July 09, 2019
Labour’s centrists seem to think attacking Jeremy Corbyn, rather than attacking austerity, is the key to electoral success
If Tom Watson had guts, he would quit Labour. Instead he is weakening the party | Dawn Foster
Each Sunday, without fail, I attend mass then catch up on the tedious handwringing of Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour party and a lifelong professional wrecker, who has made it his official duty to complain weekly to the Sunday papers, without suggesting any concrete proposals for how to bring the party forward.
Last weekend, he was rending his garments at the fact that former Labour members have released confidential material to the media, despite signing legal agreements not to do so: this is the same Watson who campaigned against hacking victims having emails and other data illegally intercepted. The deputy leader is also calling on members to sign an ill-defined pledge that would change very little in terms of Labour’s position on Brexit.
Neither of those stances are designed to do anything other than undermine the party leadership. Watson’s wing of the party is convinced there is a huge untapped reserve of voters who share their precise politics, but exactly where these voters live remains to be seen. I travel extensively around the country, and the only time I meet these people are in TV and radio studios. The electoral failure of the Independent Group/Change UK (or whatever the handful of remaining ex-Labour and Tory MPs now call themselves) should be a warning to the Labour right, but their self-confidence is far greater than their analytical ability.
All the MPs who make a living by constantly attacking the leadership and promoting themselves over the party, Watson included, abstained in the fateful Tory welfare reform vote in 2015 that sparked a huge surge of support for Corbyn. The centrist “austerity-lite” platform of the former leader Ed Miliband was roundly rejected by the party membership.
The Liberal Democrats have been buoyed by a protest vote in the always volatile European parliamentary elections, but both their leadership candidates, Jo Swinson and Ed Davey, served under the Conservatives in the coalition government.
In 1911 in Prague, the writer Jaroslav Hašek formed the satirical group The Party of Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of the Law, mocking the overtly accommodating tendencies of the Czech Social Democrats. Centrists might balk at Hašek’s manifesto promises, including mandatory alcoholism and the institutionalisation of feeble-minded MPs, but the tendency he mocked remains: proposing political reform, but ever so slowly; refusing to grapple with the speed with which the world is changing, or the fact the economy has for four decades been working for few but the wealthiest.
Centrist thinking is focused on two false premises. The first is that the 2012 London Olympic ceremony represented an idyllic high-point of culture and unity in the UK, rather than occurring amid the brutal onslaught of austerity, with food bank use growing and the bedroom tax ruining lives. The second is that the UK became divided by Brexit and the 2016 vote, rather than it being a symptom of long-term problems: the decline of industry and the public sector begun by Margaret Thatcher and continued by Tony Blair and David Cameron; vast inequality of opportunity, wealth and health; and the number of people being routinely ignored in a system with a huge democratic and electoral deficit.
The 2017 manifesto helped Labour to increase its vote share because it addressed so many of the problems faced by people and communities across the country. Labour won more seats, in spite of people like Tom Watson and his ideological bedfellows. Many centrist Labour MPs desperately wanted the party to lose heavily so they could depose Jeremy Corbyn. They still do. A Labour government with Corbyn in charge is less preferable to them than an indefinite Tory government.
If Tom Watson – the MP who said he “lost sleep” after Phil Woolas was found guilty of lying in racially inflammatory leaflets and stripped of his seat – had guts, he would quit the party and try to prove that his ideas have electoral traction. Yet, as he has probably discovered, it is hard to come up with bold and original ideas that benefit the electorate and prove popular with voters: it is far easier to stay in a party, wrecking it week by week, hoping to terminally undermine the leader and then inherit the ruins.
But the end result of Watson et al’s constant attacks will not be electoral success under another Labour leader, but a Tory victory. And the people who need a Labour government to change their lives and communities are unlikely to forgive people like him.
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