Tom Watson: Effective Foil or Feeble Failure?
Tom Watson recently announced his resignation as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party after little over four years in the role and also declared he would subsequently not stand in the upcoming general election. The MP for West Bromwich East since 2001, Watson was a minister in both the Blair and Brown governments and also served as Chairman of the Labour Party from 2015 to 2017. Labour Party members are as divided over his departure just as much as they are any other issue these days; Watson was elected back in 2015 with over 50% of the vote, however since then has often been targeted by members as someone consistently seeking to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Back in 2006, Watson, a key ally of Gordon Brown, succeeded in forcing Tony Blair to set a departure date as part of the ‘Curry House Conspiracy’. Whether he succeeds in engineering the demise of another Labour Leader remains to be seen, and whilst some criticism is inevitable, it would be unfair for him to only be remembered in this way.
His most obvious impact on the party over the past four years has been to transform Labour’s policy on leaving the European Union. Only two years ago, Labour’s manifesto claimed to “accept the result of the referendum” with figures such as Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry reluctant to back a second referendum. Now, the Party’s policy in its recently released manifesto is that Labour are committed to a People’s Vote. This would have been unimaginable only a few years ago, and much of this credit has to go to the MP for West Bromwich East. Only the morning after the referendum, Corbyn advocated an immediate triggering of Article 50, to start the process of formally leaving the EU, and has arguably proved indecisive over the issue ever since. Meanwhile, Watson has maintained the position that Labour should ‘unequivocally back remain’, with great support from both party members and the Parliamentary Labour Party. Furthermore in March Watson set up the ‘Future Britain Group’, a faction of pro-European Labour MPs, to move Labour’s position on the issue. All of Watson’s actions can be seen to have ultimately succeeded in convincing the leadership to take heed.
Aside from Brexit, Watson has staunchly defended moderates within the party over the past few years. As Labour’s ruling body, the NEC, is now fully dominated by the hard left, he remained the only MP hostile to Corbyn’s leadership in a position of power. Whilst there are many fantastic Labour MPs of Watson’s ilk, they are overwhelmingly consigned to the backbenches and have absolutely no influence in Labour policy. A voice of reason during tumultuous times, the most recent example of him standing up for moderates was when the party sought to scrap their student wing. Labour Students is, as the name suggests, the student-led wing of the party and has been one of the most effective campaigning forces in politics over the last 50 years. It gave rise to not only Watson, but also the UK’s first female Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, and many other notable MPs. However, it is heavily dominated by students not signed up to the hard-left agenda, and for this reason, was disaffiliated from the party by the NEC back in September. Watson immediately came out in support of Labour Students, whilst most members of the Shadow Cabinet remained silent over the issue.
Furthermore, he has been a vocal critic of the party’s failure to deal with anti-Semitism. A key ally of Jewish members of the party, Mr Watson is a member of Labour Friends of Israel, and argued against Labour’s initial refusal to adopt the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. He admitted the party risked descending into “eternal shame” were it not to adopt the definition and criticised Corbyn’s lacklustre approach to dealing with anti-Semitic claims: "It's no good just condemning something - it's about actually doing something about it.''
For all his criticism of the party in recent months, following the announcement of his resignation, Watson claimed he is “as committed to Labour as ever. I will spend this election fighting for brilliant Labour candidates and a better future for our country”. A noble position, perhaps, for someone who has not always been best treated by the party. It is worth remembering the NEC attempted to remove the position of Deputy Leader on the eve of Labour Party Conference in September, and despite their failure it is honourable for Watson to at least claim he is “as committed” to the party as he has always been.
It is difficult to speculate over the extent to which his absence will affect the party, primarily because there could be a far bigger vacancy within weeks. The timing of his departure certainly meant the spotlight wasn’t on him for long, and it is hard to see a subsequent Deputy Leader which will stand up for the right of the party like Watson has. He has ultimately been effective in changing Labour’s policy on Brexit, challenging anti-Semitism within the party, and championing the achievements of the last Labour government whilst others have been hesitant to do so. Labour’s future without Watson could be even more turbulent than it was with him.
Image: UK Parliament. No changes were made to the image.