Politics

‘An overfed Che Guevara’: A press portrait of Tom Watson

When Tom Watson was elected as deputy leader of the Labour Party in 2015, just a few minutes before Jeremy Corbyn got the top job, commentators reached for historical comparisons.

He was the man, thought John McTernan (formerly one of Tony Blair’s spin doctors), who could prove to be the Neil Kinnock to Corbyn’s Michael Foot. ‘Tom is a party person – he will do anything to save the party he loves,’ wrote McTernan. ‘In this, he is the perfect opposite of Corbyn, who will happily destroy the Labour Party in the furtherance of the ideology he loves.’ [1] Or alternatively, noted Andy McSmith, there was a joke doing the rounds that Watson would be the Stalin to Corbyn’s Trotsky. ‘And we know how that working relationship ended the first time.’ [2]

Born in Sheffield in 1967 – midway between the two Miliband brothers – Tom Watson was the son of a social worker, who had formerly been a milkman. He went to Hull University, where, in the words of The Times, he used ‘the rugby club to seize control of the student union’, and was elected president of the university’s NUS in 1992. [3]

At the time, he was keen to stress that he was no extremist. ‘Student unions seem to be the ideological bugbear of the Conservative Party,’ he told the press. ‘But their perception of what we do does not dovetail with reality. This is not some hot-bed of revolutionary socialism.’ [4] He did, however, write the foreword to Howard Fuller’s Bottoms Up, a guide to the best pubs in Hull, published in 1993.

He went on to be the chair of National Organisation of Labour Students, in which capacity he campaigned for Tony Blair’s change to Clause IV of the party constitution, ensuring that the youth vote broke four to one in favour of the new wording. The experience of that operation meant that he was seen as one of the movement’s fixers, and he was recruited as a deputy co-ordinator of the 1997 general election campaign.

By that stage he had become political officer to the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU, now part of Unite), which he had joined as a member at the age of sixteen.

The two roles, working for the union movement and helping the party, sometimes came into conflict. In particular, there was the episode in 1997 when the AEEU reduced its donation to the Labour Party by quarter of a million pounds ‘in protest at middle- class domination of the party’. [5] Among their complaints was the way that middle-class candidates were allegedly parachuted into safe seats at the expense of union-backed hopefuls. The following year, the union threatened to reduce its donation again, this time by a million pounds, and the party rushed to reassure that ‘unions could still choose their own people, provided they stuck to the rules and their selection was approved by the national executive’. [6] The objection was not to the policy direction of New Labour – with which the AEEU broadly agreed – simply to the downplaying of the unions, and therefore of the working class, in the party machine.

Watson himself was similarly a stout defender of the link between the unions and the Labour Party. When, in 2001, actor Tony Robinson (recently elected to the party’s national executive committee) called for changes so that unions could no longer ‘dictate policy with large cash donations’, Watson thundered against such talk: ‘Tony Robinson’s comments are not only deeply disappointing but offensive to the thousands of trade unionists who spend countless hours working for Labour.’ And he wrote to all the constituency parties asking them not to vote for Robinson in the next NEC elections. [7]

On a c.v. much of this might look typical of the new generation of Labour politicians: the student union background, the role of trade union adviser, the behind-the-scenes party worker. Despite the orthodox credentials, however, Watson didn’t look as smooth and sleek as most of his contemporaries. And he wasn’t averse to employing much more overtly class-conscious rhetoric.

During Tony Blair’s first term he had the wit to see – earlier than many others – that a sharp decline in voter turnout needed addressing. Together with Mark Tami, another official at the AEEU who was also to be elected in 2001, he wrote a Fabian Society pamphlet calling for the introduction of compulsory voting. It was hardly an original proposal, but it was noteworthy because there was something about the tone that didn’t fit with the bland vocabulary of New Labour.

‘When the British electorate speaks, we only hear upper and middle class accents,’ said Watson plugging the pamphlet. ‘Compulsory voting would challenge the elite and give real power to working people.’ [8] This, it’s worth remembering, was at a time when Labour had 418 MPs; it wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of the party.

There was also a note of slightly aggressive sneering as Watson and Tami dismissed the idea that, were the policy to be introduced, there might be protests: ‘Some retired colonel from Hampshire would be bound to make a stand against what he saw as the intrusion of the state,’ they mocked, ‘and no doubt the BBC would film him wearing all his medals whilst he ripped up his polling card.’ [9]

In March 2001 he was selected for the safe, if oxymoronic, seat of West Bromwich East, succeeding Peter Snape (Baron Snape of Wednesbury, as we call him now), who had been the Labour MP there since 1974. He was elected with a very comfortable majority in Blair’s second landslide victory.

He made an early name for himself in the press by his willingness to give an opinion on attention-grabbing, if easy, issues. In 2001, for example, it was reported that Gary Glitter – recently released from jail, following his conviction for possession of child pornography – had recorded a new album. Watson thundered into action. ‘It is disgraceful that this convicted paedophile should be allowed to peddle his wares,’ he told the media. ‘Obviously, young children are the biggest buyers of pop music and they are bound to come into contact with this new recording.’ [10] He wanted David Blunkett, the home secretary, to ban the record, and also called for the website of Glitter’s official fan club to be closed down.

It was, of course, silly grandstanding. Glitter had served his time, and the idea of preventing him from resuming his life was an insult to justice. Anyway, a man of Watson’s age – and with his love of music – should have known better than to claim that Glitter’s thirty-year-old records were now aimed at ‘young children’. But it got him in the papers and it established him as a rent-a-quote politician.

He kept himself busy in those early parliamentary years commenting on a wide range of such stories: demanding that Margaret Thatcher’s statue shouldn’t be placed in the Commons lobby, that foxhunting should be banned, and that Prince Charles should buy British cars. Nor was he afraid to talk about immigration from a decidedly non-liberal position: ‘It is clear that some form of ID or entitlement card could make a big difference in tackling the illegal immigration which is causing us such big problems.’ [11]

Meanwhile he was keeping his political nose clean. Most importantly he ‘stayed loyal to Mr Blair despite misgivings over war’. [12] Indeed, he cast his support for Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq purely in terms of party loyalty: ‘Voting against the government harms it and harms the party,’ he declared. [13]

The one issue that did cause him, as a former NUS officer, to speak out was the introduction of student fees, which he described as ‘elitist and divisive’ [14], insisting that: ‘Students should be judged on the contents of their minds and not their pockets.’ [15]

And still his organizational talents were being used. He ran the by-election campaign in Birmingham Hodge Hill in 2004, won by Liam Byrne, though he did attract some controversy for a leaflet proclaiming: ‘Labour is on your side, the Lib Dems are on the side of failed asylum seekers.’ [16]

In 2004, his loyalty was rewarded with his first government job in the whips’ office, before becoming a junior defence minister. In the latter capacity his best-known achievement was the populist cause of granting a blanket pardon to all the soldiers shot for cowardice in the First World War.

In Parliament, he had gravitated towards the Brownite side of the party (Gordon Brown’s camp did tend to attract the heavier-set male MP). In September 2006, he broke his loyalty to the leader, signing a round-robin letter calling on Blair to resign. He followed that by resigning from the government, writing to Blair to explain why: ‘It is with the greatest sadness that I have to say that I no longer believe that your remaining in office is in the interest of either the party or the country.’ [17] Others followed his lead.

Dubbed the Curry House Coup – because it was said to have been organized by Watson at the Bilash restaurant in Wolverhampton – the campaign of letter-writing and resignations was sufficient to force Blair’s hand, and he announced that he would indeed step down the following May.

artwork-tom-watson2

Tom Watson (artwork by Alwyn Turner)

Watson was rewarded by being brought back into government under Brown’s premiership, this time serving as minister for digital engagement. It was a job that fed into his fascination with technology: he was said to be a keen gamer and was already known as ‘Britain’s first blogging MP’. [18]

He was not always sure-footed in this new world, though. One post on his blog in 2003 included a plea for young people to get in touch: ‘Tom’s well up on the interwebnet, and he won’t harsh your buzz or dis you down the line.’ [19] It was intended as a parody of how appalling politicians sound when trying to connect with youth, but it was reported as though it were genuine, and it made him look a fool. Later, he caused some offence when he uploaded to YouTube a video he’d filmed of fellow MP Sion Simon’s impersonation of David Cameron, ‘offering to give away his children, and inviting voters to sleep with his wife’. [20] After complaints, the video was taken down, and Watson apologised for its lack of taste.

But despite the missteps, he was serious about the power of the internet. Complaining in 2009 about criticism in the Guardian of Gordon Brown’s premiership, he looked forward to the day when the power of the print media was broken; such attacks ‘will have less significance when our elected representatives can make their case using their own publishing platform, be it blogs, message boards or even Twitter.’ [21] On a slightly less elevated – even nannying – note, he also saw ‘the internet as an effective vehicle for the government to give advice – using NetMums, for example, to suggest the right vitamins for the under-fives.’ [22]

He was caught up in the expenses scandal, not because he had broken any rules, but because his claim sheets contained one of those delightful details that stuck in the public mind: the inclusion on a Marks & Spencer receipt for a pizza wheel. It was, as he patiently explained, a gift from the retailer for having spent so much in the shop (he claimed the maximum food allowance as an MP), but no one wanted to hear any justifications at that point.

He was also – wrongly – named in the Damian McBride scandal in 2009, and the experience convinced him that he and his family had taken enough. He left the government for a second time, on this occasion in weariness rather than in protest.

