“Tom never had a plan to lead the moderates out of the mess,” say Labour defectors

Labour defectors to Change UK reflect bitterly on Tom Watson's role in convincing party moderates to stay

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When Tom Watson made the shock announcement that he would be leaving the front line of Labour politics after nearly four decades, there was immediate discussion about what his departure would mean for the future of the Labour party. It was no secret that Watson had been the great white hope of the party’s Corbynsceptics; his departure prompted huge surprise, great sadness and a sneaking feeling that the party’s moderate wing had simply lost. hhIn some quarters, however, Watson’s departure prompted a rather bitter revaluation of Labour’s recent past.  

More than anything, those pondering the future of the Labour moderate wing are looking back to February, to when Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna and five other Labour MPs simultaneously announced their resignations from the Labour party to form The Independent Group (TIG), later known as Change UK. Those who left do not speak so warmly of Watson’s role as a leader for the Labour right.

You can probably remember the halcyon days of TIG: Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston joined from the Conservatives, as did Labour’s Joan Ryan; soon they were 11 happy TIGers, out for a Nando’s and looking to the future.

“In the day or two following the Nando’s dinner,” says one figure involved in TIG from the beginning, “it was the word getting back to us that there would be more defections soon. And the number that was being said was between 30 and 40. But not yet, they were waiting for the right time. Then nothing happened.”

The number of Labour MPs seriously considering joining their former colleagues at that point varies: it was “30 or 40”, “around 30” or “20 or 25”, depending on who you ask. The fact that a core group of Labour MPs were poised to defect is, however, undisputed. So what happened?

One of the former Labour MPs who did join TIG is unequivocal: “[Tom Watson’s] intervention was the single biggest factor that prevented Labour MPs in the exit door” from leaving, including those who “had already committed to following”. As well as publicly urging colleagues to stay and establishing a new centre-left grouping within the party, Watson spoke to colleagues privately, convincing them to stay.

Those who did leave suggest that Watson “didn’t know” what he was doing with the new grouping, beyond trying to “accumulate power around him”. One original TIG MP suggests that some Labour MPs were told by Watson that the new grouping was a vehicle which would allow moderates in the party to stay and fight; others, the MP suggests, were told it was a vehicle through which they would eventually leave, together.

Now that Watson is retiring, the original TIGgers feel “vindicated”: it was “our genuine assessment that Tom never had a plan to lead the moderates out of the mess”. They are also bitter about Watson’s alleged briefing against TIG in the early days, perpetuating a sense that TIG was “toxic”, and that it would be better for other Labour moderates to wait and leave separately, untainted by the early splinter group.

This comes with a caveat from current and past Labour MPs that it’s possible to over-estimate Watson’s role as a leader for the party’s Corbynsceptics. Some suggest that Watson’s organisational structure simply gave Labour moderates an easy way out; an excuse to stay, to take the easy road, even if in their heart of hearts they doubted whether Watson would ever successfully lead a Labour moderate revolt of one kind or another.

Those who left are pragmatic enough to say they didn’t expect their departure to be a single, history-defining moment. They thought, rather, that it would get the ball rolling, that more scandals would prompt more departures later on, that there would be a slow drip-drip of support from Labour to Change UK. We have no idea what would have happened without Watson’s early intervention; the history books will also, no doubt, discuss at length the divisions within that burgeoning group, and what was arguably its fatal tactical error of contesting the European elections.

But we know what happened to TIG, or Change UK. All that remains is a smattering of independent MPs, a strange ghost of a group led by Anna Soubry, and a revived Liberal Democrat party. Labour, for all of the potential of that first press conference with Luciana Berger, is unchanged, and still facing the same internal struggles it did in February. The only change is that soon Tom Watson will be gone.

Those who stayed don’t particularly want to talk right now. For all that they might have been poised to leave in February, now it is November, and there is a general election on. Whatever they said or thought about their leader back then, they are now signed up to campaign for a Labour government under his leadership.

From their perspective, this is not the time for counterfactuals or soul-searching, apart from the occasional op-ed. The news that Watson is stepping down has “rocked some people’s confidence”, sure – but in most cases they “haven’t digested it yet”. One of the original TIGgers suggests that their former colleagues might not be “psychologically ready” to reflect on the future. 

For those who left, however, Watson’s departure has re-opened some bitter wounds about their former party.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman