Photo: Getty Images/Jeff J Mitchell
Show Hide image

Tom Watson: whatever happens next, we must all pull together

Liz Kendall is not a Tory and Jeremy Corbyn is not a Trot, and saying either of those things – on Twitter, on Facebook or in real life – just plays into the hands of our real opponents – the Tories.

It’s great to see so many friends here today. I wanted to make my last major contribution to the debate back on home turf in the Black Country. And I was going to make it a speech focused on digital policy. Yet in the 113 meetings that I’ve been involved in since May 8th, many members have raised issues that I think I should also flesh out here today - on defence, on Europe, on business and the economy and on party reform. So I apologise in advance for my digressions. 

But we did say we wanted a real debate as a party, and in some ways we’ve certainly had that. Whatever criticisms people might have of the process, you can’t say it’s been a box-ticking exercise. This has been real politics, old-fashioned politics, with packed halls and passionate disagreement as well as a shared determination to fight the Tories. Nine candidates tramping the country, covering thousands and thousands of miles, talking in the flesh to tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. This has been a historic contest, and it’s been a privilege to be a part of it.

An important element of the debate, though, has been missing. Or, if not absent, it’s been less prominent than it should have been.

Good debate, above all in a process like this, should also be about listening. It’s easy to forget in the passion of one’s own beliefs, but you also have to listen to the others. All of them. 

And you have to start from the position that, inside the Labour party, we are all good people with good motives – indeed, with the same motives – and nobody is right about everything. And nobody is wrong about everything either. Liz Kendall is not a Tory and Jeremy Corbyn is not a Trot, and saying either of those things – on Twitter, on Facebook or in real life – just plays into the hands of our real opponents – the Tories. And they hold enough cards at the moment as it is.

This leadership contest is not a choice between good and bad. It’s a choice between different kinds of good. I think I’ve got a unique set of skills to offer as deputy leader, but so do my friends Ben Bradshaw, Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Caroline Flint. There will be some areas on which we disagree. I might be wrong about some things. They might be right. You have to be able to say that, and you have to mean it.

For 115 years, the Parliamentary Labour Party has encompassed a very broad spectrum of opinion, and it still does, and that’s a very good thing. There’s a huge breadth of diversity in our country, and that needs to be represented by Labour in Parliament. The proportion of Labour MPs who are women or from BAME backgrounds puts our opponents to shame – but we still have much further to go. We need still more women MPs, more working class MPs, we need to empower more people with disabilities to become Labour MPs; we don’t have a Sikh Parliamentarian for example,  and that’s unacceptable.

There’s a hell of a lot still to do on this. And if I’m elected deputy leader, I’ll make it my business to speed up the rate of progress. Though I’ll be mindful, at the same time, that the days of command and control from the centre have gone. And rightly so. It’s for local Labour party members to decide who their MP should be. That’s been the case for many years, and it should remain so.

Under the current trigger-ballot system, every Labour MP has to be reselected by their constituency Labour party before every election. Local party and union branches hold open discussions in which they evaluate the performance of their MP and decide whether to keep them as the candidate. If there’s a majority in favour, the MP continues; if not, then a “full selection” is triggered in which other candidates can also put themselves forward and local party members get to choose who they want.

It’s a system which assumes that most Labour MPs, most of the time, do a damned good job. And they do. We’ve got a PLP to be proud of.

But it also recognises that not every MP always hits the mark and sometimes there is a need for a change. The current system provides a clear mechanism for causing such change, and the power to make it lies entirely in the hands of local members.

Deselection does happen, and that’s as it should be. But it doesn’t happen a lot, and that’s as it should be too.

We all know Burke’s old line that MPs are representatives, not delegates; and that writ also runs inside the Labour party. We select good people, whose integrity we respect, to go to Westminster and represent us in the House of Commons. We know they won’t always make the decision we would have made, but we trust them to listen to the arguments then make it on our behalf, based on values which, as Labour people, we all share. That’s how a representative democracy works, inside the Labour party as much as anywhere else.

Mandatory reselection of MPs does not fit into this tradition. It’s an inherently intolerant mechanism, which isn’t helpful to the process of drawing the party together. History has shown it even has the potential to be a destructive and destabilising force. What mandatory reselection comes down to is not rooting out the occasional bad egg, but systematically getting rid of Labour MPs some of whose views you might not share.

That’s not where our energies are best spent while the Tories are waging war on disabled people and trade unionists.

Strength in adversity comes only through unity – whereas mandatory reselection is a charter for internecine strife. We can’t afford to do that to the vulnerable constituents who depend on us.

No leadership or deputy leadership contender supports mandatory reselection of MPs. So in a spirit of comradeship and unity, I call on the CLPD to withdraw their Conference motion on this. In so doing they can send a signal about the kind of party we’re going to be in the next few years. And the kind of party we’re not going to be.

And the kind of party we want to be is one that is proud to celebrate it’s history and confident about it’s future. 

We made some mistakes in government. But does that mean the entire 13 years of Labour government is a source of shame to me? No, it certainly doesn’t.

We built new schools and hospitals on an unprecedented scale, hugely boosting the pay of the nurses, doctors and teachers who make them run. We were environmentally visionary, we led the world on development, introduced a minimum wage – which even the Attlee government fought shy of, transformed the lives of poorer pensioners with the pensions credit; introduced civil partnerships, the Disability Discrimination Act, the Human Rights Act, paid holidays, maternity leave, paternity leave, union recognition rights, rights for temporary and agency workers, legislation against gangmasters, sure start centres, cutting NHS waiting lists,

etc etc etc. And the longest uninterrupted period of economic growth in memory. 

We utterly transformed our country after 18 years of Tory cynicism. We gave hope and security and self-respect back to millions of our people. We made our great country decent again. And then we spent the last five years apologising for it 

So let’s not make that mistake any more. Let’s be proud of what we achieved in government, let’s be optimistic about what we can offer, and let’s cherish the diversity in our party and respect the opinions and motives of all our comrades.

In purely electoral terms, British politics can sometimes seem to come down to binary choices. It’s Labour or the Tories. That’s true. 

But not much else is as black and white as that. Politicians should have learned that by now from the internet. The top-down, in-out, left-right world we used to feel so comfortable in has gone. 

A new society’s emerging, built on the high speed networks between the powerful computers in our homes, businesses, schools and hands, machines that are reshaping every aspect of our lives.

So we need a new digital polity to rebalance the relationship between the citizen, the state and the private sector. And Labour can offer a path towards it in a way that Conservatives, locked in servitude to finance and big business, could never imagine.

I have little time for “digital blueprints”. The digital-analogue distinction is nearly irrelevant. But here’s just a few things Britain needs, and Labour therefore needs to enable, if we’re to fulfill our potential this century:

to build out high speed fiber-based networks to every inhabited building in the country;

next generation mobile networks with public service obligations;

universal access to public service content - broadcast and other - from organisations like the BBC with public service obligations;

public service outcomes enshrined in the architecture of the internet, through engagement with organisations like the World Wide Web Consortium, ICANN and the Internet Engineering Task Force.

Making sure that all our training, education and apprenticeships adapt to the future demands of the connected generation;

doing the same with the national curriculum, incorporating digital and basic coding;

encouraging every employer to invest in digitally up-skilling their staff;

supporting trade union organisation in the new economy;

updating recognition legislation to account for industrial democracy in the internet age

Finding new ways to support and foster digital entrepreneurs;

Banging away at the perennial problem of access to mid-range finance til we really change its terms of trade; enhancing the status of entrepreneurship and business education in schools.

Actually not just in the tech sector, but across the board we need to recast our relationship with small businesses and sole traders. 

99 per cent of all private sector businesses in the UK are SMEs, accounting for half of all private sector employment. Yet traditionally Labour hasn’t thought of itself as the party of small business. 

We were right to say to those small number of global corporations, if you want to trade in the UK, please play by the rules - pay your fair share of taxes and pay your workers the living wage. Yet there’s a phrase, that it’s not what you say on the doorstep that matters - it’s what people hear. 

And many small and micro-businesses were hearing that we weren’t for them. And there are millions of people involved in this sector of the economy. 

