Opinion Politics

In defense of Tom Watson: the last of a dying breed

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“So it is with the greatest sadness that I have to say that I no longer believe that your remaining in office is in the interest of either the party or the country. How and why this situation has arisen no longer matters” – Tom Watson.

The incumbent, Jeremy Corbyn, is a man of great principle and integrity. His voting record is nearly spotless, and in many ways it is what makes him a perfect candidate for leader. He has the courage of his convictions, regardless of party position. He will not vote for nuclear weapons, he will not vote for unjustified invasions and he will not vote for cuts that hurt those at the bottom of society. These are ideological positions I fully endorse and find it hard to believe any socialist would oppose. But we cannot have a party of Corbyns.

Unifying a broad church?

Corbyn did not create current party policy. That is something which is determined by the National Policy Forum, then voted for at conference. So we could justify any rebelling done by Corbyn against the party line. The platform he was elected on was not that of a moderate, his record is not one of obedience and his mandate does give him some remit to forge his own path. If he is reelected as most anticipate and manages to reshape official Labour policy, then all is well. Assuming, however, we still have any ‘Party men’ left.

For the broad church approach to result in the choral wall of righteous socialism that has been preordained to ‘smash the Tories back in their heels’, we need unity. Unity is not blind obedience to Corbyn, but to Labour Party policy, values. And MPs to their jobs. We do not need Tristram Hunt, nor Dan Jarvis, to become converts to the emerging ideology; we rather need them to rediscover the essence of what it is to be Labour.

Watson is an incredibly hard man to define. In a climate where you either down tools or rally behind the party leader, he appears to be doing neither. But simply doing his job.

In a party which admits entry to no man, woman or child who is not a card carrying Trot or Blairite, Watson would be unable to produce either. He evades easy positioning on the political spectrum too. The problem is he almost always votes with the party. And given what he has had to vote on since becoming an MP, there are some stains. The Iraq war and abstentions on austerity cuts do not make for a robust Labour record ideologically. But they were all positions that the party adopted.

Quietly competent 

While you would be forgiven for thinking the opening quote is addressing Corbyn, it is an excerpt from Watson’s resignation to Tony Blair. If we are to judge a man by the company he keeps, then we can surely also judge him by his enemies; any who count Blair, Peter Mandelson, Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks among that number must have some merits.

Few would doubt Watson’s ability to organise a coup – Mandelson credits him with Blair’s downfall – but that alone cannot be a reason to suspect him now. Special allowances must be made if Mandelson’s claim is believed, as being a Blairite is no longer in vogue. It should certainly not be counted against him that he knows how to ‘play the game’. He has the skill set that any politician surviving New Labour while not being a Blairite needed; the ability to get things done quickly and quietly. It would be easy with the sectarianism that rules Labour currently, to place him among the group who attempted to force Corbyn’s resignation; but I simply see the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

This is not intended to be a ringing endorsement of all actions undertaken by Watson. He has areas in which both his behaviour and views are suspect. But I believe him to be among the last of a rare breed. That is, the aforementioned ’Party man’ who can claim to be Labour, and one which few have the right to question.

Not in virtue of his character, or what he says, but because he is still fighting the Tories. Few in Labour, regardless of status, can make the same claim. But among the ominous Blairite silence, smears aimed at the leadership and rehashed complaints from dissident MPs, it is very easy to miss Watson doing his job. If we are not careful, we may risk losing something of great value, through factionalism. Competence.

During the turmoil he has attacked David Cameron’s tax affairs, been persistent on bulk data protection laws, and legislation that would allow companies to destroy their records after a fixed period (something that would allow many Tories to destroy financial records). Watson has said things that among the cacophony of criticism Corbyn and his team face, are not favourably received by the membership, nor do they help Corbyn’s plight.

But is that not his job as the elected Deputy Leader of the Labour Party? He did not run a shared ticket with Corbyn, nor appear to be close to him despite political differences, as is the case with Sadiq Khan. Instead he has taken his role as seriously as one could expect. He has used all of his tenacity to push for what he believes to be the correct course of action, while calling out what he believes to be poor choices, or obvious truths.

Watson. ‘The Fixer’

He did indeed call for Corbyn to resign. But he did this at a meeting after 172 MPs had voted no confidence in him. How Watson himself voted is not public knowledge, but the 172 against and 40 backing Corbyn is not the sum of the entire Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). I cannot think that anybody in Watson’s position, regardless of how he voted, could advise the Leader anything other than as he did. You do require the backing of the PLP in order to lead the Labour Party, but even in this Watson acknowledged Corbyn’s mandate, merely saying it was not enough alone to lead.

Watson has been placed in an impossible position. A man famed for his pragmatism as a ‘fixer’ is now expected by many to fix things. But who for? While not as massive as Corbyn’s, Watson also has a mandate. While he may have been the choice of many because of that ability, he did speak of why he sought the position of deputy prior to his election. He wanted to emulate the impact of John Prescott under Blair:

“Prescott was Deputy leader in opposition from 1994 to 1997 and he was brilliant at that. He went around the country, he enthused campaigners, he got us ready. And I think that was missing a bit this time.

Watson is not politically naïve; he can sense which way the wind is blowing. His resignation from Miliband’s team in 2013 demonstrates an ability to assess Labour’s electability:

“I’ve thought about it and still feel it is better for you and the future unity of the party that I go now.”

Two years before a crushing defeat under Miliband, Watson distanced himself in as clear a way as possible. But the key words in that statement for me are “the future unity of the party”. This is not Watson throwing Miliband under a bus. I can only assume this is his seeing the failure of strategy, and realising he cannot fix the problem. Cynics may say it is simply Watson saving face. But I can see no reason why a man who is not shy of destabilising a leader he does not believe in, would not attempt to force Miliband out. The parallels to Corbyn’s current scenario exists, but Watson’s behaviour is markedly different.

Constructive criticism?

But one thing is clear. Watson has lost the confidence of Corbyn. Whether the reverse is true is hard to discern, but neither have come out publicly attacking the other personally. Disagreement must be allowed without it being considered treachery. Neither have made the sort of claims that have become all too common and that the party will struggle to shake off.

Claims, for example, that the Chakrabarti report was somehow compromised, murmurs of mass party infiltration, talk of a leader unwilling to speak with his fellow members of parliament, as well as an apparently toxic atmosphere of anti-Semitism and sexism. All of these accusations will be hard to discard whether Owen Smith or Corbyn wins this contest. And while many of these may chime with themes on which Watson has spoken of, his tone is not that of his fellow MPs.

Conflation of the criticism from MPs such as Wes Streeting and John Mann regarding Chakrabarti is a misnomer. They objected on different grounds. Watson had adopted the strange yet politically savvy position of arguing that Labour should nominate no one for a peerage.

He was on the warpath, ready to attack Cameron’s honours list before, without warning, he was torpedoed by the announcement of Chakrabarti being elevated to the Lord’s. He did not focus his attack on her credibility or suitability; rather he seemed irked that in a period during which he wanted to attack Conservative hypocrisy, the event had undermined his strategy somewhat.

Trots. Rabble. Dogs.

While language used towards Momentum in the past may have ruffled some feathers, reading the words of the man himself does not lead one to the conclusion Watson is delusional, nor hostile. It was in the context of accusations from UKIP that he made this statement regarding the ‘rabble’, one which should be considered a defence, even if not a flattering one. His claims of entryism have also been distorted in magnitude by the media. The infamous ‘Trotskyite arm twisting’ is a line that will not quickly fade from memory. But he did not claim this to be the source of Corbyn’s impending victory.

Watson actually made a claim that anyone could acknowledge. That there has been an attempt at infiltration, for which he had evidence. When trapped between the PLP and leadership, not having committed fully to the cause of MPs, but also not in the bunker, the Deputy has merely called out what is a breach of Labour’s rules.

The responses from both sides sought to position Watson as a critic of Corbyn, but he has distanced himself from the position ascribed to him. “I don’t think the vast majority of people that have joined the Labour party and have been mobilised by the people that are in Momentum are all Trots and Bolsheviks.” he told the Guardian. But naturally this was not emphasised.

A dying breed

It is with these things I submit to you that Watson is one the last in a dying breed; the ‘Party man’. He is a skilled politician, with specific strengths and a history that mean his actions are viewed with a natural suspicion. He has carried out his role as Deputy in the only way possible to ensure stability for the party. He has continued doing his job.

With the party polarised, the future uncertain and the office of leader under threat, Watson still appears to show a quiet respect for both the position and the party; even if what precisely the party means in reality now is debatable.

Whether you consider him an anachronism in a world of new politics, or a man ardently attempting to do his job, while actively refuting the idea of a split, there is one legacy that cannot be doubted. His disdain for Blairites.

You do not have to like the man. But with rumours of David Miliband’s return, is there anyone else more suited to the role of gatekeeper?

“I want to put my arms around him and hug him and say it’s going to be all right, but also sort of shout and say, we need to talk about this”

From outside both the bubble and the bunker, I agree with Watson, and fully support Corbyn. The two positions, to me at least, do not seem to be at odds.

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