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“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.

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.

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

‘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.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.