Watson v Trotskyists: another dodgy dossier, another attack on democracy

Did you vote for Tom Watson for Deputy Leader last year? If so, chances are you had no idea he is an outright enemy of everything Jeremy Corbyn stands for.

You’ll have noticed it by now. Since the 25 June Parliamentary Labour Party coup, Watson has emerged as a key figure in the Labour right’s unprincipled struggle to oust Corbyn.

Watson’s latest dirty trick is to claim that young activists are being “arm-twisted” and manipulated by “Trotskyist and hard left entryists”. He sent a dodgy dossier to Corbyn trying to smear the movement and soften up opinion for further expulsions.

But the truth is obvious. There are not very many Trotskyists in the party, and Watson doesn’t care about them. His media campaign is aimed at the majority of party members, and specifically the hundreds of thousands who have joined over the past year.

Watson and the right wing are afraid of all these new members because they mainly support Corbyn. Above all the rightwing MPs are afraid that the new mass membership will deselect them over the years ahead.

The campaign against Trotskyists is designed to turn us against each another, spreading suspicion against Corbyn’s advisors and longstanding socialists returning to the party.

Watson ‘defends democracy’

Watson claims to be defending democracy from hard leftists, but his recent behaviour is the opposite of democratic.

In the same press interview that he launched his attack on Trotskyists, Watson also denounced Labour’s  one-member-one-vote system as a “terrible error of judgment” and called for a return to the former electoral college system, which split votes into three equally-weighted blocks from members, MPs and unions – a system that was stacked against the left. He called also for the restoration of the MPs’ monopoly in filling positions on the shadow cabinet.

The aim is obvious, to frustrate what the members want: left-wing policies, a leader willing to carry them out, and a shadow cabinet that backs the leader rather than undermining him. Watson wants to hand almost absolute power to the MPs, leaving annual conference a rubber stamp, and members just foot soldiers for door knocking,

Over the last two months Watson’s war against democracy has been ceaseless. As a key player on the NEC he is deeply implicated in the decision to bar new members from voting, and then pursue a court appeal which deprived at least 130,000 members of their democratic rights.

On the face of it Watson has backed a loser in Owen Smith, with 285 CLPs nominating Corbyn as against 53 for the challenger. But he presses on with his anti-democratic campaign because he wants 232 MPs and the staffers at Labour HQ to weigh more than the hundreds of thousands of members and the support of the two biggest unions in the country.

What about Watson’s claim that hard leftist old timers are bamboozling impressionable young members, twisting their arms? This patronising stereotype won’t fly: the February 2016 Young Labour conference saw the left sweep its national committee, winning all but six of its 33 seats, entirely without the presence of older members.

Watson’s attack on Trotskyists is the latest in a series of cynical and baseless smears including unsubstantiated charges of Corbyn tolerating antisemitism, sexism and now even ‘Nazi stormtroopers’.

Watson ‘twists’ the party

The media repeated Watson’s claims of “caucusing and factionalising and putting pressure where they can” without the slightest irony, or verification, though they are a perfect description of the behaviour of staffers, MPs and officials so far in their coup against Corbyn. Watson is himself renowned as an arm-twister who operates behind-the-scenes, the typical machine politician: exactly what pro-Corbyn movement is a rebellion against.

Last September, after Corbyn and Watson both won their posts, the cynical Labour-insider joke was that the party now had Trotsky for leader with Stalin as deputy. Now he is organising the attack on Corbyn, and the membership and democracy, using every trick in the Labour bureaucrat’s playbook.

First he tried to twist Corbyn’s arm to get him to resign as leader in July this year, then he tried pressuring Len McCluskey and other union leaders to drop their support for him. When McCluskey rejected this blackmail, Watson walked out of the talks, leading McCluskey to accuse him of sabotaging a solution to the crisis caused by the PLP coup. Furious Watson virtually called for Unite members to oust McCluskey as general secretary of Unite in upcoming elections. This is a sign just how much the big fella had lost the plot.

