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

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Show Hide image

What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war