Tom Watson poses for pictures outside the Queen Elizabeth II centre in London, on November 29, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Tom Watson: shadow cabinet cowards should back Miliband or step down

Labour MP criticises those who "use the cover of anonymity to make attacks on a leader". 

For tomorrow's summer double issue of the New Statesman, I've interviewed Tom Watson, the man who, as one Labour MP puts it to me, has "been everywhere". Whether campaigning for (and securing) a major inquiry into child abuse allegations, leading the revolt against new "“emergency"” surveillance powers, or organising a boycott of the Sun'’s free World Cup edition, Watson is proof that MPs can wield more influence from the backbench than they can from the frontbench. 

Here are some highlights from the interview

"Cowardly" shadow cabinet ministers should back Miliband or step down

After recent off the record criticism of Ed Miliband by shadow cabinet ministers, Watson attacks the briefers as "cowardly", calling on them to resign if they are unwilling to support their leader. He says:

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.

Alan Johnson should return to the shadow cabinet

Ahead of an expected Labour reshuffle, Watson joins John Prescott and his friend Len McCluskey in calling for Alan Johnson to return to the shadow cabinet. 

Alan 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, although 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.

But should Johnson agree to return, the challenge for Miliband will be finding room for him in an already crowded campaign team (the former cabinet minister does not want to taken on a portfolio). 

"I felt sorry" for Andy Coulson

On the wall of Watson's office is a framed copy of the final edition of the News of the World given to him as a present by McCluskey for "an outstanding contribution to trade unionism". It is his long campaign to bring the phone-hackers to justice for which he is now best known. When I ask him how he felt on the day Andy Coulson was jailed, his surprising response is that he "felt sorry" for him. 

On a personal level, I felt sorry for him. It’s over for him, you’ve got to take responsibility for your actions.

He adds that "the fundamental issue is still there", "which is 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."

On Louise Mensch: a "missed opportunity" for Cameron

It was as a member of the media select committee that Watson formed an unlikely friendship with Louise Mensch, the Conservative MP who later left parliament for the United States. "I liked her because she was a character," he says. "She obviously 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. If you look down it, what a missed opportunity for Cameron, she felt so uncomfortable with the political system we’re in 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."

Labour could work with the Lib Dems - but Clegg must go

Watson argues that Miliband should try to form a government with the Lib Dems in the event of a hung parliament, but warns that it would be "impossible" for him to do so were Clegg to remain Liberal Democrat leader.  

"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."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Despite its Brexit victory, the hate-addicted right rages on – but the left is silent

The Brexit victors aren’t addicted to independence. They’re addicted to hatred.

The weirdest thing about Brexit is how angry the victors are. You would expect the losers to be sore – but open any British newspaper and it’s as if getting what they wanted has rendered the winners yet more snappish. At any time, you can guarantee that the medium least likely to offer principled opposition to any assault on democracy is the British press. Even so, it’s astonishing to open a copy of the Daily Telegraph and find that a byline has become a mere technicality, a breakwater for the eye. Page after page, countless squads of identical bald clones drone on – all chorus, no counterpoint – ranting about the evils of a Europe, which, in theory, they are supposed to have vanquished.

What is the point of having so many writers when they all write the same article? It turns out that it wasn’t Europe they wanted to leave. It was contemporary Britain. They’re not addicted to independence. They’re addicted to hatred.

In the United States, television and newspaper reporters have understood that their president is out to get them. So they are fighting back, challenging him on his lies in a way that the BBC does not dare. Women, African Americans and Latinos have all staged impressive demonstrations to disrupt the idea that the current state of affairs in the US is either necessary or, more important, normal. Republican senators aiming to take away their voters’ rights to health care have been facing impassioned town-hall meetings. There is exhilarating satire on television.

But over here, the 48 per cent of people who feared a loveless future of cringing isolation, austerity and social backwardness have been largely content to take defeat on the chin, as though cowed by the fact that so many of the poorest among us don’t agree.

In Britain, the silence is eerie. We know from experience that it takes time for artists and film-makers to respond to sudden changes of temperature.

Margaret Thatcher was first elected in 1979, but it wasn’t until 1982 that we were enlightened by Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff; My Beautiful Laundrette didn’t ­arrive until 1985; and it was 1987 before Caryl Churchill gave us Serious Money – a full eight years after Thatcher’s election.

All three works may enjoy an enduring power and authority denied to the collected speeches of Norman Tebbit. They define the era. But they all came too late to do anything more than raise morale. The damage had been done. You may feel that the musical of Billy Elliot nailed Thatcher’s government definitively, but it began to offer its insights 15 years after her resignation.

Politics in the West is in a mess because no one can answer the question of why Western labour should continue to enjoy its relative privileges when labour in the rest of the world can offer to do our work so much more cheaply. The standard answers from left and right are equally unconvincing and polluted by residual imperialist attitudes to race. Conservatives swing wildly. On some days, they behave as if they can continue to enjoy the free movement of capital while planning to forbid the free movement of labour. On others, they pretend that they still believe in the same market that failed so spectacularly ten years ago.

Neither position is coherent, and the mix of the two is crazy. But the left has done little better to explain how social justice can be advanced in the face of an international buffeting that has no care for workers’ rights.

In 2015, Ed Miliband, the then leader of the Labour Party, went into the general election without having decided whether he was or wasn’t going to defend the Keynesian public spending that had saved Britain from the corruption of the banks. The present leader of the Conservative Party, always marching fearlessly behind a thick cladding of popular prejudice, is implementing a European divorce against which she campaigned only a year ago. Small wonder that people have so little hope of Westminster.

Historically, we have always been taught that change comes from below. When people suffer intolerably, they overturn the cause of their suffering. Yet they still need representatives who can articulate their needs. Revulsion has to bubble up soon, but so do policies.

In our daily lives, we all meet people who are thoughtful, kind-hearted, efficient and serious. We encounter such people in medicine, in education, in law enforcement and in social care, and it is their generosity and foresight that make life worth living. Yet Theresa May is content to hug close individuals who would be thrown out of any job but politics. Her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was sacked by the Times for lying. Her Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, was accused of trying to interfere with a prison inspection report while he was justice secretary, and he banned sending books to prisoners.

Most inexplicable of all was the elevation of Liam Fox, her International Trade Secretary, who is in permanent disgrace because he has refused fully to admit wrongdoing for overclaiming expenses and using public money to pay a close friend who attended 57 per cent of his Ministry of Defence engagements without security clearance.

Why on earth are such people promoted by a vicar’s daughter who boasts of her moral values? It is in that disparity between who we are and how we are represented that the best hope of opposition lies.

Disbelief will shade into outrage, even if Labour continues to be led by a man blithely indifferent to the practicalities of getting ­anything done. Confronted with the ascen­dancy of scoundrels such as Fox, Grayling and Johnson, anyone, from any part of the UK, will agree with Karl Marx: shame is the only revolutionary emotion.

David Hare is a playwright

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition