Tom Watson’s decision not to stand again as an MP demonstrates that Labour Party moderates have lost the battle with far-left supporters of Jeremy Corbyn for the soul of the party, writes Ayesha Hazarika.
It’s hard to imagine a Labour Party without Tom Watson because to so many of my generation, he is the Labour Party. Boy to man. Good and bad. For better, for worse.
I’ve known Tom for many years since I became a special adviser to Harriet Harman. When we first met, he was this larger than life character (literally) and chief of a tribe which was both feared and revered.
Nights out with Tom were the stuff of legend. Kick off at the Strangers bar in the Commons. Next stop, karaoke followed by Little Italy in Soho until the wee hours where his entrance resembled something out of a cliched gangster movie.
Staff would part the crowds as he and his entourage would be ushered with great ceremony to the best seats in the house where the drinks would flow. There was even a chocolate fountain once. Not that Tom would touch the stuff now. His dramatic eight stone weight loss means sugar is frowned upon. Even bananas are forbidden fruit.
But it wasn’t just his appearance which changed. The last four years have seen his character and status alter significantly. There’s a tragic irony in the fact that the day he became Deputy Leader, the job he always wanted, was when it all started to go wrong as it was also the day Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader and the rest is history.
The party he loved changed so fast and so profoundly that it mutated into a beast even he just couldn’t control, charm or tame despite being such a skilled political plotter he could given Machiavelli a run for his money.
It was a new creature where slavish loyalty to the leader was the only currency that mattered.
Resigned to his fate
He suddenly became the outsider within the party’s power structures and was punished for speaking out about Brexit and anti-semitism. The culmination of that was the attempt to abolish his role at Labour Party conference in September which although it failed, fatally wounded him.
We went out that evening and he could see that his days were numbered. He knew they were coming for him. But where the old Tom would have raged, the new much reduced Tom was resigned and incredibly calm. “What can I do now?”he asked rhetorically.
I still find it astonishing that the man who helped kebab Tony Blair and took on Rupert Murdoch became seen as an evil Blairite by the far left of the Labour Party. Time is definitely a healer because even his old Blairite foes in Progress who used to despise him (and he them), gave him a standing ovation for his efforts as a moderate – the clumsy catch all definition for anyone who disagrees with Jeremy Corbyn.
The big question is what next? Well nothing. This is kind of it for the moderates. The final nail in the coffin. And it was always going to happen. Did we really think that Corbyn and his team of ideologues were ever going to capitulate to our nostalgic fantasies of pluralism and inclusion? He won. Twice. With an increased mandate. It wasn’t an accident. It’s what the party is now. He owns it lock, stock and barrel.
Labour ran out of ideas in office
Some former special adviser friends call it an invasion but I take a slightly different view. Yes there has been a huge influx of Corbyn supporters but the core membership has always been way to the left of the leadership and have thirsted after a socialist leader for a long time (even though many privately admit that they have reservations about Corbyn’s ability as a leader but we’ll see what happens on December 12).
The Labour government did some wonderful, transformative things for this country but we ran out of steam and ideas particularly after the Iraq war. We lost our radical heart and we struggled to define ourselves as a political force. What were we for? We didn’t really know to be honest. We just wanted to stay in power.
Labour moderates have failed to understand how to compete against and defeat Corbynism. We are very skilled at criticising him and expressing moral outrage, often with very good reason, but we have failed to come up with a vision which sets out something modern, exciting, rich in values and which appeals to people.
I type these words with great sadness as I am crestfallen with what has happened to the culture and fabric of Labour Party which became my family but which I struggle to recognise. A party which is not big enough to include Tom Watson is a weird place to be.
But there is no point carrying on with the Pollyanna view that somehow the moderates will rise from the grave because we’re somehow “better than them”. As much as I admire them, Jess Phillips or Keir Starmer will not be the next leader of the Labour Party.
There is a ridiculous rumour swirling round that maybe Tom and others will start a new party because surely that can’t be it? Well it can. And it is.
Have we learned nothing? Because Change UK worked a right treat... The road back for serious moderate politics feels a long way off today especially when extreme and dangerously simplistic politics is the new retail offer from pretty much every party leader.
That’s what people want to hear and until they see for themselves that populism on the right and left won’t deliver the land of milk and honey they were promised, there’s realistically not a huge amount any of us can do. Apart from rant on social media. Or, take a leaf out of Tom’s upcoming book (Downsizing) and go do something more satisfying with our lives.
He’s off to train as as gym instructor and good luck to him. I may see if I can hire him.