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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Notes from a crime scene: what Seymour Hersh knows

Xan Rice meets the tireless Seymour Hersh to talk My Lai, pricey coffee and Bin Laden.

It’s late on a lazy Wednesday afternoon when Seymour Hersh comes bounding down the stairs. “Let’s find somewhere to sit,” the American investigative journalist says, striding over to the café area of the hotel in Bloomsbury where we meet.

Not quiet enough, Hersh decides, and he marches into an adjoining branch of Steak & Lobster, past a startled waiter who tries to explain that the restaurant isn’t open yet. “He’ll have a coffee,” Hersh tells the man laying the tables, gesturing in my direction. When the drink arrives, he remarks that, at £4.39, it’s the most expensive coffee he has bought in some time.

“I’m older and crankier than [Bernie] Sanders,” the 79-year-old says with a smile, leaning back in his seat, his tie loose and his top button undone. Hersh’s many notable stories include the My Lai Massacre and cover-up in Vietnam, which he exposed in 1969, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal during the Iraq War. He’s in good health, relishing his speaking tour of London to promote his new book, The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, and hearing “how wonderful I am”.

“I come home from a trip like this,” he says, “and my wife can’t stand me. She says, ‘Get away, I don’t want to talk to you because you want everybody to bow and scrape.’”

Hersh never planned to be a journalist. After he was thrown out of law school for poor grades in 1959, he heard about an opening for a police reporter at a small news agency in Chicago. “I was reasonably coherent and could walk in a straight line, so they hired me,” he explains. Hersh learned on the job, covering his beat with a zeal that did not always impress his editors, one of whom liked to address him, without fondness, as “my good, dear, energetic Mr Hersh”.

“He saw me as a bleeding heart,” Hersh says, “who cared about people ‘of the Negro persuasion’ dying.”

Half a century later, he cannot say exactly what drove him to become an investigative reporter. “What defect did I have in my life that made me want to make everyone else look bad?” he wonders. “I almost viewed myself like a public defender: my job was to be there on the scene of a crime and to write about it in such a way that the police could not have the only call.”

Later, as his range widened, Hersh came to see his role as keeping in check “the nincompoops and criminals and fools running the world”.

He had been a journalist for ten years when he received a tip-off about an army officer being court-martialled for killing civilians in Vietnam. After investigating, he broke the story of the massacre at My Lai, in which a group of US soldiers murdered at least 347 people. The work earned him a Pulitzer Prize and soon afterwards he wrote his first piece for the prestigious New Yorker magazine. After sending in a draft, he was told that it would be read by the editor, William Shawn, and that he would receive a proof copy in the mail.

“Seven days later, the envelope comes and I’m terrified,” he recalls. “It was a writer’s magazine and any change they wanted, they asked you about. On the third page, I had some cliché or figure of speech. It was circled and in
the margin Mr Shawn had written: ‘Mr Hersh. Pls use words.’ I had a one-year course, a Master’s degree in journalism, in one sentence!”

Hersh has written regularly for the New Yorker over the years, though the relationship has recently come under strain. After researching the death of Osama Bin Laden, he became convinced that the Obama administration’s account of what happened before, during and after the raid in which Bin Laden was killed was a lie. He argued that the al-Qaeda leader had been captured by Pakistani intelligence in 2006 and held in Abbottabad until the US navy Seals operation five years later, which, Hersh claimed, was conducted with Pakistan’s assistance – rather than being a daring mission into hostile territory.

The New Yorker declined to run the story, so Hersh wrote it for the London Review of Books, which published it last year. The piece was read widely but attracted criticism from some American journalists who argued that it relied too heavily on a single, unnamed source and veered dangerously in the direction of conspiracy theories. Hersh is convinced that his version is correct and makes no apologies.

“I remember saying to my wife, ‘Don’t [these journalists] have mothers that tell them what to do better?’ . . . They insisted what they knew, what they wrote, had to be the story.”

Hersh’s mistrust of the official line is undiminished. His new book also questions whether it really was the Assad regime that carried out the chemical attacks in Ghouta, Syria, in 2013. Even the culprits of the recent Paris and Brussels massacres are not beyond doubt. “I don’t think Isis had a goddam thing to do with these kids,” he says. “The truth is, I don’t have any idea. I’m just telling you, heuristically, it’s an idea I would pursue if I was still a reporter.”

There is more to tell but Hersh has another interview. “Talk to me tomorrow,” he says, running back upstairs to collect his coat. “I’ll be around. I still have a lot of energy.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism