“There is, honestly, a battle for the future of the Labour Party,” Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson told the Labour First conference rally this afternoon.
Addressing the fringe event, Watson talked about the attempt by Momentum chair Jon Lansman to abolish Labour’s deputy leadership post on the eve of conference.
Making light of the row, he referred to the idea floated by the leadership last year of having two deputy leaders, saying: “I don’t know how many deputies they’ll want next year – I thought we might have a Board of Deputies [the Jewish organisation].”
Watson used his Labour First speech to call for members to stand up for pluralism within the Labour Party. “We must be the partisans of pluralism,” he told the rally.
He concluded: “When the country is more divided than ever and deeply dispirited, it takes real moral discipline and a breadth of imagination to keep going, and that’s what we all need to show now”, before adding that “we must resist the corrosive, destructive impulse of factionalism”.
Angela Eagle also spoke at the rally, telling attendees that Clause I of the Labour Party constitution – the one stating that there shall be a parliamentary Labour Party – is the most important part, as “a declaration that working people want to take government and power in government so they can use the force for good, that can be government, to benefit the people as a whole”.
The MP for Wallasey added: “The Labour Party is the only vehicle that has ever been created to ensure that working people in this country actually make progress towards a fairer, more decent society.”
Eagle ended her contribution by asking: “What do we want? More pluralism. When do we want it? Now.”
Margaret Hodge spoke next at the rally. She criticised “ultra-leftists” in the party and claimed that some party policy was coming from the “extreme, sectarian left”.
The senior MP attacked the leadership for what she called a “populist promise” on tuition fees, which she said was designed to appeal to the middle class and was undeliverable. She told the crowd that she would instead put the money into education for under-5s.
Hodge added: “I would have zero-tolerance on nepotism, I would have zero-tolerance on bullying, I would have zero-tolerance on antisemitism, I would have zero-tolerance on misogyny in the workplace and I wouldn’t make it the norm in the leader’s office.”
She condemned elements within the left of the Labour Party that she says have been sharing abusive campaign material originally created by the BNP. She told the crowd that “ten years ago fascists put that through my letterbox – today, ultra-leftists are plastering that same material all over social media”.
Ruth Smeeth opened her comments by thanking Labour First members for the solidarity they have shown the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) over the past twelve months.
She reminded the crowd that “there are many of my friends, including Luciana, who are no longer members of the Labour Party”, though added that she wasn’t encouraging the audience to join the Lib Dems.
James Asser, national executive committee (NEC) member for socialist societies and Newham councillor, updated the audience with his inside take on the NEC’s meetings in the run-up to conference.
He told the room that the NEC “disaffiliated Labour Students without debate”, adding: “If you are scrapping a 40-year old affiliate – who are an affiliate because of changes that we made under the democracy review – without any debate at all, that does not represent any form of democracy”.
The NEC member and councillor also criticised a lack focus on an upcoming general election. He complained: “We could be within eight weeks of a general election, and we have spent the last few days discussing internal processes.”
He told the room that NEC meetings were consumed with discussions about the value of the word ‘much’, but “what we didn’t talk about was the imminent election or any strategy about it”.
Ramia Ranli, chair of Labour Students, said that while facing a no-deal Brexit, an early general election and a rise in fascism, “we have no student wing – there is no way for the party to organise students”.
She said: “While Jon Lansman is shutting down Labour Students and trying to get rid of Tom Watson, our country is falling apart.” But she also called on members present not to give up “the fight for the party”, claiming that “there’s just too much at stake”.
Luke Akehurst used the event to speak about the achievements of New Labour, before moving on to say that “the greatest frustration for me, is having to defend the hard-working councillors, the hard-working MPs”.
He, too, expressed a view that the Labour Party is too inward-looking at the moment, saying: “I want to be out smashing the Tories. What I love is organising elections against Tories and Lib Dems.”
Referring to the rows over the deputy leader position this week, Akehurst called for people to respect the mandate of the elected position. Striking a defiant tone, he said: “Anyone that tells you that our wing of the party is dead, that we can’t win – we are winning in trigger ballot after trigger ballot.”