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.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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