Ed Miliband made Tom Watson an offer he couldn’t refuse when he asked him to become Labour’s campaign co-ordinator. The Brownite heavy-hitter tells Mary Riddell he has a surprising source of inspiration: Peter Mandelson.
Arriving at Tom Watson’s office, I am met by a wall of flapping shirts. Behind a tangle of wire coathangers is the aide who has kindly agreed to pick up what appears to be a fortnight’s supply of Watson washing. “More like a month’s worth,” says the assistant, puffing slightly.
In life, as in laundry, the MP for West Bromwich East does not do things by halves. In addition to being one of the most prominent campaigners against phone hacking, he was beguiled by Ed Miliband into becoming Labour’s campaign co-ordinator for the local and London elections, as well as the party’s deputy chair and a member of the shadow cabinet. Whether Labour wins the general election may depend, in large part, on Watson’s instincts.
Having got wind of an imminent offer from Ed Miliband, Watson had decided to turn it down. “I’d decided I just wasn’t interested. Then I walked into his office and capitulated instantly. It’s hard to say no to a leader of the Labour party. I’d resigned under Tony Blair, then Gordon asked me to come back, and actually I shouldn’t have said yes. With Ed, I just want him to win. I love running elections; he flattered and cajoled me, and I said I would do it.
“I’ll hopefully make a difference for him, but it’s not something I desperately wanted. I’m doing it out of a sense of loyalty to Ed, really, but I’m not particularly ambitious in that way.” Do not be deluded by this show of diffidence. Ambivalent as Watson might have been about his new brief, his reputation is formidable. Part enforcer, part diplomat and part tribalist, he is steeped in the culture of the party (his first job for Labour was in 1984) and the unions (he worked for the AEEU until he won his seat in 2001).
Rather curiously for a Brownite heavy-hitter, Watson’s methods are drawn from quite another tradition. “I want to have realistic staging posts up to the next election. That is classic Mandelsonian planning, by the way. I can’t believe that I am saying this, [but] he was very good, and his strength was [judging] realistic increments of change.”
Watson, who first joined the Labour payroll as a teenage librarian in the mid-eighties, was a witness to “rampant, powerful and personal divisions that make all the current stuff look like tittle tattle. I do try and get colleagues to reflect on that. There’s a massive ambition for change within the shadow cabinet, and sometimes you just have to say that the British electorate will decide when they’re going to listen to what we have to say. Right now, you can only get issues up and running.”
This view seems to accord much more closely with the long view taken by Ed Balls than with the impatience of some more Blairite figures. But on one issue, Watson appears at odds with Balls. In his Fabian speech at the start of this year, the shadow chancellor startled colleagues and enraged some union leaders by endorsing a public sector wage freeze and refusing to guarantee reversing any Tory cuts. “For Ed Balls to harden his language around [cuts] is part of re-establishing economic credibility. Sometimes you get those shifts wrong or sometimes you can do it too quickly.
“We have social partners who have a lot of members with an interest in this, and they were shocked and taken aback.” Presumably he means the unions? “Yes, but also local government employees, many of whom are Labour councillors and leaders. What we did wrong was not to signal adequately what we were doing and the timing of doing it.
“What Ed is saying is: let’s be realistic. We’ve got to be tough on public sector pay because we want to keep people in work. That’s absolutely the position we have to be in. There are times when trade unions are going to be unhappy with Labour decisions, in opposition as well as in government. We owe it to them to disagree respectfully with them and to let them know rather than to throw it on their doorstep in their Sunday paper. We had to do what we did in January. There’s no doubt about that, but we could have [done] it better, and I think we’d probably acknowledge that.”
Is Watson, who is said to be very close to Len McCluskey, the point of contact for aggrieved union leaders? “Well, sometimes they [speak to me]. I’ve worked for a trade union, and I have a massive regard for some of the general secretaries. I think Paul Kenny is a truly great industrial leader. But people can tell Ed Balls what they think directly. They don’t have to come through me.”
Nor would Watson have any compunction, he says, in speaking to Miliband and Balls if he thought they were wrong. “They’re my friends and I respect them, but I want to make sure that, wherever possible, we don’t surprise our natural allies. It’s a law of good politics, [and] there’s no bigger argument than that. It’s just [about] respect and manners, really.”
Although he claims to have discerned growing dissatisfaction on the doorstep from voters uneasy about the Tories, especially on youth unemployment and the health service, Watson is under no illusions about the obstacles on any road back to government. He has spoken in the past of Labour’s lack of appeal to elderly voters; others have focused on the party’s declining allure in the south-east. How does he assess the vacuum of five million voters who drifted away from the party from 1997 onwards?
