The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, has intervened in the Labour leadership race, criticising the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, and accusing senior figures of attempting to “put the party’s members back in their box”.
Thornberry, whose Islington South and Finsbury constituency neighbours Jeremy Corbyn’s, used a post on her Facebook page to break her silence on the issue, as the row continues within Labour over what the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has called a “rigged purge” of party members by its national executive committee.
Thornberry condemned the NEC’s decisions to impose a six-month cutoff point for new members to be allowed to vote in the leadership ballot and a £25 fee for registered supporters.
“Here we are now, less than a year after Jeremy’s overwhelming victory, and the party hierarchy – through decisions of the national executive committee – is attempting to overturn that result, quash Jeremy’s mandate, and put the party’s members back in their box. And they are doing so in the most naked way,” she wrote.
She accused members of the last Labour government, including Watson, of deliberately picking a fight with the membership on issues including terrorism, in a show of strength to impress the rightwing press. She claimed he “growled” at her that she was a traitor in 2005 when she opposed 90-day detention without trial for suspected terrorists.
“Who exactly was I betraying? Just a party hierarchy and a party leadership who were trying to shore up their relationship with the rightwing press by ‘taking on’ their members, and trying to outflank the Tories on security,” she wrote.
A spokesman for Watson said: “Emily Thornberry’s recollection of an event that took place over a decade ago is inaccurate. Tom is always respectful of other views.”
He said Watson had “understood” when Thornberry voted for an expansion of government surveillance powers as shadow attorney general, at a time when he was leading opposition to them in parliament.
Thornberry said she had not always agreed with Corbyn since being appointed to his shadow cabinet, but said: “I have always found him and his team willing to get around a table, listen, reflect and discuss a way forward.”
That contrasts with the view of several former members of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, including Lilian Greenwood, Chi Onwurah and Angela Eagle, who have all said over the summer that they found his approach dysfunctional and were sometimes unable to speak to him directly.
“I fundamentally disagree with this attempt to take us back to the years when our members were deliberately antagonised, alienated and ignored,” Thornberry said.
She recently took on the role of shadowing the new Brexit ministry, alongside the foreign affairs brief, with several members of the shadow cabinet being forced to double up jobs after scores of resignations.
Watson, who sits on the NEC, is regarded by Corbyn’s allies as having directed what they regard as manoeuvres designed to prevent new members – seen as being overwhelmingly pro-Corbyn – from being allowed to vote. This month he claimed he feared Labour was at risk of being infiltrated by “Trotskyist entryists”.
Some have suggested Watson could be ousted as party chair if Corbyn retains the leadership, though he would remain as deputy leader, a post to which he was directly elected. A spokesman for Watson declined to comment.
Corbyn’s team insist he is keen to reunite Labour and rebuild his shadow cabinet if he wins the leadership, as most MPs expect. But the bitter tone of the battle for the future of the party has made that look increasingly difficult to many.
Thornberry resigned from Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet after posting a tweet of a house in Rochester with a white van parked outside and several flags of St George draped on it, which saw her accused of snobbery.
This article was written by Heather Stewart Political editor, for theguardian.com on Monday 29th August 2016 13.51 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010