Tom Watson has made it clear that he will stop at nothing to remove Corbyn and it's about time the left stands up to him, argues Sean Ledwith
When the current Labour Deputy Leader was appointed to Blair’s cabinet as defence minister in 2006, colleagues say he boned up on strategy by reading The Art of War by the legendary Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu. Dating back to the 6th century BC, this famous military manual contains such guidance for aspiring generals as ‘All warfare is based on deception’ and ‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting’.
Watson’s tenure as the party’s second most powerful figure in the Corbyn era would suggest that he has taken on board Sun Tzu’s dictums. His record shows he has applied them ruthlessly to the project to which he dedicates the whole of his energy; trying to undermine and remove the most left-wing leader Labour has ever had.
In doing so, Watson has become a de facto fifth column for the British establishment that is petrified at the prospect of decades of inequality at home and servility to the US abroad being reversed. The sight of his bespectacled and enigmatic visage sat impassively next to Corbyn in the House of Commons has attracted entirely justified comparisons with Iago’s insidious role in bringing down his boss in Shakespeare’s Othello.
In 2015, when Corbyn became leader, Watson was clearly astonished that the anti-war and anti-austerity mood and movements that had evolved under Labour and Conservative governments could mobilise sufficient support to install a left-wing leader. He would have preferred to serve one of Corbyn’s humiliated rivals for the leadership such as Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham.
Ever since that blow to the Blairites, Watson has been guarding the flame for the pro-market, Westminster bubble politics of the Blair-Brown years. In his three years as Deputy Leader, he has done everything in his power to defend the pro-Trident, pro-Nato and pro-Remain consensus of the political establishment.
Any doubt about his role should have been dispelled earlier this year when he collaborated with the Prince of the Blairite Darkness himself, Peter Mandelson, in setting up a party-within-the party grouping known as Future Britain, clearly designed to take on and ultimately unseat Corbyn and his team.
Watson goes too far
Watson’s efforts to exploit the political storm whipped up by last week’s Panorama programme suggest the arch manipulator might have neglected Sun Tzu’s warnings about the importance of an army not over-stretching itself while on a campaign. Watson jumped on board the programme’s cynical agenda of trying to distract from the Tory implosion over Brexit by throwing more petrol on Labour’s antisemitism row. Ignoring the one-sided and tendentious allegations contained in the programme, Watson launched a spiteful attack on party general secretary, Jennie Formby, accusing her of holding back on information to an Equality and Human Rights Investigation into the issue.
Formby rightly responded to Watson’s charge in vigorous terms, denouncing him for ‘traducing’ her character while she is on sick leave in order to receive chemotherapy for breast cancer. Watson’s blunder in this case has embarrassed even his allies in the party as it is an obvious act of hypocrisy from a man who in the past has accused his opponents on the left of disregarding the personal circumstances of female politicians. Earlier this year, Watson supported Wavertree MP Luciana Berger against attempts by her Constituency Labour Party to de-select her for opening touting the possibility of a split from the party.
Worst day in Labour history?
Watson suggested Berger’s critics were ignoring her status as a pregnant mother and inflicting psychological stress on her. Watson’s comments during that episode turned out to be farcically ill-timed as Berger’s subsequent defection to the Independent Group proved she was plotting against her party. That did not stop him still supporting Berger after she jumped ship as he released a message on the same day calling it the "worst day of shame in Labour’s 120-year history." Worse, apparently, than the day the Blair government voted to unleash hell on Iraq and up-end the Middle East in 2003!
At last weekend's Durham Miners Gala, Unite leader Len McCluskey denounced Watson’s posturing:
I have a simple message for Tom Watson and his pals in the media - a simple message to Tom and his pals: You should fucking well be ashamed of yourselves. Jennie, our message to you is that the Durham Miners' Gala stands with you.
Tom the Knife
The Unite leader is familiar with Watson’s modus operandi from 2017 when the latter tried to thwart McCluskey’s re-election as the union’s general secretary. The leader of Britain’s biggest trade union denounced Watson for operating in "a world of skulduggery smears and plots…When Labour has needed loyalty he has been sharpening his knife looking for a back to stab". Watson deployed one of his usual red-baiting tropes in that skirmish by accusing McCluskey of conspiring with Momentum to facilitate a left-wing takeover of Unite. Thankfully McCluskey is not alone on the Labour left in calling out Watson and there are now calls from shadow frontbenchers such as Diane Abbott and Richard Burgon for the Deputy Leader to step down.
In the past, Watson has been more careful. In 2016, as the right’s ‘chicken coup’ against Corbyn failed, Watson sought sanctuary in the silent disco at Glastonbury to avoid suspicion. Again, it was probably the words of his ancient Chinese mentor that inspired this cunning manoeuvre: "Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate."
His clear support for the splitters of the Independent Group in February and his obvious enthusiasm for last week’s Panorama hatchet job have exposed Watson’s role to a very wide public. It is absolutely clear now that he is dedicated to sabotaging the elected leader of the Labour Party and his project, and that he will pursue this aim whatever the damage to Labour’s fortunes. This is in itself an important lesson.
Labour’s right understand they are involved in an elemental struggle over the party’s direction, and they act on that knowledge. The left needs to be equally clear and focussed. It doesn’t need Watson’s cloak and dagger methods. The left is promoting a programme with overwhelming support amongst the members and the only one which has a chance of generating popular enthusiasm for a Labour government. But it does need to be honest with itself and to be bold and decisive.
Compromise with the right after the recent levels of attack would be a sign of weakness and only encourage further assaults in the future. The right has lost the argument, now they need to accept defeat. To make this happen the left needs to mobilise against them. There could be no clearer sign of intent than a campaign to force Tom Watson out.