Suspended former council leader and his close associate both involved in disciplinary cases – both allies of Tom Watson. Watson’s intervention in one case this week described as ‘appalling’. But leaked texts show he refused to intervene in the other, even to protect woman from harassment – on grounds of not interfering in process
Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson has been accused by fellow members of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) of “appalling” behaviour during Tuesday’s meeting of the NEC’s ‘Disputes Panel’ – the body that assesses disciplinary complaints and decides whether cases should be forwarded to the National Constitutional Committee (NCC), the party’s senior disciplinary body.
Watson attended the meeting at which a series of complaints against one of his close allies in the West Midlands borough of Sandwell was on the agenda for discussion – former council leader Steve Eling.
It was Watson’s first ever appearance at a Disputes Panel meeting, according to other members present.
Watson then proceeded to delay the meeting with a series of procedural questions and demands – as well as a refusal to surrender his phone, which is required at NEC meetings since an illicit recording of comments was leaked to hostile media.
The Huffington Post reported that these needless matters took so much time that Eling’s case could not be decided – but that some NEC members felt that Watson was ‘filibustering’ for precisely that purpose:
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.Huffington Post 20 March 2019
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.”
One senior Labour source told the SKWAWKBOX:
Tom was foul, absolutely appalling. He was clearly in a filthy temper over Sandwell. Eling’s case has had to be deferred to a new meeting because of Tom, but if Tom was hoping to delay any possible referral to the NCC and that Eling will get some kind of dispensation to still stand for election in the meantime, it’s not on.
The hypocrisy – and the texts
Tom Watson’s appearance at the Disputes meeting materially impacted the ability of regular attendees to take care of the day’s business – when that business affected a close ally of his. Yet on a previous occasion, he refused to interfere in the process – which also coincidentally had the effect of protecting another ally with close links to the first.
One of the big recent scandals in Sandwell – there’s been no shortage – was the case of the prolonged WhatsApp discussion between former Watson (and Eling) ally Richard Marshall and local blogger Julian Saunders.
Marshall leaked information to Saunders with requests to publish articles that would be damaging to opponents – and also made vile and lewd remarks about female councillors. Saunders became disillusioned with Marshall – and Eling, whom he insists was involved – and subsequently published the WhatsApp conversation.
Female councillors in the borough complained about blatant misogyny and harassment. In text messages seen by the SKWAWKBOX, one of them appealed to Tom Watson for his support in ensuring Marshall was promptly suspended – as would be normal in cases of sexual harassment, to minimise the chances of the victims facing further harassment or intimidation.
Watson refused, as the Telegraph reported in 2017 when neighbouring MP Adrian Bailey criticised Watson for his failure. The paper went on to report the consequences for the female councillor:
But the SKWAWKBOX can reveal that his excuse for doing so was to allow the party to complete its processes without interference. Watson told the councillor that he was unable to intervene because:
our professional party staff have to apply our rules and procedures thoroughly
When intervening would have damaged one of his allies, Watson appealed to the importance of “apply[ing] our rules and procedures”.
But when “applying rules and procedures” risked a negative outcome for another of his allies yesterday, Tom Watson was all over it – in a manner deeply unwelcome to those trying to apply the rules and complete the procedures.
The conflict of interest
Watson’s intervention did not only raise issues of hypocrisy. It also posed a major conflict of interests. Last weekend, the suspended former council leader whose case should have been examined during the meeting spoke to BBC West Midlands – and the interview was very revealing.
When the SKWAWKBOX has previously contacted Eling for comment about various issues, Eling has claimed to be on the left of the party – and even appeared with his arm around left-winger Chris Williamson when Williamson conducted a ‘Democracy Roadshow’ event nearby:
But in his interview with the BBC, Eling ‘came out of the closet’ over his closeness to Watson, claiming that his suspension was an attack on the MP for Watson’s recent attempts to intervene in the party’s complaints process – even though he was suspended before Watson made that move:
In cases of such a clear conflict of interest, with such a close ally under investigation, any official would be expected to recuse himself or herself from any discussions or decisions.
Yet Tom Watson did the opposite – inserting himself into a meeting that he has never bothered to attend before – making such a ‘foul, appalling’ nuisance of himself in the meeting that it was unable to conclude its business.
The SKWAWKBOX contacted Tom Watson with the following questions:
- do you understand why other NEC members are suspicious of you?
- no other candidate would receive a dispensation to stand while an investigation is ongoing and to do so would put a Labour place on Sandwell council at risk when the disciplinary runs its course – why should Steve Eling be an exception?
- were you trying to filibuster the meeting in order to prevent Eling’s case being sent to the NCC in the hope of a dispensation for him to stand?
- you said that it was unfair for Eling not to be able to stand without a ‘hearing’ – he would have a hearing as part of the NCC process, so haven’t you just prevented him getting a hearing?
- Eling will also have been interviewed as part of the NEC investigation. How can you claim he doesn’t know why he’s been suspended?
- do you wish to apologise to the other NEC members for behaviour they consider ‘appalling’?
- why is it ok for you to intervene on behalf of Marshall’s close associate Steve Eling now [when it wasn’t appropriate to intervene to suspend Marshall]?
- do you acknowledge the conflict of interest?
- do you acknowledge the hypocrisy?
He did not respond, in spite of reminders.
Tom Watson was also heavily criticised – and ultimately forced to apologise – for his interference in inquiries into sexual abuse of children, publicly making claims that a witness said did not match what he had told Watson. In spite of this, he has publicly attempted to insert himself into Labour’s complaint and disciplinary procedures.
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