Tom Watson’s departure could usher in a new era for Labour – but a swift victory is unlikely
Editorial: One day, a hopeful figure will at last re-learn the lessons of the past and drag the party back to the centre, listen to the electorate, and take the battle to the Conservatives
“I hope the horseradish plants I gave you thrive”. As political valedictories go, Jeremy Corbyn’s to his retiring deputy, Tom Watson, is something of a collector’s piece. Unless it is some sort of deep code, it speaks to a certain warmth in their relationship, but a warmth that perhaps wasn’t always there, or felt on both sides. While there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Mr Watson’s explanation that his decision was based on personal considerations, life at the top of today’s Labour Party means that the personal can become deeply political, and vice versa. The timing, coming on the day of two major speeches by Mr Corbyn and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, cannot have been a coincidence. Mr Watson says he will be campaigning for Labour as deputy leader until polling day on 12 December, and indeed, beyond.
More than most of those surrounding him, Mr Watson delivered outstanding service to his party, trying to keep it rooted in reality and, above all, defending Jewish people against the horrors of Labour’s antisemitic tendency. Mr Watson could be forgiven for feeling frustrated at the lack of progress the party has made, and experiencing some shame that it has ended up being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. He may also be disappointed that his campaigns against child abuse, press intrusion and the sugar industry had such mixed results.
There is a sense, too, of an era passing. Mr Watson, active in Labour politics for three decades, was a product and a representative of a certain strand in the Labour Party – the sensible people. There is no such thing as “Watsonism”, but if there were, it would be about a social democratic outlook, rather than a Blairite one, a stance strongly informed by the best values of the trade union movement.
Mr Watson was, for most of his career, something of a fixer, and a classic machine politician. When he and his ilk lost control of the machine to the Corbynistas and Momentum, however, it was only a matter of time before the capitulation arrived – for Mr Watson as much as what he symbolises. After all, he barely escaped defenestration on the first day of the last Labour conference.
How far the Labour centre recovers its composure and its strength depends on how this election goes. The Conservatives’ substantial lead is vulnerable to erosion, given the chaotic nature of their campaign. The Brexit debate, the intervention of the Brexit Party and the revived Liberal Democrat presence are complicating factors, increasing the likelihood of a hung parliament. What seems less probable is a Labour government enjoying a healthy majority to push its plans through.
If Labour does manage to make some progress, and even form a minority government, then the radical Corbynites will be restrained by the parliamentary arithmetic – just as the Conservatives have been in recent years. Many voters might view such an outcome with equanimity. In any case, that would forcibly push a Labour administration towards a more centrist position on many issues, working on a much more modest programme that would not be immediately voted down in the Commons.
Some, such as the former Labour MP Ian Austin, who now urges his voters to back the Conservatives, however, hope for a decisive defeat for Corbynism as a price worth paying to rebuild their party. Some also privately voiced such an opinion in 2017, but Theresa May’s lacklustre campaign and Mr Corbyn’s surprisingly adept one put paid to that speculation. The largest swing to Labour since 1945 was recorded, though they still lost. A more emphatic rejection by the electorate looks more on the cards this time, in which case there will be no excuses left for the Corbynistas.
Defeat will mean they leave the “many” they purport to represent to the mercy of the Johnsons and the Dominic Raabs and the Rees-Moggs. By the time of the election after this one, in 2024, Britain will have been ruled by Conservative prime ministers leading Conservative or Conservative-dominated governments for a total of 14 years. For many, the election of a Labour government will arrive too late to save their lives from being blighted.
If history is any guide, Labour is destined for a protracted recovery, and possibly one that will take two parliamentary terms to work through. Some hybrid left/centrist figure will be first elected, analogous to Neil Kinnock in the 1980s, who will bring about the heavy work of policy and organisation reform. After that will come some more progressive modernisers, along the lines of the late John Smith, as well as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who will at last re-learn the lessons of the past, and make it their goal to drag the party back to the centre, listen to the electorate, and take the battle to the Conservatives. By the time all of that happens, Mr Corbyn as well as Mr Watson will have become historical curiosities. They will be lucky if their party manages to avoid that same fate.