I’m not sure we fully understood the change that has happened in the labour market since we came to office in the mid-nineties. Back then you might have been a warehouse manager - now you’re likely to be a self-employed courier. You may have been a cafe manager in a big company, now you’re an out-sourced catering company.  These people may have been members of unions, and participated in collective decision making. Today, they do not - and they have a very different sense of themselves. Yet they are still powerless in the market. Very often they were the first to lose their livelihoods when the banks closed down lines of credit in 2008. And they often have less security than those vulnerable workers we were giving re-assurance to in our last manifesto. 

I know we have to be for them in 2020. And we can do it without compromising our principles and values. During the election I met a micro business owner who told me he couldn’t get a mortgage because of an irregular cash flow in his company. Yet his six employees all had mortgages because they were all on regular wages from the company. That’s obviously illogical and government can help with that sort of thing. And we can say to those big businesses that don’t play by the rules, please pay your debts to smaller businesses in 28 days rather than 90 days as is sometimes the case. We have to be the party of the nought to niners - the sole traders and micro-businesses who employ less than ten people. They are the future frontiers of Britain’s productive economy. I hope our new leader gives the small business brief to the best of our shadow ministers - they’re going to have to play a big part in our future electoral success. 

Of course we need to speak for those people. Of course they share our aims and our values. Of course we believe in hard work and want to see it rewarded. Of course we know that enterprise is the engine of the wealth on which our welfare state depends. And not just in the tech sector, but in every street and high street in the land.

Anybody who thinks there’s a contradiction between being pro-business and pro-worker doesn’t understand either. For Britain to be successful as a country and Labour to be successful as a party, we have to be both.

Zero hours contracts – no. A living wage, yes. A strong trade union movement at the heart of a strong partnership with business, for sure. My trade union background is one of partnership with employers, not sectarianism. Progressive industrial partnership - the only way forward for Labour and Britain.

And let’s admit, again, that we probably calibrated this wrongly in the last few years. We lost a lot of people who actually share our values. We need to win them back and we can start by respecting what they do.

And in successful larger businesses, of course, we often find an understanding of that partnership. Businesses prosper when their workforce is well-paid, well-respected and thus well-motivated. It’s in the out-of-touch, out-of-date Conservative party, far more than in the real world, that you find the visceral hatred of trade unions now being played out in the Tories’ despicable new legislative programme.

Some big businesses, of course, are exploiters and abusers. Some entire industries have customs and practices which are inherently immoral. We should come down on such people like a ton of bricks. We shouldn’t tolerate them and we won’t. But not because they are big businesses – because they are bad businesses. 

Returning to my digital to-do list:  we must have the confidence to regulate the networked-world according to the same values as the rest of our society. 

free expression and individual privacy mustn’t be just grudgingly admitted but proudly defended – this is another area where in the past I think Labour drew the line in the wrong place. In the endlessly delicate balance between individual liberty and state security, I think we came down too heavily on the side of the state. We were careless of the sanctity of individual rights.

State surveillance needs to be proportionate and given prior authorisation by the courts. 

Citizens need a right to own their own data, which needs to be the default setting underpinning all relations between the individual, the state, and the huge corporations which are blurring the lines between the two.

We must support and enhance the Government Digital Service;

embrace the platform model of government services to increase efficiency and reduce the complexity of service delivery, recognising the potential for financial benefits but without having cost-saving as a primary aim;

When it comes to cyber-security, online attacks of all kinds can be controlled by domestic legislation and international treaty in just the same way as physical attacks. We should do that.

And when it comes domestic and international legislation, you have to recognise that more than ever before foreign policy decision has a domestic outcome. 

Those refugees gathered in French ports and in Budapest demonstrate this all too tragically. And around the world we see Military violence still happening every day, on a huge scale. The world is more complex and less predictable than ever. We don’t know who the enemy is, where they live or what they want. But we know there are people who hate us and want to do us harm.

So we would do well to remember the Labour tradition of strong defence. Our tradition has not been pacifist or unilateralist (though our broad church has always been influenced by these ideas). Whereas the great socialist heroes of our history were strong on defence. From Major Attlee, who served in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia and on the Western Front, through Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot to Neil Kinnock, who between the three of them made the great post-war speeches in support of multilateralism and military intervention.

