Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson has branded his party’s attempt to force by-elections in the constituencies of defecting MPs as “spiteful”.
The plan to allow voters to stage recall petitions when MPs switch sides seems squarely aimed at the eight Labour centrists who quit the party this week to form a new Independent Group in the House of Commons.
A senior Labour source confirmed that a consultation on the scheme was launched by shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett with leadership approval but without the idea being agreed by the shadow cabinet.
He said it was “clearly the right, decent and democratic thing” for any MP to stand again for election if they left the party on whose platform they were elected.
Mr Trickett said: “Communities should not have to wait for up to five years to act if they feel their MP is not properly representing their interests, especially with the restrictions of the Fixed Term Parliament Act.
“This proposed reform has the dramatic potential to empower citizens and will be one of many measures the Labour Party is planning to consult on and announce that will change the way politics in this country is done.”
Mr Watson said he was not aware of the plan and did not agree with it. At present, recall petitions can only be run in certain circumstances, such as a serious breach of parliamentary rules or criminal conviction of an MP.
“I didn’t know he was going to do that but it seems to me that whatever the merits of the position that he is putting on recall elections and resigning from parties, it just looks spiteful,” Mr Watson told LBC as he hosted a phone-in show on the radio station.
“Those people that left the Labour Party did so with a heavy heart, and it looks like we are kind of reflexive and trying to be knee-jerk about it, rather than looking at the actual issue which is Brexit and the state of British politics.”
The Labour source said it was standard practice for initiatives to be launched on the basis of agreement between the leader’s office and a particular shadow minister’s team, without necessarily requiring the formal approval of the whole shadow cabinet.
Shadow transport minister Karl Turner said the defectors should stand down voluntarily to trigger by-elections.
“They must,” said Mr Turner. “They stood for Parliament as candidates in political parties. Their electorate didn’t vote for them, per se. They voted for the respective political party that they represented at that time.”
There was a furious response from some parts of the party to news that the eight breakaway MPs were being joined in The Independent Group (TIG) by three Conservatives, including Anna Soubry who said she stood by the austerity policies of George Osborne.
The TIG MPs sat together on the opposition benches at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, and the former Labour MPs – including Chuka Umunna – attended a press conference by the Tory defectors.
Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said she was “utterly disgusted” to see the MP for her home town of Stockport, Ann Coffey, joining forces with a former member of the Government which cut Sure Start family centres.
Meanwhile, another of the defecting MPs, former shadow chancellor Chris Leslie, indicated the new grouping may not sign up to Labour policies like renationalisation of privatised utilities.
“It speaks to the controlling instinct of the hard left because there is a sort of view that John McDonnell sitting in the Treasury can mandate how many tractors are sold, or what trains should leave Euston at what particular time of day, or what should be the price of a stamp,” he told the New Statesman magazine.
“The problem with the Marxist ideology is that it assumes this omniscience on behalf of the central controller.”
He also expressed scepticism about Labour plans for a 50p top rate of income tax and the complete abolition of university tuition fees.
“Sounds great, the minor problem is: how do you pay for it?” he asked.
The senior Labour source claimed that the Independent Group MPs were “effectively an establishment coalition based on the failed and rejected policies of the past – austerity, corporate tax cuts, privatisation”.
Labour said that no application to rejoin the party had been received from George Galloway, after the former Respect MP said he was seeking to have his 2003 expulsion from the party revoked.
He would not be eligible for membership, having stood against Labour in an election in the past five years, said a source.
Speaking to Sky News, Mr Galloway dismissed claims of anti-Semitism in Labour ranks as a “black op” and branded Enfield North MP Joan Ryan, who quit on Tuesday, “an agent of the Israeli embassy”.
“Corbyn is not anti-Semitic,” said Mr Galloway. “Not a fibre, not an atom, not a molecule of his mind or body could be so described. That is the Goebellian lie.”
But Mr Watson said Ms Ryan was right to say that Labour had been too slow to deal with anti-Semitism.
He told LBC that some members of the party were responsible for “harshness, brutality and bullying”, and pledged: “One anti-Semite in the Labour Party is one too many and I’m going to fight them all the way until they are removed from whatever position they hold in this party.”