Labour Party Backs Away From Civil War as Conference Starts

(Bloomberg) -- A motion to oust Tom Watson, deputy leader of the U.K.’s main opposition Labour Party, was withdrawn after it opened up divisions on the first day of the party’s conference, threatening to overshadow preparations for a general election.

The ruling National Executive Committee was due to vote on the surprise move on Saturday morning as delegates met in Brighton, southern England, for a gathering that was supposed to kick start the party’s campaign to oust Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The plan to cut Watson’s position sparked fury from Labour members of Parliament and dominated the media on Saturday morning, eclipsing the party’s policy announcements. The chatter on Sunday morning looks set to be clouded by the resignation of Corbyn’s aide Andrew Fisher, reported by the Sunday Times to have said Corbyn won’t win the next general election.

“We’ve had a bad start to our conference,” Watson, who earlier referred to the attempt to strip him of his job as “a drive-by shooting,” told reporters as he arrived in Brighton on Saturday evening. The party needs “to reunite the conference after what has been, frankly, quite a ridiculous start to it and totally unnecessary,” he said.

Watson, who was elected on a separate mandate from leader Jeremy Corbyn, has publicly disagreed with the leadership on Brexit policy. He has been pushing for a second referendum before a general election is held and for the party to support remaining in the European Union.

The NEC also sought to clarify Labour’s Brexit policy with a draft of a statement that will be put to delegates on Monday. It said that if the party wins a general election it will negotiate a “sensible” deal with the EU within three months before putting it to a referendum, with remaining in the bloc the other option in the ballot.

The conference will debate Brexit on Monday afternoon and will vote on motions brought by constituencies from across the country once they have been consolidated in a meeting on Sunday night. The issue came 14th in a ballot of priorities for delegates on Saturday, securing one of the 20 slots for debate.

The deputy leader said the move to abolish his post was driven by Jon Lansman, who founded and runs Momentum, a grassroots group set up to support Corbyn’s leadership, and Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite labor union, the party’s biggest financial backer.

Lansman said after the motion was withdrawn that he welcomes and supports the party’s plan to review the deputy leader’s role. He also appeared to recognize the division his move had caused.

“We need to make sure the deputy leader role is properly accountable to the membership while also unifying the party at conference,” he tweeted. “This review is absolutely the best way of doing that.”

The attempts to remove Watson were criticized by prominent Labour MPs including former leader Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper.

Labour plans to use its annual conference to set out its agenda for the expected general election and highlight dividing lines from Johnson’s Conservative Party.

“What we need at this time is unity and a focus on winning the upcoming election,” Dave Prentis, general secretary of the labor union Unison, said in a statement. “Anything else is a betrayal of Unison members and working people everywhere -- all of whom are relying on us to deliver a Labour government.”

(Adds departure of Corbyn aide in third paragraph.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Thomas Penny in London at tpenny@bloomberg.net;James Amott in London at jamott@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Davis at abdavis@bloomberg.net, Stuart Biggs

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