Will Watson's departure prevent a new round of Labour bloodletting?

The chatter in the party has been that Watson runs around the country making sure 'his' people get chosen as candidates.

The resignation of Tom Watson from the shadow cabinet substantially changes the complexion of the row over internal Labour party processes and selection battles. Ostensibly, the arguments and allegations in recent weeks had been about the influence of Unite - specifically its explicit strategy of placing hand-picked candidates in line for winnable parliamentary seats. This all came to light because of an egregiously clumsy attempt to stitch-up the selection in Falkirk.
 
As details of that episode have been pored over and the Labour leadership has tried to get a grip, a recurring theme in discussions has been the friendship between Unite general secretary Len McCluskey and Watson (now ex) Labour party deputy chair and head of campaigns. It was hardly a secret or a surprise that trade unions had a profound role influencing constituency selections. Frankly, without union money it is quite hard to fight any kind of Labour campaign - internal or external. But something a number of MPs and shadow ministers have been complaining about in private is the very specific role that Watson has had in anointing potential parliamentary candidates. 
 
The chatter around the party - more specifically, but by no means exclusively the angst-ridden and disillusioned Blairish side of the party - has been that Watson runs around the country making sure 'his' people get chosen and consolidating an already formidable control over the part machine. This, as I noted in my column this week, is pretty much the same machine that agitated internally for Gordon Brown to replace Tony Blair in Downing Street and that helped enforce Brown's will once the coup had succeeded. By reputation - no doubt somewhat exaggerated -  it is an apparatus of whispers, smears, briefings and 'punishment beatings'. 
 
When Ed Miliband became leader he had a relatively small following in the parliamentary party and certainly nothing that could be called a machine. So he inherited the old Brown-era one. Miliband has stayed studiously aloof from the grindings and whirrings of internal party machination, but the grumbling about the old techniques being back in play was getting hard to ignore. I was told recently that representations had been made to the leader's office by MPs and shadow ministers to the effect that the culture of 'dark arts' was running out of control and that it was in danger of making Ed, with his preference for idealistic, moralising language, look like a hypocrite.
 
I suspect noises of this kind were getting louder as a result of the publicity around the Falkirk case. A potentially unkind spotlight was perhaps about to fall on the way Watson is alleged to have been carrying out his duties. His resignation pre-empts what could have been - and of course still could be - a round of old-fashioned red-on-red bloodletting.
 
Tom Watson speaks during the launch of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee report on phone-hacking on 1 May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad