With Tom Watson and Jeremy Corbyn just elected to the deputy leadership and leadership of the Labour Party, this is a timely moment to republish our analysis what Watson’s impact could be at a critical moment for the party.
While Jeremy Corbyn obsesses the chattering classes, the more substantial figure of Tom Watson goes almost unnoticed. But if Corbyn does become Labour leader, and Watson deputy leader, the latter will be in a position of enormous power.
Corbyn will have reached the top of the party, only to be hit by a storm of terrifying force. He will be like a man who went for a Sunday afternoon stroll in tee-shirt and shorts, and finds himself struggling to survive a tornado. Neither he nor his companions will ever have known anything like it. The pressure will be immense, the weight of criticism devastating, and it will by then be too late to fortify their position.
They will need Watson’s help, and there are at least three reasons why he will be able if he wishes to extend it. The first is that he has known, and survived, immense pressure himself, during his battle with the Murdoch empire. The second is that he has a deep knowledge of the Labour machine: he is embedded in the centre-right of it in a way that Corbyn never will be.
The third reason, which may at first sight seem to contradict the second, is that Watson understands the role played by intellectual curiosity in keeping a political party alive. He is not just a machine politician: he knows that the freedom to think new thoughts is indispensable, or else the party will die.
This last facet of his character means he is unlikely to dismiss as naive the enthusiasm of the vast number of new voters taking part in the choice of the next Labour leader. For he sees what has produced this upwelling of political emotion. Last year Watson was asked, in an interview for the Catholic Herald, why he first supported Tony Blair, and then turned against him:
“The first meaningful interaction I ever had with Tony Blair was back in 1995,” he says. “We were debating his plans for Clause IV – I was the party’s youth officer – and he said to me: ‘You’ve got to understand that what all of this is about is turning us from an ideology-based party into a values-based party.’ And as it happened, I completely believed in it.”
Watson, brought up at Kidderminster, entered the Commons as MP for West Bromwich East in 2001. In 2003 he voted for the Iraq War, and in 2006 he became a junior defence minister. But he had by now lost faith in Blair, and helped get up the letter which forced the Prime Minister to promise to leave Downing Street within a year.
When the rebellious minister was told he must either take his signature off the letter, or resign, Watson raised the stakes: he resigned, and issued a further statement calling for Blair to go. He explained to the Catholic Herald why he had stopped believing in the Prime Minister:
“I couldn’t see the values in action. We were in this awful arid desert of pragmatism. The people I had joined the party to help were becoming increasingly marginalised by a Westminster elite dinner party debate.”
It is hard to think of a better phrase than “arid desert of pragmatism” to describe where Blair led the Labour Party. He and his cronies possessed the arrogant conviction that they knew exactly what they were doing and where they were going. They were not in the slightest bit interested in listening to anyone else in the party, but were themselves intellectually barren: they produced no offspring.
Neither Gordon Brown nor Ed Miliband managed to find a way out of the arid desert of pragmatism. They felt so insecure that they placed a far higher value on keeping control of the party than on encouraging anything which might be described as a new idea.
With Miliband’s defeat on the night of 7th May, the system of central control which had been in place for over 20 years collapsed in a matter of hours. Parched lefties suddenly had a choice, though not much of one. Three of the four leadership contenders turned out to be the stunted, self-appointed heirs of Blair and Brown.
Only Corbyn, by the simple expedient of ceasing to think in 1978, managed to avoid being an inferior version of those two leaders. He is instead an inferior version of Tony Benn: a walking anachronism, with all the charm such a figure has for those who prefer, as so many left-wingers do, to dwell in the past.
Watson is unlikely to destroy Corbyn at once. He knows what a poor impression such defiance of the democratically expressed will of the membership would make. Corbyn will have to be supported for a time, in the expectation that he will either destroy himself, or else will be destroyed by David Cameron and George Osborne.
For the new leader will be exposed, not just to ridicule at Prime Minister’s Questions, but to a series of excruciating votes, in which he and his party will be invited to declare their support for NATO etc. It will be a gruelling period in which to be a Labour MP of moderate inclinations.
Many of those MPs will go to Watson to complain that the new leader is useless. Everyone in the party either knows Tom personally, or has a friend who knows Tom personally. In the contest for the deputy leadership, he has received the backing of 174 constituency Labour parties, over twice as many as have backed his nearest rival, and more even than have backed Corbyn.
During the recent general election campaign, he visited no fewer than 109 constituencies. Here is a candidate who has left no stone unturned: he is, as he puts it himself, a grafter. In my view, he will tell those MPs who complain to him to be loyal to the party, and to be patient. For the time will soon come when Corbyn collapses, or retires hurt, and the people round him try to replace him with a younger and supposedly more attractive leftie. That will be Watson’s moment, and my belief is that he will rout them.
Watson comes from the West Midlands. Before entering Parliament he worked for Sir Ken Jackson, the leader of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, who was an utterly unashamed right-winger. Here is Watson on 20 May this year, expressing traditional right-wing views in an interview with the New Statesman:
“The expansionist aims of Vladimir Putin are a big threat to European stability,” he warns, calling on the party to back the 2 per cent Nato spending target. “I think it’s inevitable that we will need a larger infantry and more naval capacity in years to come.”
Nor does that exhaust Watson’s capacity to see things as they really are. He also called on the party to “look at the worst and the best” of the free movement of labour, describing the open borders policy as “the biggest issue that undermines the authority and legitimacy of the European Union in the minds of voters”.
Watson has no desire to replace Blair’s arid desert of pragmatism with an arid desert of labelling, in which opponents are destroyed simply by calling them “Tory” or “Blairite”. He is himself immune to those two terms, for he fought a long battle against Rupert Murdoch.
Martin Hickman and Watson himself have described that battle in their book Dial M for Murdoch, to which the interested reader is referred. There they recall how, at the Labour Party Conference of 2006, Watson was told by George Pascoe-Watson, political editor of the Sun: “My editor will pursue you for the rest of your life. She will never forgive you for what you did to Tony.” For that was just after Watson had put the boot into Blair. The editor in question was Rebekah Wade, now Rebekah Brooks.
Watson came under tremendous pressure from Murdoch’s company, News International, and maintains that his marriage collapsed under the strain. A serious effort was made to destroy his career, but Watson became one of the most remorseless pursuers of News International as the phone hacking scandal developed, and it was The News of the World which went out of business.
Some people in the Labour Party cannot bear Watson, and are indeed frightened and disgusted by him. They think he is a big, fat, bullying, Brownite thug. Watson will not be pleased to find himself defended on ConservativeHome against those charges. He was probably even more pained to find himself defended by John McTernan, who used to work for Blair, and who last month wrote in the Daily Telegraph:
Some on the Blairite side of Labour will cavil about working with Tom, but what is their alternative – work with Corbyn? The less time the party is under the wrong management the better… If it all goes wrong on September 12, then Labour will need to be saved urgently. If Jeremy Corbyn is Michael Foot, then Tom Watson is Neil Kinnock. There is no alternative.