Tom Watson MP. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Chris Huhne spent his last night of freedom watching me do karaoke to “Teenage Kicks”

Tom Watson's diary.

The fightback

To Easington, where I am the guest of Grahame Morris MP for the constituency annual dinner. Our backdrop was a new National Union of Mineworkers banner. Where once there was a pithead, the banner now portrays a newly built school with happy children excitedly leaping into their future.

I couldn’t help but be struck how these potent symbols of our past were being used to project a new hope for the coal communities. Which is perhaps why there was fury directed towards Michael Gove, who that week had attacked local schools for having “the smell of defeatism”. The working classes of Easington have been in plenty of battles, but on the evidence of last week they’ve never been defeated.

Then a post-midnight drive through the mist and fog to wake up in the rustic peace of Keswick for the Words by the Water festival, to discuss my book Dial M for Murdoch. I shared a dressing room with the Guardian’s indefatigable Polly Toynbee. “Why are your frontbenchers not more angry?” she asked me. She’s right. I resolved there and then to work with the team of grass-roots members who are organising more than 53 protests against the bedroom tax.

The paperback

The former Labour MP Chris Mullin says he thought the art of political debate was over until he started to address literary festivals. He’s not wrong. The audience was intensely interested in the fine detail of the Leveson proposals and kept me on my toes.

I was struck by how even the most politically aware audience has almost given up on Westminster. Trust in public institutions is at an all-time low. We’re going to have to address the trust deficit if we are to strengthen civil society post-hacking, post-MPs’ expen - ses, post-banking crisis.

Jailhouse rock

The finest part of the weekend was the wedding of Charlotte Harris – the incisive media lawyer who cracked open the phone-hacking case – and her debonair fiancé, James Burr. Poor Chris Huhne was there, looking wistful. I couldn’t help thinking that spending your last night of freedom listening to me singing “Teenage Kicks” with a karaoke band would make prison seem a more tolerable fate. He got an eight-month sentence the next day. Even though he lied to a court, the sentence seemed hard for a scandal that started with a speeding offence.

Lazy Labour

Fair bit of ribbing wherever I’ve been about “Lazy Labour”, a nickname mentioned last week in an interview with Jim Murphy in this magazine. Reminded me of the old story about Roy Jenkins. The Balliol-educated son of the south Wales mineworkers’ leader, Jenkins had entered parliament in 1948, just as Nye Bevan was in the throes of founding the NHS.

In the smoking room one evening, it was suggested to Bevan that Jenkins, though clever and articulate, might be lazy. Bevan didn’t hesitate: “Lazy? Lazy?” he shrieked. “A boy from Abersychan with an accent like that – whatever he is, he’s not lazy.”

And Bevan was right. Whatever Jenkins was or wasn’t, the ensuing half-century proved beyond doubt: he wasn’t lazy.

The current “controversy” is almost equally amusing, and typically lazy. A classic mediadriven fuss over nothing, in which a Labour frontbencher making a perfectly reasonable point has his words twisted to resemble an attack on (of all people) me.

Changing times

In the brouhaha over Murphy, some central points – on which we all agree – have been entirely overlooked. On one level, the “debate” has been couched in terms that have romanticised the New Labour era. And yet sentimental attachment to old dictums is the very antithesis of everything that Tony Blair and New Labour were about.

Media critics attempting to beat Ed Mili - band with this stick are not just wrong, but incoherent in their own terms. Not only is it wrong to go back to the past, no sane person has ever said that and nobody is saying it now.

The interpretation that media critics have been putting on the word “segmentation”, as though it were a divisive strategy, is dis - ingenuous. Unless you have either a single voter, or 60 million unrelated individual voters, somewhere in the middle you always have groups of voters. To talk to them is hardly to abandon the middle ground.

Stuck in the middle

Most preposterous of all, bored pundits have tried to present some Labour colleagues as believing that appealing to disillusioned Lib Dem voters is some kind of exclusive, zerosum strategy. I don’t believe (and I don’t say this lightly) any Labour MP is that stupid.

Lib Dem activists may well be a crazy sect of staring-eyed obsessives but their voters are anything but. They are slap-bang in the middle of the national mainstream. Millions of them now feel betrayed by the Lib Dems and are looking for a new home. Failure to compete for that group of people would be an abrogation of serious politics and a dereliction of duty.

What the media pundits really mean is that Ed is too left-wing. The Daily Mail and the Sun won’t be happy until Ed fights the election on a right-wing agenda, which goes further right than Blair, and probably in some cases than the Tories.

The one thing Tony taught us is not to be sentimental about the past. We can’t just repeat what happened in the Nineties and expect the old magic to work again.

Blair was not electorally successful because he was right-wing, he was successful because he was right – particularly on some of the important socio-economic issues in the early days.

You win elections by talking to all the people about the things that matter most to them, by giving them a real choice, by being right for the time. Every Labour frontbencher knows that. Bring on 2015.

Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East and deputy chair of the Labour Party

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.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

Show Hide image

The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood