Wednesday 14 August 2019

The Curious Case of Tom Watson

Is there anyone more predictable in politics than Tom Watson? As night follows day, wherever the Labour leadership put a plus he places a minus. And where a negative is identified, the Deputy Leader tells us to do the opposite. Whatever the issue and whenever the time, Tom does his best to infuriate the bulk of the party membership, bask in the spotlight, and derail matters as much as possible. No wonder his keen enthusiasm for a second referendum doesn't extend to his own mandate. Yet, of late, while he is instrumental to the tedious, low-level war against the sovereignty of the membership in general and Corbynism in particular, there has been a shift in his behaviour other party watchers and professional Kremlinologists have failed to remark upon.

At a heavily trailed event earlier today, Tom shared a platform with Jo Swinson and called for parties to set aside their differences and come together to stop a no deal Brexit. Fair enough. Speaking at For our Future's Sake and Our Future Our Choice, appropriately FFS and OFOC respectively, he said no deal would be a disaster, it lacks democratic legitimacy, and we need a second referendum. For her part, Swinson had some sharp words about tribalism and how the Liberal Democrats would work cooperatively across party lines against no deal. And that's it. What could be more innocuous than a pair of centrist MPs having a nice chat and photo opportunity about an issue they share common ground on?

Let's examine this from a few angles. Firstly, on any Labour/LibDem deal. While it is completely fanciful for all kinds of reasons, there is nothing unprincipled about doing a deal with a minor bourgeois party provided the workers' party is in the driving seat. So apart from fleeting episodes where some Tories think their interests coincide with Labour on a vote-by-vote basis, the kinds of outright scabbery we've seen in Scotland in defence of the status quo is an absolute no. But where the LibDems are concerned, assuming Labour cannot form a government by itself, then it all depends on the specifics of any putative deal. A confidence and supply in exchange for electoral reform or some other policy (do they even have policies that aren't Brexit-related these days?) provided it does not harm prevent Labour's programme is, on paper, do-able. A full fledged coalition? I would err in handing any ministry over to them but, again, it depends on the specifics of a putative coalition agreement. If the LibDems' desire to swan around in ministerial cars trumps their very flexible principles, then okay. And besides, they know as well as anyone that underneath the froth Jeremy Corbyn isn't about to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy. It has its transitional aspects, but it's a stretch to describe the 2017 manifesto as a socialist document.

This said, going out his way to court the LibDems right now isn't the most subtle of messaging. Reading the political body language, Tom knows full well that, despite her mealy mouthed pleas for unity, Swinson has ruled out working with Labour for as long as Jez remains the leader. So much for putting aside politics in the national interest. Tom, however, is happily going along with this. By saying Labour needs to work with the Swinson and friends, he is purposely and shamelessly capitulating to their key demand without any conditionalities of his own. And he's doing this entirely for selfish factional reasons. In all essentials, he is saying Labour must remove its leader to unite with the LibDems without saying Labour must remove its leader to unite with the LibDems. This sort of clever-clever positioning is so transparent, so feeble minded, it's hard to believe Tom was once rated an "operator" and a master of the "dark arts".

And it's here we get to the really interesting bit. Tom might relish his role as a "trouble maker" and self-styled shop steward for Labour MPs gearing up for reselection season, but he does so as a freelance. Seasoned readers will know Tom has long associated with Labour First, and the nexus between it, the WestMids regional office, and the right in Unite. They provided a network of influence that buttressed Tom's power and allowed him to confer patronage on aspirant careerists and back-scratchers. Unfortunately for Labour First, it is a shadow of what it once was. Forced out into open campaigning by the mass character of Corbynism, the destruction of its institutional base in the party apparat and the unions, and its routine defeat in internal party elections has reduced them to a mailing list of the like-minded who occasionally throw a sparsely attended conference and fringe meetings. The regular gatherings that used to take place in the WestMids between the Labour First core MPs seldom occurs these days. Therefore, while Tom could never be described as beholden to the faction that made him he was, to an extent, concerned with and attended to its collective interests. No more it seems. For example, while the remainder of Labour First supporters would agree, and might even cheer on his use of anti-semitism for factional purposes and cosying up to the decrepit and declining remnants of Labour unionism in Scotland, his EU positioning is much more ambiguous, and, from LF's point of view, deeply unhelpful.

Most Labour MPs associated with LF believe Brexit should be delivered and recoil at the idea of a second referendum, let alone the idea of revoking Article 50. For example, Stoke North & Kidsgrove MP Ruth Smeeth abstained on extending Article 50 whereas Labour as whole supported it, and voted against a second referendum, resigning from her front bench role attached to Tom Watson's office to do so. Readers are welcome to debate whether leave voters are going to be swung by their MPs positioning on this (the vote was 72.1% leave in the constituency), but whatever the merits or otherwise a not insignificant number of our parliamentarians are wedded to this approach, and that includes most Labour First MPs. From their perspective, Tom's new found enthusiasm for another referendum and the EU not only undermines their efforts - effectively throwing some of his closest colleagues under a bus - but he too runs the risk of falling beneath the wheels. Unlike very remainy Labour MPs who almost exclusively hail from very remainy seats, Tom's West Bromwich East constituency voted 68.2% to leave.

Has Tom become fully consumed by his own legend as a Very Important Person in the Labour game of factional intrigue, or does his freelancing antics speak to the collapse of his faction, the release from residual concerns for them, and the ongoing decomposition of the Labour right? The truth is it's all of these things, and because of them the criticisms and positions he takes are likely to become more opportunistic and more erratic the longer he stays in post. Why not do yourself and all the party a favour Tom and allow someone else the chance to step up?


Unknown said...

Interesting you suggest that Tom should step aside for someone else to step up. Given JC's inability to bring people together or carry conviction ( no matter how unfairly) among the wider electorate, let alone a significant number of his colleagues in the House, would you suggest that JC do the same? Not because of his agenda, entirely because he cannot deliver it.

SimonB said...

Swinson’s response to Labour’s perfectly reasonable proposals to prevent No Deal, put her beyond the pale. The LDs under her are aiming to blame Jeremy for allowing it to happen. Stupid and cynical, a perfect fit for Watson. Brexit: Corbyn plans to call no-confidence vote to defeat no-deal

Alan Story said...



I mean: there really is more to political life than episode #47 in the LP soap opera.

I could suggest at least 47 topics.


Phil said...

I'll write what I want to write about thanks Alan.

This last week I've posted about the Tories and crime, the Greens, new blogs, and capitalist realism. And where was the Alan Story commentary on the non-Laboury pieces you're supposedly hungry for?

Boffy said...

Swinson will have no choice now but to support Corbyn as caretaker PM. The only thing the Liberals had going for them was opposition to Brexit. They can hardly destroy that now, by letting the Tories off the hook, by refusing to support Corbyn.

Its just a pity its taken Corbyn three years to get to this position, which in itself undermines confidence in how genuine he is in his position.

Speedy said...

The only reason Corbyn is insisting on leading a caretaker government is because he knows he won't win support from either Tories or Lib Dems.

He wants Brexit, even no deal Brexit.

He has always wanted Brexit (or Lexit) and most members of the public know this - unfortunately, the ones that do (who may have once voted Labour) will never vote for him, they will vote for the Brexit Party.

You can twist and turn all you like, but Corbyn's Labour will never be forgiven by many for facilitating not only Brexit, but the hardest of Brexits. It may be that some working-class people continue to believe it is a good thing, but the majority will have their lives blighted by it.

Labour will be over as an electoral force, at least until Corbyn has gone, and possibly much longer - you thought Blair's legacy was bad, just wait: in a post-socialist world it is hard to see what more could have been done to push the progressive middle class towards the Whigs, ie Lib Dems, while it has become an irrelevance to many working-class people, essentially mesmerized by Brexit propaganda or simply realising they've been betrayed. The Tories will reinvent themselves as they always do, Labour is finished.

Alex Dawson said...

Corbyn as leader of HM Loyal Opposition reduces the Tory working majority over four years down to one MP, offers an election and a second referendum and somehow he’s still to blame for no deal Brexit.

Parliament as a whole now has the only opportunity it can to stop no deal. And it’s not taking it.

It won’t be Labour that is finished when the day comes. It will be a lot of pathetic MPs careers.

Shai Masot said...

I fancy George Galloway's chances.

The Name Doesn't Matter said...

Yes it is quite ironic that after the most incompetent political decision in living memory, i.e. the decision to give the tabloid addled septic brained masses a vote on whether they like immigrants or not, it is Corbyn who is being blamed for all this and not the Tory party who foisted this shit upon us.

It is as if people like speedy have like some sort of an agenda that they always keep just below the surface, you know speedy, that anti middle class pro middle class, anti EU pro EU, anti BNP pro BNP, anti Left pro left corrupt populist.

Of course the media are pushing the Liberals to the fore because the entire and I mean entire establishment, which the media represent almost without exception, will do anything to avoid a Corbyn government, because in this great land of democracy, everything is permitted except anything to the left of very mild social democracy and anything right of Attila the Hun! My admiration for this great democracy is overflowing! You can have any opinion as long as its neo liberal.

In one way Corbyn is bringing gravity to politics, everything is being drawn to its correct orbital position, Chukka is in the liberal democrats and Tom Watson might as well be. Has Boffy moved over yet?

Let us say for a minute that we do stay in the EU, how will our fellow citizens take steps to unify the EU even more? Britain being in the EU will actually put a brake on further E integration. On this point Boffy and his ilk has no answer, they just babble on with the mantra about a unified EU means a unified working class, yet they support the very thing that guarantees a brake on all this!

Their position does not hold up at all. I conclude from this that they do not support the EU for these reasons and really support the EU because they basically support the economic model upon which it is founded. I.e they fall within the moderate labour movement, in other words for all their blather and sermonising they actually support capitalism in all its glory.

keefer said...

Do you think Labour First care though? Or indeed even pro-remain Progress MPs? As long as TW is undermining the leadership as often as he can and leaking to his pet poodles at the Guardian and Politics Home, the collective Labour right will be with him.

And if a decisive Brexit decision is made this year and leads to pro-Brexit MP losing their seats, then I am sure they'll blame it on LOTO not TW.

He has a licence to be as disruptive as possible. He should've been disciplined when he lied to the press about Jenny Formby. I presume LOTO now think he's not worth dealing with until Brexit/election is over despite the damage he does, which in an election period could be great.

Still, there's the employment tribunal next month that might expose him further.

ray said...

tom has never been the same man since his phone was hacked.

Blissex said...

«Swinson has ruled out working with Labour for as long as Jez remains the leader.»

The FT reported that «“I can’t conceive of any circumstances under which we would put Jeremy Corbyn into No. 10,” said one senior Lib Dem MP. “He’s not only dangerous for our national security but for our economic security too.”» and I would be moderately sure that's T Watson's position too, and that seems to be the declared position of P Mandelson and the ChangeUK "stay behind" faction.

«Tom, however, is happily going along with this. By saying Labour needs to work with the Swinson and friends, he is purposely and shamelessly capitulating to their key demand without any conditionalities [...] he is saying Labour must remove its leader to unite with the LibDems»

My impression is that T Watson has been saying for a long while that “Labour must remove its leader”, whether or not “to unite with the LibDems”.
For example his (now retracted?) proposal that any proven antisemite should be automatically expelled from Labour was transparently aimed at the automatic expulsion from Labour of Corbyn: has recently stated, pretty much unchallenged, the ridiculous claims that:

by any objective analysis of contemporary British antisemitism, Mr Corbyn must be seen as the instigator. [...] More widely, Mr Corbyn has injected a poison into British politics and turbocharged the levels of open antisemitism in British society. [...] the most dangerous racist in British politics — a man whose toxic views and behaviour pose a far greater threat to ethnic minorities than the National Front or the BNP ever managed.

Blissex said...

«in a post-socialist world»

That's curiously exactly what arch-madnelsonian J Cowley wrote about Ed Miliband, another known "extreme left trot": “Miliband’s [ ... ] might have to accept before long – or the electorate will force him to – that Europe’s social-democratic moment, if it ever existed, is fading into the past.

«it is hard to see what more could have been done to push the progressive middle class towards the Whigs, ie Lib Dems»

There is no such thing as the "progressive middle class" (that is the "thatcherite-for-gay-marriage"), there are instead the middle class with property in the south and those without property in the south, and the former is getting smaller and smaller. The middle class vote depending on which side of the property divide they are in...

In any case this is the old argument about "southern discomfort" by G Radice or the one by T Blair about "Sierra man", and that argument like yours here is that Labour should PASOKify itself by becoming a slightly more right-wing version of the LibDems, now that political space has been left free by the demise of the mandelsonian wing of the Conservatives (the cameronians). Your argument is also a rewarmed repetition of Mandel/Umunna/Hunt argument that New Labour should be the party that champions the “aspirational voters who shop at John Lewis and Waitrose”, that is that "thatcherites-for-gay-marriage" small minority.

«while it has become an irrelevance to many working-class people, essentially mesmerized by Brexit propaganda or simply realising they've been betrayed.»

Sneering at working people for their alleged gullibility is typical elitism of the Mandelsonian Tendency entryst sort. However in the end Labour got 40% of the vote and nearly 14m votes in 2017, so perhaps chasing the "thatcherites-for-gay-marriage" small minority is not necessary.

Speedy said...

Blissex, these are fair comments but the proof is in the pudding. If I'm wrong, I'll be delighted - I would actually love to see Corbyn in No10 (apart from his pro-Brexit stance).

However, when things work out as I have predicted, will you or WTF above, recognise your own fault, learn anything? I very much doubt it. You will simply harness arguments to prove your point, however obscurely.

Not sure of 'post-socialist world' - I wrote in haste - but it certainly will be outside of the EU. Within the EU there remains a residual social democracy (which requires wealth and power). Outside, nothing will facilitate Corbyn's Lexit fantasy (as fantastic as the Brexiters re sovereignty - the only people laughing are the true Thatcherites, ask Dipper for eg).

Unknown said...

There's a massive difference - Tom Watson has little or no support amongst the membership and Corbyn still does. Hopefully, one of the motions chosen for conference will be one calling for a deputy leadership contest.

Unknown said...

The reason he has taken that position is to respect the ref result. I'm a firm and committed remainer and feel devastated by the split in the country that the ref has caused but I can understand the position Corbyn finds himself in. He's trying to manage those very constituencies mentioned in the article, ones heavily on the leave side. Most of those constituencies are marginals which we need to win to form a Government with a working majority. Corbyn has played this dead right.