One of the things that most troubled Labour MPs about Jeremy Corbyn’s speech was how little he had to say about the importance of winning elections and of returning to government. This is not a charge that one can level at Tom Watson. His first conference speech as deputy leader ended in dramatic fashion as he cried for activists to move on “from our summer of introspection” and declared: “We have to get back into government. I’m not in politics to play the game; I’m here to change the game.” The difference in tone from Corbyn, who failed several times to join in with the applause for Watson, was stark. Rather than moving on from the summer, the Labour leader and his supporters often prefer to relive it.
Though Watson pledged loyalty to his new chief (“Let’s be clear: because he’s the people’s choice, he’s the right choice”), he delivered an unambiguous warning to the Corbynites: Labour must remain in the winning business. “We have to be the party of everybody, or we’re the party of nobody,” he cried (a line that should have in Corbyn’s speech). In his peroration, he delivered a Brown-esque rollcall of New Labour achievements of the sort that one could never imagine the party’s new leader giving. “In government we made this country a far, far better place: Record numbers of new schools and hospitals. Far better pay for public sector workers. Led the world on climate change and international development. The minimum wage. Tax credits. The pension credit. Civil partnerships. The Disability Discrimination Act. The Human Rights Act. The Gangmasters Act. Paid holidays. Maternity leave. Paternity leave. Union recognition rights. Temporary and agency workers’ rights. And literally a thousand more progressive things we did to change our country for the better. That’s what a Labour government means”. It was a reminder Watson, who hails from the party’s old right, stands in a very different tradition to the hard-left Corbyn.
The speech was by some distance the finest delivered at the conference and an apt demonstration of why some speak of Watson as a potential future leader. As well as an impassioned tribute to the power of government, he spoke lucidly and authoritatively on micro-businesses and the digital revolution. The activists lapped his old-style tribalism up. The Lib Dems were derided as “a useless bunch of lying sellouts” (don’t go betting on a pact), while “the nasty Tories” were to be “[kicked] down the road where they belong”. In a party increasingly denuded of big beasts, Watson showed why he is one of the biggest beasts of all.