Tom Watson photographed for the New Statesman in 2011.
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Tom Watson interview: "There'll be no room for messing around"

The front-runner for Labour's deputy leadership discusses immigration, defence spending and making peace with press.

When the exit poll that foretold of Labour’s worst election defeat since 1987 was published, many in the party reacted with stunned incredulity. But Tom Watson, a self-described campaign veteran, was not one of them. “Having been around a while I knew that it was very bad news immediately,” the West Bromwich East MP tells me when we meet 11 days later. “I tried to believe Paddy Ashdown when he said ‘I’ll eat my hat’ but I know how large a sample [the polls] are.”

Watson, who served as Labour’s campaign co-ordinator from 2011 to 2013, says this feeling was informed by decades of experience. “I first started collecting numbers for the Labour Party when I was seven years old in the 1974 election. I stood on the steps of Walworth Road next to Neil Kinnock the day we lost the ‘87 election. I was working at Millbank when we won the ‘97 election. I’ve been there for the highs and the lows.”

At the age of 48, 14 years after entering parliament, Watson is standing for the deputy leadership of the party. “When I started trying to think about what we need to do at the next general election I thought ‘this needs a campaigner, we need to pick ourselves up, we need someone who’s going to mobilise the party’ ... Frankly, I looked around and thought that might be me. That’s why I’m doing it,” he says. Watson tells me that he does not intend to endorse a leadership candidate and that he could “work with all of them”.

With Andy Burnham the early frontrunner for the post, and Watson the favourite to win the deputy role, Labour could soon have an all-male team at the top. What does he say to those, such as the acting leader Harriet Harman, who argue that gender balance is essential? “Well, I think they’ve got plenty of options from what I see,” he replies. “If you want an all-women team you can go for it. I can’t change my gender but people have got a choice.” Referring to past occupants of the post, he tells me that he aims to combine “the calmness of Margaret Beckett” with “the energy of John Prescott”.

Watson, who visited 109 constituencies in the seven weeks before polling day, says he offers “an election-ready battleplan”, describing himself as “an experienced campaigner, someone who can unify different parts of the party and genuinely be creative in the way we build our next campaign.” He urges “big personalities” such as Jim Murphy and Len McCluskey to stop “slugging it out”, warning that such “seismic rows” are “not doing anyone any good”. But while Watson frames himself as a unifier, others argue that he is a divider. Some MPs have never forgiven him for his role in the ousting of Tony Blair as Labour leader. One told the Sunday Times he would support Watson because “I don’t want to find a horse’s head in my bed”.

“I don’t understand that characterisation of me,” Watson says when I reference his mafioso reputation. “I think I’m a tough campaigner and if I believe in something I’ve got a reputation for pursuing it and being relentless. But frankly, I think that’s what the party needs when it comes to the next general election.” He adds: “We need to really look at community organising again. Did that four million conversations strategy actually work or was it just a research exercise? ... I’m a very big supporter of the Arnie Graf model of community organising, it comes out of the Saul Alinsky school. Saul Alinsky uses that quote, power only knows two poles: it either goes to wealth or people. And the Tories have definitely got the wealth, we’re never going to have the wealth, or certainly not in the next five years, so we’ve got to reconnect with the people and we’ve got to rebuild our base.” He says that the case of Scotland, where Labour lost 40 of its 41 MPs, he says the party needs to be “as radical” as possible and consider all options, including an independent Scottish Labour Party.

Watson emphasises that he is keen to avoid “easy conclusions” before studying the result in greater detail but offers some early thoughts on Labour’s future policy direction. He calls on the party to “look at the worst and the best” of the free movement of labour, describing the open borders policy as “the biggest issue that undermines the authority and legitimacy of the European Union in the minds of voters”. Watson, a more heterodox figure than many assume, also urges Labour to adopt a sterner stance on defence. “The expansionist aims of Vladimir Putin are a big threat to European stability,” he warns, calling on the party to back the 2 per cent Nato spending target. “I think it’s inevitable that we will need a larger infantry and more naval capacity in years to come.”

The scale of Labour’s defeat led some to conclude that the conservative press maintains the power to swing elections. Watson, the scourge of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, concedes that “we do need better relations with the press”. But he warns: “The press need to conduct themselves in an ethical way, we saw some terrible transgressions of what is reasonable during the general election ... We need a Labour leader to adhere to the principles of Leveson and push for that. If they choose to editorialise on the back of that or conduct themselves in their news coverage as a reaction to that, there’s not a lot Labour can do, we’ve got to be true to what we believe in.”

Some MPs have suggested that the next leader should be placed on an explicit temporary contract and face dismissal if they fail to poll well enough. But Watson is quick to scotch this idea: “I’m not sure if that is very sensible, you undermine a leader from day one”. In another appeal to unity, he concludes: “We are going to have swing in around this leader, there will be one leader, one programme and it’s one shot, win or lose. There’ll be no room for messing around.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear