Tom Watson hits out at 'drive-by shooting' as Momentum boss launches bid to axe Labour deputy post
Tom Watson has warned his party not to carry out a "drive-by shooting" against him, as the boss of the Momentum campaign group launched a bid to scrap the post of Labour deputy leader altogether.
Mr Watson hit out at what he called "a sectarian attack on a broad church party", after Jon Lansman, founder of the pro-Jeremy Corbyn Momentum group, urged the party's ruling body to ditch Mr Watson's role entirely.
The shock move - which Mr Watson even likened to socialist Venezuela - threatens to overshadow Labour's conference, which gets underway in Brighton on Saturday.
A motion tabled by Mr Lansman Labour's ruling National Executive Committee on Friday night calls for the deputy leader job to be axed, with the Momentum boss condemning Mr Watson's calls for Labour to unequivocally back Remain in any future EU referendum.
The bid was backed by 17 votes to 10 thanks to the support of NEC delegates representing major trade unions Unite and the CWU.
Because it failed to achieve the two-thirds majority required, the motion did not pass.
However, it will be on the agenda for a 10am meeting of the NEC on Saturday morning, when it will only need a simple majority of 50% plus one to go through.
If it passes, the motion will then be voted on by the full Labour conference on Saturday afternoon.
With supporters of Jeremy Corbyn making up the majority of delegates, it would almost certainly be passed, bringing an end to the deputy leader post which has existed throughout Labour's history.
Hitting back on Saturday morning, Mr Watson - who had been unable to attend Friday's NEC meeting because of childcare commitments - said he had been given "no warning" of the move.
And he told the BBC's Today programme: "This conference is supposed to be a platform for what could be a general election in six weeks.
"It's a straight sectarian attack on a broad church party and it's moving us into a different kind of institution, where pluralism isn't tolerated, where factional observance has to be adhered to completely.
"And it completely goes against the sort of traditions that the Labour Party's had for 100 years."
Mr Watson defended his decision to offer a "dissenting" voice on Brexit, arguing that Labour needed to "campaign for Remain" - a position that "shares a lot of support across the Shadow Cabinet table as well as across our members".
"I just think - Jon Lansman and his faction are so angry about that that they'd rather abolish me than have a debate with me about it," he added.
In a direct challenge to Mr Lansman, the Labour deputy said: "I was elected by the members. If people want to remove me, let the members remove me. Rather than having a secret paper at a meeting at last-minute. I mean - these kind of things happen iin Venezuela. They shouldn't be happening in the United Kingdom."
Relations between Mr Watson and Jeremy Corbyn have completely broken down in recent months, and the pair rarely speak.
Earlier this month, the deputy leader angered the leader's office by insisting Labour should back a second EU referendum ahead of a general election, and campaign for Remain.
But Mr Watson argued he had been trying to "hold the different traditions of the Labour Party together" for some time.
And he warned that ousting him today would only hinder Labour's chances of winning a general election.
"It's actually not in the interests of Jeremy," he said.
"And it's certainly not in the interests of the millions of people that have lost out under a Conservative government.
"And so I really just appeal to the better nature, to the Momentum activists that as are as shocked as I am by Jon Lansman's behaviour: if we're serious about changing the political economy of Britain, of giving people the benefits of a transformational Labour government then let's focus on that this week rather than having what seems like a sort of sleight-of-hand constitutional change to do a drive-by shooting of someone you disagree with on the issue of the day."
Former prime minister Tony Blair also tore into the move on Saturday.
He said: "A decision to abolish the post of Deputy Leader would be undemocratic, damaging and politically dangerous. To suggest it at this time shows a quite extraordinary level of destructive sectarianism."
Mr Watson's call came as Shadow Equalities Minister Dawn Butler - touring the airwaves in a bid to promote Labour's new policy on support for women with the menopause as its conference kicks off - expressed her frustration at the row.
"It irritates me on many different levels," she told Sky News.
"The main level that irritates me is that I really want to talk so desperately about the... women who are in the workplace who are going through the menopause, and the menopausal policy that we're going to put before conference, and as Labour in government we'll be pushing for. That's really what I want to talk about - so yeah I'm kind of irritated by this as well."
But she refused to wade into the debate over Mr Watson' role, saying members of Labour's ruling NEC had been voted in by members and denying that the party was "ripping itself apart".
"I think it's a bit extreme to say that we're ripping ourselves apart," she said.
"I think that's a little bit extreme. I mean this is the NEC putting forward a motion. It has come as a surprise. I'm surprised by it, but I think to frame it in the way that we're ripping ourselves apart? That's not the case."