party based on a “Blairite model”. She rejected suggestions Momentum was a hard-left entryist organisation trying to infiltrate Labour, describing the terms as “silly labels”.
“Jon said nothing that was at all controversial, but I think this is a concerted attempt to interfere in the internal election in Unite for general secretary, which is really shocking.”
She added: “The offer is always open for any organisation, any trade union, to affiliate (to Momentum). They are welcome to do so. It is not a question of disaffiliating from the Labour Party and affiliating to Momentum instead.”
Momentum sources pointed out that the TSSA union is already affiliated to Momentum, adding that there have been no “significant conversations” with Unite about future funding.
The contest between Mr McCluskey and Mr Coyne, Unite’s West Midlands organiser who has said the union needs to meddle less in internal Labour politics, is being seen as a proxy battle for control of the Labour movement. Most Unite branches have backed Mr McCluskey in his bid to be re-elected.
Unite, which is Labour largest financial backer, said Mr Watson’s comments were “entirely inaccurate” and accused him of trying to “interfere” in the election.
“As Unite has made it clear it is exclusively for our executive council to determine which organisations we affiliate to,” said acting general secretary Gail Cartmail. “There are no plans for Unite to affiliate to Momentum.”
She added: “Mr Watson is a Unite member with a right to a vote and a view. But he should remember that, first, he is deputy leader of the Labour party with the obligations that this senior post imposes, and second that Unite is not a subsidiary of any political organisation.”
But Mr Coyne countered: “To say there are no plans over the next month is somewhat disingenuous in reality because it clearly is John Lansman’s belief that Len McCluskey will support Momentum.”