Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson has sparked a bitter row after he questioned a decision to allow former Militant firebrand Derek Hatton back into the party.
Amid heated scenes at the ruling National Executive Committee’s (NEC) disputes panel, Watson questioned how the former Liverpool council left-winger was allowed back into Labour last month and then suspended two days later following claims of anti-Semitism.
The veteran MP, who last week set up a new grouping within the party, also queried plans to bar a suspended ‘centrist’ local council leader from standing in coming elections.
But he faced a backlash from Left members of the NEC who said he had delayed and disrupted proceedings, while trying to help one of his allies in the West Midlands.
At the start of the meeting at Labour’s HQ on Tuesday, Watson prompted uproar from some colleagues when he point blank refused to hand over his mobile phone, despite “anti-leak” rules that ban electronic devices from private hearings.
Labour imposed a blanket ban on the use of mobiles in its NEC committee meetings last year.
Along with a decision to withhold papers previously sent in advance, the move was aimed at preventing leaks of confidential information about individual disciplinary cases, although critics suggested it was a political decision intended to cover up dissent.
Watson insisted that he needed his phone because he had to be in touch with the House of Commons and the latest Brexit news on a fast-moving day for Theresa May’s latest plans.
Some members of the NEC were furious, while others backed his right as deputy leader to be allowed outside contact. But the incident led to a significant delay and debate on procedure.
Former Liverpool deputy leader Hatton was readmitted to Labour last month, 34 years after he was expelled by Neil Kinnock for membership of the Trotskyist group Militant.
He was then suspended after it emerged he had tweeted in 2012 that British Jews should criticise the Israeli government.
Following queries about Hatton from Unison member Keith Birch, Watson had asked how decisions had been made on the case, and demanded notes and minutes of the hearings.
The deputy leader raised questions about a PoliticsHome report that general secretary Jennie Formby consulted Jeremy Corbyn’s office about Hatton’s case.
A party official last summer had warned that “the political cost of readmission would be quite high” and “my strong advice would be that you should reject this membership application”.
Formby replied: “I’ll discuss with Loto [leader of the Opposition’s office] and get back to you.” A special NEC panel granted provisional membership in February.
At the meeting on Tuesday, NEC and Unite member Jim Kennedy, who chaired the panel that reinstated the ex-Militant, defended the procedures that had been used.
Hatton’s fate will now be decided by the full NEC meeting next week, when it will rule on whether his provisional membership could be restored on the grounds of his wider conduct.
He will face a test of whether he shares the values and aims of the Labour Party, Formby told colleagues.
“It was a fractious meeting of Disputes,” one NEC member said. “There were more points of order than ever. We spent so long on new cases that we didn’t even get past three cases where there had been investigations.”
So much time was taken up that the panel didn’t get to the case of ex-Sandwell council leader Steve Eling, who was suspended earlier this year, following months of in-fighting in the West Midlands borough.
Formby succeeded in getting NEC approval for Eling’s suspension in January, without stating the exact grounds but with advice that there were legitimate and credible allegations that warranted immediate suspension. HuffPost UK understands he faces multiple allegations.
Watson said it was unfair if Eling remained suspended without a hearing, as he wouldn’t be allowed to contest this May’s local elections as a Labour candidate. The party could be liable to a judicial review, he claimed.
Some NEC members backed him up by pointing out that in previous cases some of those suspended had successfully challenged the party in the courts when they were later cleared of wrongdoing.
But Left members of the NEC felt that Watson was deliberately ‘filibustering’ the meeting with points of procedure that delayed proceedings by around 90 minutes.
“Tom Watson delayed the meeting today with the most basic questions about Labour Party procedures. As deputy leader and someone who wants to have oversight over these processes, it was frankly embarrassing how little he knew about them,” one NEC member said.
“It was clearly a factional attempt to sabotage the meeting to protect his factional allies in Sandwell. He isn’t opposing political interference in the processes, he’s the source of the interference.”
Another NEC source added: “Tom seemed to be filibustering the meeting with this palaver about his phone and by asking for a detailed explanation of the minutiae of every part of the proceedings.
“As he’s only just decided he’s interested in disciplinary processes, he delayed a review of our important cases, apparently so he could fill vast knowledge gaps. Maybe it’s a coincidence that we were due to review cases in Sandwell, in his patch, but ran out of time. Or maybe not.”
However, another member of the NEC said: “There was no bloody fillibuster. They were all over the place and by the end of the meeting refusing to budge on allowing Eling to run as a candidate while the investigation into him ran concurrently.”
A further NEC source said that if Eling was not told the reason for his suspension, that would run counter to the party’s principle of natural justice. They claimed that the investigation into the case was not carried out by the compliance team and other normal internal process were not followed.