Tom Watson, photographed for the New Statesman in 2011.
Show Hide image

Tom Watson interview: The lone hunter

The Labour MP on what he has learned by leaving the party's front bench.

Enter Tom Watson’s office and one of the first things you notice is a colourful, wall-mounted, mocked-up picture of him as Mario, of Super Mario fame. The cartoon is a tribute to the Labour MP’s love of video games but it feels appropriate in another way, too. In recent weeks, Watson has done battle with the mutants of the political world: campaigning for (and securing) a major inquiry into child abuse allegations, leading the revolt against new “emergency” surveillance powers, and helping to organise a boycott of the Sun’s free World Cup edition. He has, as one Labour MP puts it to me, “been everywhere”.

In acknowledgment of this, the 47-year-old West Bromwich East MP asks me to “be kind” with him and apologises if he looks “a bit washed out”. Dressed casually in a beige linen jacket, purple shirt and desert boots, and slimmer than previously, he seems at ease as the summer recess approaches.

It is a year since Watson resigned from his post as Labour’s general election campaign co-ordinator during the internal war over the Falkirk selection contest, and he argues persuasively that the move has served him well. “I honestly don’t think I’d have been able to focus on the child abuse inquiry, spend as much time as I should have done on what comes after the hacking scandal, if I’d been on the front bench. I enjoy the freedom – it’s good fun,” he says.

I meet him shortly after Elizabeth Butler-Sloss resigned as the head of the child abuse inquiry, an event that led many to question the competence of Theresa May, who appointed her, but Watson tells me that he has been “won over” by the Home Secretary. “She’s done this with the best endeavours and she has good intent. Sometimes you’ve got to give people a bit of leeway.” His priority now is to ensure that there is adequate representation for the victims. “I met some of them this week and their tales are incredibly depressing. I met a woman yesterday who’d been in Broadmoor and was abused by Jimmy Savile. Their stories are really dark and it’s people who’ve been shouting for years and years and just not been heard. If we’re going to get this inquiry right, they’ve got to feel that this thing is robust.”

But while hopeful about the abuse inquiry, he is dismayed by the railroading through parliament of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (Drip) Bill with the support of all three main parties.

“I think the legislation was wrong, I think the process of making the legislation was wrong. To bring it down to politics, I think we missed an opportunity to say to people that the Labour Party is changing, that we recognise that in our time in government we’ve not fully considered where the line should be drawn between liberty and security. There’s a whole group of people who left the Labour Party, or stopped supporting it at the ballot box, because they thought we had fallen on the wrong side of the security line . . . I think the symbolism behind it means that it’s going to be much harder for us to make the case at the election to a small but significant group of voters for whom this is a very significant issue.”

Above his head is a framed copy of the final edition of the News of the World with the front-page headline “Thank You & Goodbye”, given to him as a present by Len McCluskey, the Unite general secretary, for “an outstanding contribution to trade unionism”. It is Watson’s long campaign to bring the phone-hackers to justice (the pressure of which contributed to the end of his marriage) for which he is now best known. How did he feel on the day Andy Coulson, the ex-NoW editor, was jailed? “On a personal level, I felt sorry for him,” is his somewhat surprising answer. “It’s over for him; you’ve got to take responsibility for your actions.”

He adds that the fundamental issue is still there, “that Rupert Murdoch owns too much of Britain’s media. If what we read in the papers is right, he wants more, and you can only stop that concentration of power with rules to limit media ownership.”

It was as a member of the culture, media and sport select committee that Watson formed an unlikely friendship with Louise Mensch, the Conservative MP who later left parliament for the US. “I liked her because she was a character,” he says. “She went off and became a columnist for Rupert Murdoch, which didn’t look great. But I admired her because she was comfortable in her own skin, she had her own opinions, which she wasn’t frightened to articulate, and she was tough. What a missed opportunity for Cameron – she felt so uncomfortable with the political system that she resigned mid-term with all that ability. There’s something going wrong with politics if people like Louise Mensch feel it’s not for them.”

Although he is distinguished by his one-man campaigns, it is Labour that Watson has served all his life. He notes, with some incredulity, that it is now 30 years since he took his first job as a trainee library assistant at the party’s headquarters. After entering parliament in 2001, he rose to become a minister in Tony Blair’s government, resigning after signing a letter calling on Blair to stand down as prime minister (an act for which, as he noted last year, some have “not forgiven me”).

He returned to office under Gordon Brown, the man he visited the day before the letter was sent, ostensibly to deliver a present for his new-born son (in the manner, some said, of a mafioso in The Godfather picking up cannoli). Watson, long thought of as the Peter Clemenza to Brown’s Don Corleone, is still in touch with the former prime minister, who seems “happy” and “very motivated” by the Scottish referendum. He tells me that he feels both “optimistic and pensive” about the coming general election.

“The amazing thing about the political world we’re in is, because it’s so uncertain, it’s both exciting and a little bit frightening. The optimist in me says: ‘3-to-5-point lead, ten months away from the election, consistent lead in the polls for the last three years . . . We’re in good shape.’ The young activist from the 1992 election tells me that you can’t count your chickens – a lot moves in the year.”

After David Cameron’s Night of the Long Knives, does he think Ed Miliband should carry out his own reshuffle? “I think he’s got another reshuffle in him if he wants to do it this side of the election. There are certainly people who could really help us,” he says. Watson adds his voice to those calling for Alan Johnson, the former home secretary, to return to the front line. “Johnson is one of those unique MPs, he’s got huge reach and is very level-headed. I don’t agree with him politically on a lot of things, though over the years he’s begun to convince me of the case for proportional representation in a way that he would be as surprised of as I am. But people like Alan could be really effective as we go up to polling day.”

He later turns his fire on those shadow cabinet ministers he regards as having been disloyal to Ed Miliband. “The frustrating thing is that there have been some shadow cabinet members who have briefed off the record and said some critical things about Ed. That’s the most cowardly thing in the world. If they feel very strongly about things, go to the back benches and speak out – that’s what I did. Don’t use the cover of anonymity to make attacks on a leader.”

Watson, who was crucial in helping to secure the second-preference Brownite votes that delivered Miliband’s victory, is sincere in his praise for the Labour leader. “Ed Miliband is my friend; I believe in him . . . I’m more critical because I’m on the back benches, but there’s something about him that can change this flipping country. He’s got the skills and the view of the world that means he can change the country.”

How should Miliband act if Labour falls short of a majority? “The golden rule of elections is never to allow a political journalist to put a notional situation to you,” he observes, but then adds: “It wouldn’t be unreasonable for Ed to try and form a government [with the] Lib Dems; I think it would be almost impossible for him to get political permission to do that if Nick Clegg was leading the party. It wouldn’t be right that Nick Clegg, who forged the coalition programme that had been rejected at the election, was sharing power for a second term with a different prime minister. But I would imagine that, though Nick Clegg would deny this now, he would know that.”

And what of Watson? Would he serve in a Miliband government? “I don’t know, to be honest. I’ve had an unusual journey. I think it would be unlikely that I’d want to go back. When I resigned in 2006 under Tony Blair, I said I never wanted to go back to the front bench and I was persuaded to go back, so ‘never say never’. But I think it’s highly unlikely that I would want to go back and, of course, I’ve got to be asked and I don’t know whether I would want to be.”

He adds: “If you’re a political campaigner, you don’t need the usual machinery of an ancient political party in order to get things done and achieve change. I guess what I’m saying is you can derive great satisfaction by being a curious backbencher.”

This lone hunter, you sense, will never be short of game. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.