It was a Labour government, was the driving force behind the creation of NATO. To see Cameron’s government fiddling with figures to meet it’s 2% NATO spending target defies belief. 

But having defence capability doesn't always mean it should be used. I couldn't support the action in Libya because David Cameron didn't have a plan for the country after the bombing was over. I opposed action in Syria and am yet to be convinced of the merits of more bombing - it's certainly not the answer to the current refugee crisis. 

Whatever the merits of individual conflicts I'm sure our own security is best served by our full participation in NATO. 

And we need to be unequivocal too about that other great engine of peace: the European Union. The EU referendum has the potential to be disastrous for Britain. We need to make the socialist case to stay in. It’s an easy case to make, because the EU, for all its many flaws, is an inherently progressive set of institutions. Dozens of work place rights enacted by British Tories under EU agreements; reams of progressive legislation – in the workplace and social sphere, on the environment, for consumers, public health – which can’t be unpicked now by a Tory government which would love to if it could. 

And peace in Western Europe since 1945. And the world’s most important economic market and global trading bloc. And so on. It should be a no brainer. And, yes, there are more people from the rest of the EU in the UK than the other way round at the moment, but that’s because this is one of the greatest countries in the world and people want to live and work here. We should be proud of that. While remembering that there are millions of British people now living, as of right, in other EU countries. Some of them working, some of them not. There are ten times more British people claiming benefits in Ireland than Irish people claiming benefits here. And incalculably more (hundreds of thousands) elderly British people using the healthcare system in southern Spain than the other way round. And the wealth that we generate from EU membership dwarfs the costs. They’re not even close.

On a political level, the EU is David Cameron’s problem. He is split from his membership and most of his Parliamentary party. The referendum is a minefield for him, with the cost of a mistake almost equally horrific.

In the Labour party, though, we’ve had no such problems for a very long time. Let’s keep it that way. Our position on the referendum is “Yes”, we have to stay in. It’s clear, simple, and right. So let’s refuse to be distracted by whatever humdrum “deal” Cameron cobbles together to appease his own antis. He can’t unpick the progressive fabric of Social Europe. We know that. Any agreement he did reach which was in any way socially negative could be renegotiated in the future far, far more easily than could a No vote that took us out of the EU. This should be an easy one for us. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize. 

I’ve been digressing a lot, so just to finally finish my quick digital sketch:

we need to understand and regulate ‘cryptocurrencies';

regulate the “gig economy”, adapting health and safety legislation and employment law so that new kinds of working still gives you the old kinds of rights.

We can explore ways in which the internet can be used to reduce CO2 emissions and temper the impact of climate change; and find ways to minimize the negative environmental impact and energy use of the network and Information and Communication Technologies.

take on board the smart cities modelling developed by Nesta as a framework to understand the impact of network-based ICTs on urban design and practice;

And so on. This is the tip of the iceberg. There a thousand other things we need to do. A million.

So what do you think about this new world we need to adapt to? Is it more Corbyn or more Cooper? More Burnham or more Bradshaw? 

Or is it nothing of the sort? Isn’t life, the modern world, and even Labour politics just a little bit more complicated than that?

Most of those ideas are not even Watson, actually. I didn’t think all that stuff up myself. I gathered them up by listening to people.

That super-complex, multi-layered journey to an unfathomable future is Labour’s mission, though - be in no doubt of that. That’s the kind of party we need to be. The party that, at our core, we really are: radical, bold, imaginative, brave. Questing. Restless. Urgent.

We’re in politics to change the world, and for 115 years we have changed it over and over again, and we’re going to keep doing that.

And whoever is the new leader and the new deputy, we will remain what we always were: one Labour.

The end of a four month leadership election might not seem like the obvious time to say it, but we’re a lot bigger than individuals and personalities. 

We’re a century old movement of millions. Whoever the leader and deputy leader is, the fundamental thing we are remains the same:  

we’re Labour. 

We’re socialists. 

Trade unionists. 

Labour. 

We know what it means.

Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496