Saturday 23rd April 2016
Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, tells Marcus Papadopoulos what his party needs to do to win the next general election and the importance of conveying to middle England Labour’s entrepreneurial credentials
The result of the Labour Party leadership election last year stands as one of the greatest surprises in modern British political history. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader stunned politicians and journalists, alike, least of all the Parliamentary Labour Party, which overwhelmingly voted for the other candidates. And eight months on from that election, Mr Corbyn has defied both those inside and outside of his party who said that he would only last a few months in the job.
However, anyone involved in politics knows that the standing and durability of a leader has much to do with the people around him or her. In the case of Jeremy Corbyn, that person is Tom Watson.
Tom, a stalwart Labour person, and someone who is known and respected at parliament for his exceptionally strong work ethic, is determined to ensure that his party is united and ready to hold the Conservative Government of David Cameron to account and to scrutinise every move it makes.
Candid, well-read and full of energy and dynamism, Tom is ready for the task ahead of him in reconnecting his party not only to traditional Labour voters who have since ditched the party, but also to sections of the electorate which are key to any party wanting to form the government, especially middle England. That is a daunting task for a politician and one that could intimidate many at Westminster, but not Tom.
In this exclusive interview, Tom tells us how he became interested in politics, what his political principles are, how he finds working closely alongside Jeremy Corbyn, how Labour needs to improve in holding to account the Conservative Government and what the party must do to reconnect with lost voters.
Q When and how did your interest in politics begin?
A My first ever political activity was for Harold Wilson, as a seven year old, collecting polling numbers in the February 1974 general election. My mum sat me next to the Conservative and Liberal polling agents who were very kind and kept an eye on me whilst she ran a committee room. It was a kinder age back then.
My love for the Labour party really began in 1979, when I was the candidate in my school’s mock general election. The Labour agent, Jack Fleming, a lovely man, let me print a manifesto on the local party’s Gestetner printing machine. From then on, I was hooked.
Q Do you come from a Labour-supporting family?
A Labour politics has been in my family for generations, though not exclusively. My grandma was a communist for most of her life until she joined Labour under Tony Blair. My granddad was a self-employed mechanic and joined the local Conservative club so he could play snooker.
Nearly every one of my cousins, uncles and aunties are Labour members. And they all know what has to be done to win the next election. It is a pity, however, that none of them agree with each other on the specifics of that!
Q What have always been your defining political principles?
A It is hard to answer that question without sounding a bit pompous or slightly trite. I have always believed that we need to work together to ensure that the benefits of living in a wealthy country are shared more equally, and I think that most people want to live in a kinder, gentler country. For me, the Labour Party has always been the best vehicle to achieve that.
Q Aside from politics, what are your other interests in life?
A I am fighting a losing battle with my diary to find the time to play and review video games. I still take in the odd football match, if I can finish work on time on a Saturday. This year’s cultural pursuit is limited to trying to read a poem every day. Ten minutes a day with a poet gets you through tough times.
Q Returning to politics, how is your working and personal relationship with Jeremy Corbyn?
A It is very strong. Despite the odd political disagreement here and there with Jeremy, we have never had a cross word with each other. He is genial, kind and funny. I enjoy his non-conformism. A life time swimming against the tide builds character and I admire this in Jeremy. When David Cameron told him at PMQs recently to buy a suit, I suggested he turn up to the next PMQs in full Bullingdon club regalia. I like Jeremy’s family very much and he has been very kind to mine.
Q As deputy leader of the Labour Party, what are your aims and objectives?
A This year, I have read every biography of Harold Wilson and I have had the privilege of speaking to many of the people who worked with him. They all agree that his number one concern in 2016 would be to hold the Labour party together in turbulent times. So I am taking my lead from Harold. Unity is strength.
Q In your opinion, how is Labour doing in holding the Conservative Government to account?
A It is hard to get a coherent critique of the government through the white noise of their internal disagreements and leadership speculation. Frankly speaking, the same is true for us. George Osborne has failed to turn the economy around and missed so many of his own politically motivated economic targets that he should be clinging on to office by his fingertips. So we have to sharpen our game in this area. Message, discipline, meticulous research and rigorous scrutiny will expose Tory failure, even if there is not an appetite for it in many of the big newspapers.
Q What is Labour’s strategy for middle England?
A That is a very broad question. However, we have to be the party that provides opportunity to self-improvement and this means valuing aspiration and entrepreneurial flair. People who have a good crack and make a bob or two in life need to know that we are on their side.
Q Finally, any predictions for this May’s elections?
A Even in February 1974 I learnt that calling the outcome of elections was a mug’s game. After all, who knows what the future holds?