“By not wanting to generalise about where the lost voters are. A number of working families say that Labour used to be for them and it isn’t any more. To me that’s serious, but still a half-full bottle. They still think we’re their natural party, but they’re disappointed. We’re making the case that we’re with them, and Ed Miliband is very important on that. But we’ve also got to reach the south, and that’s about our offer to fairly affluent, aspirational families as well. I’ve been ringing voters in the leafy suburbs, and they’re as worried about the economy as they are about tuition fees and police numbers. So it’s not as if all the issues are different.”
On Scotland, where the independence fight will take off after the elections, he is clear that there is no leading role for Westminster incomers. “The people who should lead the campaign are in Scotland,” he says. “We’ve got to devolve decision-making to Johann [Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader] … We’ve got to let go in London. The idea that me or Jim Murphy or Douglas Alexander can run campaigns [out of] Victoria Street headquarters is gone.”
Even Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown should, he suggests, have bit-part roles. “Their interventions on the future of Scotland are really important … but I’m absolutely clear that Johann Lamont will makes the calls; otherwise we’re going to undermine our colleagues north of the border.”
Does Watson still see Gordon Brown, to whom he was once so close? “Sporadically. He’s travelling the world and trying to make a difference in his own way.” And did Brown, now an almost spectral presence at Westminster, feel embittered at the end of his bruising tenure or simply relieved that it was all over? “I don’t know. I think he probably felt responsibility and that he had let people down. That’s a very human response. Not all of it was his fault. He loves the Labour party and he has a sense of duty to his country. He did go through a hell of a time, but he doesn’t talk about it much.
“I did his fund-raising dinner not long ago, and he joked that in the film of the hacking inquiry, Tom Watson will be played by Rab C Nesbitt. There might be some truth in that. Anyway, he hasn’t lost his sense of humour.”
While phone hacking turned some celebrities into victims, the affair had the opposite effect on Watson, whose interventions have made him a media star. He is an “obsessive” watcher of the Leveson Inquiry and has “quite a lot of confidence in [Lord] Leveson finding remedies to protect the integrity of a free press but also ensuring rules of behaviour that we all think are appropriate.”
This, he is certain, will involve a call for statutory regulation. “There will be a point when it comes to parliament, and I’m pretty certain that, whatever happens, there will have to be some sort of legislation. There will be unbearable pressure [not to legislate] on David Cameron in particular, and also Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband. That’s the big moment; that’s the next moment. Will they duck it or not? I honestly don’t know.”
While not wishing to “pre-empt” Leveson, he foresees “some sort of independent, arm’s-length regulations with a little bit of legislative teeth.” Like Ofcom? “Or the Advertising Standards Authority. I think it’s quite likely they’re going down that route. That’s going to be a big moment for parliament.” Despite his doubts on whether either leader will back statutory regulation, Watson has “more faith in Ed since he went to PMQs and asked for the BSkyB bid to be shelved.”
Did Watson prod him to take on Rupert Murdoch? “Well, I did prod him, but I was prodding anyone who’d listen to me.” Miliband’s willingness to challenge the media tycoon has certainly earned Watson’s esteem. “[I’m] not decrying the other people who ran against him for the leadership because I admire them and they’re friends, but I think he’s probably the only one who would have made that call. To me that was a massive moment, and I owe him a great debt of loyalty for his courage in doing that”
Few in Labour would dispute the desirability of having Tom Watson on one’s side. While he has likened James Murdoch to a mafia figure, many colleagues have also discerned a whiff of the godfather in Watson. Does he recognise that characterisation? “It’s been said for a long time. I don’t recognise it myself. I sometimes think that because I’m overweight with this Brummy twang, it’s very easy to get patronised.”
It seems fair to say that Watson, despite his jovial manner, is more likely to be feared than belittled. When his intern tweeted an ill-advised comment from his phone, speculation about whether she would be fired became so acute that a Twitter campaign (#savetheintern) was launched to preserve her job. Anxious tweeters may be relieved to know that Watson’s assistant not only kept her post but is there still.
“There was no way I was going to sack her for that. She’s very hard-working and committed, and she did something silly. There were plenty of things I did when I was her age that would have got me the sack. It was all about faux outrage. I really enjoy social media. I love the idea of serendipitous knowledge transfer, but you’ve also got to stick to your guns when these things afflict you.”
If serendipity is not generally seen as Tom Watson’s strongest suit, obduracy is another matter. While Labour’s most hardened fighter never takes victory for granted, nor does he see failure as an option.
This is an edited extract of an article originally published in the Spring edition of the Fabian Review.