Tom Watson, photographed for the New Statesman in 2011.
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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

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.