Returning to the backbenches, he took the opportunity to experiment with a new image, growing a beard and wearing a raspberry beret. It might have been this look that he had in mind the following year when he boasted of the sex appeal of the people’s party. ‘British politics is no longer showbiz for ugly people,’ he claimed. ‘We have genuinely attractive-in-every-way superstars in the Parliamentary Labour Party now.’ [23] Not everyone was impressed with his sense of style, though. ‘He looks like an overfed Che Guevara,’ remarked one of his colleagues. [24]

More plausibly he used his time out of office to call for constitutional changes , for ‘an elected House of Lords, weekend voting and devolution of power’, as well as for the replacement of first-past-the-post by the alternative vote system. The latter was a belated conversion; he acknowledged that his campaign, while at the AEEU, to retain first-past-the-post had contributed to ‘proposals for electoral reform being held up for a decade’. [25] Had his new-found enthusiasm for AV been shared by the electorate in the 2011 referendum, he personally would have survived quite happily: of the four times he has contested his constituency, he has slipped below 50 per cent of the vote just once, in 2010.

He helped run Ed Miliband’s successful campaign to become leader after the election defeat in 2010, and spent a couple of years as deputy chair of the party. That came to an end in 2013 with yet another scandal: the squabble over the selection of a candidate for the Falkirk constituency. Allegations were made that Unite the Union had packed the constituency party with new members in order to secure the nomination of their own candidate, Karie Murphy. No one suggested that Watson himself had done anything reprehensible, but his name could hardly avoid being mentioned: Murphy was his office manager, and Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, was his former flatmate. It was an unfortunate coincidence, and Watson duly resigned his post again.

It seemed appropriate somehow that the problem was the relationship between party and unions, the same issue that, fifteen years earlier, had caused the AEEU to threaten withdrawal of its donations to the Labour Party. And in a further twist, Miliband ordered an investigation into that relationship, following on from Falkirk; one of the resultant changes was the scheme to allow people who paid a nominal three-pound subscription to vote in leadership and deputy leadership elections, a decision that many later blamed for elevating Jeremy Corbyn.

On the backbenches once more, Watson again took the opportunity to consider his image. ‘The truth is that Tom is a celebrity in his own right now,’ a friend told The Times. ‘He wants to go on TV, and there’s talk about making a movie.’ [26] Sadly, the film never happened.

To the public, however, Watson was becoming increasingly well-known, mostly in connection with two campaigns. The first was his relentless assault on the tabloid press and on News International in particular. He co-wrote the book Dial M for Murdoch in 2011 with Independent journalist Martin Hickman, and he clearly relished having Rupert and James Murdoch in front of the Commons’ culture, media and sport committee the same year. ‘You must be the first Mafia boss in history who did not know he was running a criminal enterprise,’ he taunted the younger Murdoch. [27]

That campaign inevitably resulted in attacks on him from some quarters of the media, and his second cause also proved controversial. Continuing with the anti-paedophile line that had served him so well in his early days at Westminster, he began to talk about the existence of ‘a powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and Number 10’. [28] Much of the continuing saga of ‘historic child abuse’ stems from his initiative.

There were some, though, who felt that he went too far, and certainly his pursuit of Leon Brittan (Baron Brittan of Spennithorne, as he had become) attracted some hostile comment. A woman had claimed that the future Tory home secretary had raped her in 1967, and it was alleged that now ‘Watson leant on the Crown Prosecution Service and the police felt they had to reopen the case’. [29] Brittan died in January 2015, without the police having told him that they’d dropped the investigation, but Watson seemed reluctant to let go: the rape allegation might have been discredited, but he insisted that there were still accusations of ‘multiple child rape’ to be considered. And he quoted an alleged victim as saying that Brittan had been ‘as close to evil as a human being could get’.[30] No evidence to support this has yet been forthcoming.

After the catastrophic 2015 election defeat, Watson was the first to declare himself as candidate for the deputy leadership. He didn’t win with quite the same overwhelming vote that took Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership, but it was still a pretty impressive performance; he led through the first two rounds of voting, and defeated Stella Creasy and Caroline Flint on the third. (This made him, oddly, the third Hull University student to become deputy leader of the party, following on from Baron Hattersley of Sparkbrook and Baron Prescott of Kingston upon Hull.)

His appeal, after the years of smooth young men and women, was largely that he didn’t fit the New Labour model, that he still spoke the language of class, as he had throughout his career. There was no suggestion that he was interested in the suburban vote so assiduously chased in the days of Blair and roses. His explanation of the 2015 election defeat, for example, was characteristic of the man: ‘We didn’t sufficiently convince people that we were the party of working people, as we historically have been.’ [31]

Watson is a curious figure in modern politics, a collection of contradictions that suggests a more rounded personality than that of many other MPs. The slightly thuggish image seems indebted to the old-fashioned union fixer, but his commitments to technology and indie bands are strictly modern. There’s an attachment to his allotment, and yet a love of gaming; a reputation as a machine politician, and yet a vein of sentimentality. There’s also a surprisingly likeable side to his public persona. And there are even, on occasion, some one-liners that Denis Healey would have been proud to call his own. Asked in September 2015 if the advent of Corbyn would prompt Labour MPs to defect to the Lib Dems, he laughed the idea off: ‘That would be like leaving the Beatles to join a Bananarama tribute band.’ [32]

The contradictions are apparent in the press coverage. He was described by John McTernan as ‘Gordon Brown’s ninja assassin’ [33], and by Michael White as ‘a genial, roly-poly former student activist’. [34] He is ‘extrovert and popular,’ according to the Independent,[35] or ‘a ruthless political hardman and key ally of the PM [Gordon Brown],’ according to the Sun[36]

On Sunday this week, as a series of resignations from the shadow cabinet began the attempt to destroy Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (echoing the Curry House Coup of 2006), Watson was for once not on hand, neither plotting nor crushing. Instead, he was at Glastonbury, drinking cider and watching Adele. Coincidentally, he had been at the same festival when he left office in 2013. On that occasion his resignation letter ended with these words, addressed to Ed Miliband:

John Humphrys asked me why you were not at Glastonbury this weekend. I said Labour leaders can’t be seen standing in muddy fields listening to bands. And then I thought how terribly sad that this is true. So: be that great Labour leader that you can be, but try to have a real life too. And if you want to see an awesome band, I recommend Drenge. [37]

artwork-tom-watson

Tom Watson (artwork by Alwyn Turner)


As with all the portraits in this series, this piece is drawn almost entirely from contemporary newspaper accounts. It is liable, therefore, to be wildly inaccurate.


ALSO AVAILABLE:


[1] Independent 10 August 2015

[2] Independent 29 August 2015

[3] Times 5 July 2013

[4] Independent 15 July 1993

[5] Independent 6 September 1997

[6] Independent on Sunday 6 September 1998

[7] Western Daily Press 27 February 2001

[8] Express 30 May 2000

[9] Independent 2 November 2000

[10] Sunday Telegraph 14 October 2001

[11] Evening Mail 3 July 2002

[12] Times 10 April 2003

[13] Birmingham Post, 11 June 2003

[14] Birmingham Post 23 January 2003

[15] Daily Mirror 15 November 2002

[16] Guardian 3 June 2009

[17] Financial Times 6 September 2006

[18] Independent 7 September 2006

[19] Guardian 11 April 2003

[20] Scotland on Sunday 22 October 2006

[21] Guardian 11 June 2009

[22] Financial Times 1 April 2008

[23] Western Daily Press 25 November 2010

[24] Daily Telegraph 1 October 2009

[25] Guardian 11 June 2009

[26] Times 5 July 2013

[27] Western Daily Press 14 November 2011

[28] Daily Mirror 25 October 2012

[29] Times 14 October 2015

[30] Sunday Mirror 25 January 2015

[31] Times 13 June 2015

[32] Sunday Times 27 September 2015

[33] Independent 10 August 2015

[34] Guardian 3 June 2009

[35] Independent 7 September 2006

[36] Sun 14 April 2009

[37] Independent 4 July 2013

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4 thoughts on “‘An overfed Che Guevara’: A press portrait of Tom Watson

  1. Great piece as always. However, I’d like to point out an error: Watson didn’t run Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign. In fact, he supported Ed Balls (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-10559453 – see near the bottom of this page). He did still help Ed Miliband win, though, according to this article in the Independent from September (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/tom-watson-profile-labours-new-deputy-leader-10497145.html):
    “During the leadership campaign that followed Labour’s defeat, he [Watson] moved into action to persuade fellow supporters of Ed Balls, who came third, to cast their second preference votes for the younger of the Milibands. The outcome was so close that those six MPs were enough to clinch it for Ed against his brother David.”
    According to this article (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/nov/23/tom-watson-manipulation-accusation-ivan-lewis-labour-leadership), “Blair supporters also believe that Watson worked to turn trade unions against David Miliband who won the MPs and constituency party sections of the 2010 leadership contest.”
    By the way, this Wikipedia article breaks down how each Labour MP voted in the 2010 leadership election: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labour_Party_(UK)_leadership_election,_2010

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  2. Pingback: ‘Very good with the bat’: a press portrait of Angela Eagle | Lion & Unicorn

  3. Pingback: A long month in politics | Lion & Unicorn

  4. Pingback: Labour leadership elections: Part 3 | Lion & Unicorn

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