Euan McColm: Why Tom Watson stands the best chance of saving the Labour Party

The Labour deputy leader has shown himself to be the sole political office holder who is genuinely willing to take a stand on anti-Semitism, writes Euan McColm
Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson is now engaged in a strategy of grinding passive aggression and Jeremy Corbyn can't do anything but take it. Photograph: PALabour's deputy leader Tom Watson is now engaged in a strategy of grinding passive aggression and Jeremy Corbyn can't do anything but take it. Photograph: PA
Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson is now engaged in a strategy of grinding passive aggression and Jeremy Corbyn can't do anything but take it. Photograph: PA

Back in the foreign country of 2005, the Labour Party was at war with itself. Prime Minister Tony Blair and those loyal to him were under relentless attack from acolytes of Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Blair had overstayed his welcome at the top of the party, said the Brownites; it was time for their man to assume power.

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Chief among those agitating on behalf of Brown was the MP for West Bromwich East, Tom Watson. A political bruiser, a man of cunning with an instinct towards the fight, Watson was loathed by the Blairites in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

In July of 2005, Watson and his fellow plotters appeared to be on the brink of success. Blair seemed beaten and weary and resigned to his fate.

And then, in quick succession, three events took place. London was announced at the host city for the 2012 Olympics, Blair appeared at the G8 summit in Perthshire and announced that £30 billion of Third World debt would be written off, and terrorists set off bombs in London, killing 52 people.

Responding to events, flanked by international counterparts, Tony Blair looked like the natural leader of the free world. The Brown plot was over and it would be a further two years before the Chancellor was to succeed his rival.

At the time, the division in Labour seemed deep and wide. The Blairites and the Brownites loathed each other and both had long since decided the ignore the collateral damage the party suffered each time one group attacked the other.

In 2019, the political division of 14 years ago stands as a perfect example of what Sigmund Freud described as the “narcissism of small differences”.

Now, as deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson is the champion of survivors on both sides of those wars.

He is, I think, doing them proud.

Watson has spent the past week elegantly undermining the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn armed only with a sense of decency and the willingness to display it.

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On the issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, Watson has provided leadership where Corbyn has failed.

When the leader of the party responded to the departure of MPs from his ranks by demanding they call by-elections in their constituencies, his deputy preferred a different approach. He spoke of his anger and sadness that MPs such as Luciana Berger had been bullied out of Labour.

Watson struck precisely the right tone.

And he continued to do so when Corbyn was found wanting on the matter of the behaviour of MP Chris Williamson.

Williamson was filmed telling a meeting of the pro-Corbyn campaign group, Momentum, that Labour had been “too apologetic” when it came to anti-Semitism.

Previously, Williamson had been asked by the party to cancel the showing of a film about Jackie Walker, an activist suspended by the party over remarks about Jews. These latest remarks marked the final straw for many MPs, a number of whom immediately called for his suspension from their party.

Instead, after the customary delay during which the damage inflicted on Labour by any given crisis is allowed to grow, the party announced that a word would be had with Williamson.

When Williamson issued a heavily caveated apology, Tom Watson trashed it. If it was within his power to achieve such an objective, Williamson would be out of the party.

Eventually, Labour announced Williamson’s suspension. The whole saga made Corbyn look weak.

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If Corbyn truly exercised a “zero tolerance” approach to anti-Semitism, he’d have been leading from the front, ensuring Williamson’s suspension.

Instead, Corbyn appeared to be reacting to the words of his deputy.

Watson, a political fighter of the old school, is not only displaying leadership, he is exposing the failings of the Corbyn project.

Unsurprisingly, the internet swirls with the sound of Corbynista anguish. The screeching fury chimps of Twitter declared Watson a traitor who should be removed from his position.

None of this was a good look for Corbyn. Watson had shown himself to be the sole political office holder in the Labour Party who was genuinely willing to take a stand on anti-Semitism. Watson might have been seen as a traitor by those still reeling from the Corbyn kool-aid but he looked like a man of principle and reflection when he appeared on television.

The departure of MPs to The Independent Group has already forced Corbyn’s hand on the question of Labour support for a second EU referendum. His reluctance is now enthusiasm.

But just as with his response to the anti-Semitism problem, Corbyn is reacting rather than leading.

Watson may yet be swept away by the Corbynista hordes but, for now, he is doing serious damage to the leadership of a man he serves. And there’s not a thing Corbyn can do.

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Corbyn can hardly complain about Watson’s determination to root out and remove anti-Semites from Labour’s ranks, can he?

When next Corbyn snaps, sighs and grumbles through an interview on a difficult subject, we should expect to see Watson give his own, starkly different in tone, response to whatever the issue may be.

Labour’s deputy leader is now engaged in a strategy of grinding passive aggression and Corbyn can’t do anything but take it.

The Jeremy Corbyn project has never been more chaotic. The leader’s pitiful failure to actually lead on the issue of anti-Semitism (as if, coming from a left tradition that includes among its adherents any number of conspiracists, he could ever have done so) is now destroying a once-great party.

Watson was once despised by those Labour members who most revered Blair. Now, they see in him a champion. He may not be able to salvage the Labour’s reputation but, if anyone in the party can do that, Watson stands the best chance of succeeding.

Every time Watson speaks frankly about the problems in the Labour party, Corbyn looks that bit more inadequate.