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26 September 2017

“Ohh, Jeremy Corbyn!”: Tom Watson goes from dissident to devotee

This time last year, the deputy Labour leader was accused of plotting Jeremy Corbyn’s downfall; now he’s singing about him on stage.

By Anoosh Chakelian

To the now ubiquitous tune of The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army, the deputy Labour leader Tom Watson began chanting “Ohh Jeremy Corbyn” during his party conference speech.

He thanked the Labour leader (who was also on stage) for showing him that – contrary to Machiavelli’s infamous leadership lesson – “it is better to be loved than feared”. He even gave a much-applauded shout-out to Momentum.

It was a speech that showed how much the party has changed. Despite being deputy leader, Watson was seen as part of the attempted coup to overthrow Corbyn last year following the EU referendum result. He failed to back the party leader, and was apparently unaware of his leader’s troubles while dancing at a silent disco in Glastonbury as the shadow cabinet fell apart.

Watson referenced his now infamous alibi in his speech, citing the White Stripes chant he heard at this year’s festival:

“One of the most surreal moments of my political life happened to me late at night, in a field, surrounded by people much younger and far more stylish than me.

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“I realised something as the crowd at Glastonbury’s silent disco began to sing:

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‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn…’

[Chants with the audience]

“And as they sang, I realised it’s actually better to be loved than to be feared. And Jeremy has shown us that it’s possible.

“Thank you Jeremy.”

This time last year, Watson chastised Corbyn and co for “trashing the record” of Tony Blair (who he also tried to oust in 2006), and earlier in the year had warned that an alliance of Momentum and Unite could “destroy” the Labour party.

Supporters of Corbyn such as Unite chief Len McCluskey and allies of the Labour leader have even been pushing for another deputy leader role to be created – ostensibly to have a woman in the job, but mainly to diminish Watson’s power.

So many are seeing Watson’s speech today as an attempt to cling on to his job, which was also said to be in shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry’s sights.

But there was some policy meat beneath the love-bombing. As shadow culture secretary, Watson came down hard on betting companies, announcing that Labour would ban football clubs from having shirt sponsorship deals with them, and launching a review of gambling addiction and the current provision of NHS treatment.

He also returned with vigour to a pet subject – slamming Rupert Murdoch. (Watson’s investigation into phone hacking while on the culture, media and sport select committee eventually led to the Leveson inquiry.)

In his speech, he championed “new digital platforms” over “our biased media”, and told the conference hall:

“Murdoch’s papers did their best to start a Tory landslide. They threw the kitchen sink at Jeremy. But this time the dirty tricks didn’t work. This time it was not the Sun wot won it.

“And let me tell you, Conference: it never will be the Sun wot won it again.”

It’s a sign of how much Labour has changed that these comments – made by a once rather lonely campaigner against Murdoch – now sound mainstream in the party.