On the NEC, Watson along with General Secretary Iain McNicol has been central to organising the anti-Corbyn resistance, from trying to bar him from automatically being on the ballot paper to laying down the undemocratic ban on members who joined after 12 January voting, to appealing against a court decision overturning this. Meanwhile the unelected compliance unit is seeking to reject up to 50,000 of those registering as £25 supporters, and even steal their money (!).

The left across the country need to expose Watson’s allegations for what they are: an attempt to distract people from recognising who is really undermining democracy.

Democracy versus bureaucracy

Socialists in the Labour Party have always insisted on the fullest democracy and debate. The membership has the right to discuss ideas, policy and strategy. Democracy is essential if we’re going to turn the party into a broad mass movement drawing in hundreds of thousands rather than a routinist organisation that just does elections.

Our strategy is incompatible with the kind of arm-twisting that Watson and co. accuse Trotskyists of. What’s more, the slightest hint of bullying by a pro-Corbyn member would attract immediate suspension from the compliance unit – look at the way that on 9 July the Brighton, Hove and District party, the biggest in the country with about 6,000 members, was suspended after a handful of allegations of individual behaviour, with the flimsiest of evidence. For good measure the NEC annulled the election of a new pro-Corbyn executive by an AGM attended by 600 members.

It is the right-wing not the left that has engaged in this kind of “arm-twisting” and has done so on an industrial scale. Corbyn supporters have advanced through democratic means and by taking part in the campaign to defend Corbyn, and help organise and empower the thousands of new or returning activists. They have faced virtual three-month shut down of the branches and CLPs of the Party in the pre-conference period and the leadership election campaign. No wonder so many have flocked to hear Corbyn at huge rallies up and down the country and no wonder local Momentum meetings have mushroomed.

The 12 months of Corbyn’s leadership shows that the apparatus, the leadership and the PLP are able to engage in the most blatant factionalising without being held to account. The right wing’s own groups operate within the party without the slightest harassment – just look at Progress, Labour First and the Fabians. The same rights should be extended to left wing groups. Without the right to organise in groups how can individuals combine to get their ideas across.

Freedom of expression, freedom to debate, freedom of organisation, freedom of assembly: these democratic principles must be fundamental to any party that deserves the name Labour. They have to be, because we are rallying the working class masses against a privileged establishment that will use every trick in the book to stop us.

There have always been socialist groups in the Labour Party

While the right tries to suppress our history, the fact is that socialist organisations were part of Labour at its very foundation. Many socialist organisations involved themselves in the foundation of the Labour Party, including the  Independent Labour Party and Fabian Society and the avowedly revolutionary Social Democratic Federation

Long before Labour’s foundation, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels argued for the British trade unions to break from the Liberals and form a Labour Party. Since that day Marxist organisations have always sought to affiliate to Labour, to be allowed to join it and to organise as a platform or tendency in the way the right wing Progress and centre-left Compass groups have. The socialists have always aimed to build the Labour movement and organise a broad and militant struggle for the interests of the whole working class.

In short there have always been socialists in Labour, so why the attack now?

The purpose of Tom Watson’s claim that Trotskyists have “entered” the Labour Party (why not just “joined”) is to sow suspicion and divisions amongst Corbyn supporters and to justify suspensions and expulsions.

In the context of hundreds of thousands of new members joining, the fact that at most one to two hundred Troskyists have joined is not a factor. By far the largest Trotskyist groups in Britain, the Socialist Party (formerly Militant Tendency) and the Socialist Workers Party have not joined Labour. The Socialist Party, it is true, demands the right to affiliate to Labour though absurdly it continues to stand candidates against party. The SWP on the other hand has never attempted to join Labour since its founders left in the late 1960s.

It’s the oldest trick in the book: accuse your opponent of what you are doing yourself. It’s not Trotskyists threatening to split Labour, even if they had the power to do so. But Tom Watson is threatening it and he certainly has the power. According to a series of well-informed articles in the Guardian, Independent, Daily Mail, Telegraph Financial Times and the Economist, a large group of Labour MPs is plotting to split Labour. The MPs, estimated to number between 25 and 150 plan to take over the party’s role in parliament and even steal its name and resources. They remain anonymous of course – to the members. Perhaps the Deputy Leader of the Party would be better employed  rooting out these plotters, not hurling unproven accusations against imaginary Trotskyists.

Red Flag under attack

Watson has named Red Flag as one of the Trotskyist groups in his dossier. We are not going to deny it, because some of our supporters are Trotskyists, and others are not.

What Red Flag stands for is published on our website and in every issue of our paper.

Our paper was launched last year by Labour Party members who were former members of Workers Power which was the section in Britain of the League for the Fifth International. Alongside hundreds of thousands of voters, they joined Labour in response to Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal for former members to return to a Labour Party that was going to fight austerity, racism and war: “welcome back, welcome home”.

Some might say it’s a tough time to be a Trotskyist, while on social media, hundreds of new Labour Party members are saying that if Watson hates Trotsky, he can’t have been that bad. Alongside this people are asking what Trotsky really stood for.

Anyone who wants to know would be wise not to take the BBC’s word for it. Nor should they take Watson’s: his dossier quotes what it claims is a Trotskyist how-to guide to disrupting Labour Party meetings, but in fact the whole quote was taken from a right wing website.

Instead we recommend this biography. It’s a simple introduction that takes you through Trotsky’s life, his role as a leader of the Russian revolution 99 years ago, his fight against the descent of the USSR into a one party dictatorship, his struggle against fascism in Germany and Spain, and his work creating a new world party of socialists and a programme for social revolution.

What does all this mean for Britain today? Red Flag stands for: the democratic renewal of the Labour Party, a mass movement to fight the Tories, socialist policies for a Labour government and a revolution to establish a Socialist Republic of Britain. If that’s Trotskyism, so be it.

Trotsky also had a few things to say about the British Labour Party, including some pretty salty remarks about the Tom Watsons of his day.

Like Marx and Engels, who campaigned for a Labour Party, Trotsky urged his British supporters to join the Labour Party in the 1930s. They supported the mass party of the working class in Britain, whilst criticising its right wing leaders. In the party they argued for a socialist programme without twisting arms, plotting or conniving.

There is much to learn from this honest, principled approach to politics.

Why the Right hates the Left

The Labour leadership has repeatedly persecuted and expelled revolutionary socialists. Their real ‘crime’ has not been against the membership but expressing honest criticism of the leaders – in particular their broken promises to the working class. The right wing expelled socialists in the 1980s because Kinnock abandoned the miners, abandoned the dockers, and abandoned left wing councils like Lambeth and Liverpool.

The same is happening today. The right wing are against Corbyn’s policies and against the mass social movement he is inspiring across the country. They say they want a party of power not a party of protest. We say we need a party which builds up its forces in mass active protests against the Tories now, and comes to power on a wave of mass action ready to deliver permanent social change.

Elections are part of that struggle but only part of it. Without mass action the ruling class will never make major concessions, ones that involve a real transformation of society, ones that touch on their ownership of production and monopoly of armed force. All history shows us that when a left wing government comes to power, only by winning an election, then no matter how radical its programme it will be undermined and sabotaged by the establishment at every turn. Just look what happened in Greece!

The Tories and their ruling class backers will have no hesitation in resorting to extra-parliamentary action to stop a Corbyn government carrying out radical change. They will resort to the bond markets, the currency exchanges and the banks to force the economy into crisis. But as the serving generals have made clear to Corbyn they will not hold back from unconstitutional direct action either. They can only be stopped by a vast social movement ready and willing to take revolutionary action.

For all these reasons Red Flag takes its rightful place in the Labour Party, in building Momentum alongside branches and CLPs, and is working for a mass movement against the Tories and a Labour government that breaks with the capitalists and fights for socialism.


Red Flag is a socialist organisation campaigning within Labour for a democratically planned and owned economy. We campaign for grassroots democracy in the labour movement, militant defence of the oppressed and an anticapitalist programme for the Labour Party. Against Brexit, for free movement. Anticapitalist and internationalist.

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