Getting to know the Deputy Leadership candidates: Tom Watson

I found that deciding who I was going to vote for as the next leader of the Labour Party was relatively easy; all of the candidates are prominent within the party, and they’re household names to those who follow politics. On the other hand, I found the decision for who I wanted as Deputy Leader to be a little more challenging. Out of the five candidates on the ballot, I have to admit that I was that familiar with many of them, and with ballot papers being sent out next month, I realised that I would have to do my research quickly.

One of the names I had heard mentioned a number of times was Tom Watson, MP for West Bromwich East, and current Deputy Chair of the party. He recently held a web conference for members of Young Labour to voice their opinions and listen to what he would do if he were elected Deputy Leader. The following part of this article is a transcript of that conference (I’ve only edited it slightly, just so that it looks better on the blog, but none of the points discussed have been manipulated in any way):

Deputy Leadership candidate, Tom Watson


Hello, how are you all doing? Thanks for coming in on this, I’ve got some very clear ideas on how to bring the party closer together. I want members and young members to be close to the leadership of the party and this is one bit of technology that I think we can use to do that. What I’m hoping to do today is talk for five or ten minutes to tell you about what I’m looking for from the Deputy Leadership race. Then I’ll answer some questions on policy issues and then do ten minutes of questions on organsation. Firstly, why am I in this race and what am I trying to do?

I’m a big fan of Harold Wilson, and Harold Wilson had a very close leadership – he thought that a leader of a party needed to know what was going on in the country. In a book he wrote called the Governance of Britain, he told a story about how on a Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoon in the Commons, he would have an open door policy so that any MP of any party could pop in and tell him what was going on in their constituency. Those of you who have been in the Labour Party for a little while will know that that’s a million light years away from modern politics, and I want to try and bring our membership closer together. One of the technological things we’ve got is the ability to cross geography and bring communities of interest together, be it young members like we’re talking about today or our coastal towns or communities of interest such as people who are interested in sports or the arts.That’s why we’re trying out this technology today – to see how it works and to see how interactive it is, because I want members to feel that they’re part of a movement and part of something bigger than themselves.

What am I trying to do with the Deputy Leadership? Well I think we need to change some of the things we do to get us ready for the 2020 election. Whoever you choose as your leader is going to have to cast a new vision for the country in 2020 and reconnect with those millions of voters we’ve lost over successive general elections. I think that the Deputy Leadership’s job is to help realise that vision and that means we’ve got to change the way we do things.

Firstly I would like us to focus much more on the community in the first half of this parliament before we move into the Westminster general election campaign. Secondly, I think we need a digital revolution. It’s not just about bringing people together with technology like this; we’ve got 50,000 new members of the Labour Party that have joined since polling day and I want to feel that they can be on a journey with us in the build up to the 2020 Westminster election. However, so far I suspect that many of them are hardly being welcomed into the party or engaged. I would love to get a text message off Labour HQ when a new member joins so that I can ring them up within the hour of them joining and welcome them to the party. Thirdly, I want a more inclusive party. I want the barriers to participation in the Labour Party to be knocked down. We’ve got a rule book that is 83 pages long and it sometimes feels like the rules are there to prohibit you from going out and campaigning for a more socially just and more equal society, which is probably what brought you to the Labour Party in the first place. I’ve got very clear ideas as to how young members can participate and be involved in the party, where they themselves can go away and discuss the campaign priorities they want, what policies they want to debate, and be supported by the party in so doing, and for many years there wasn’t a full time youth officer in the party and I think that’s really important to have someone who is working for you.

What do you think young people can do to further the cause of Labour? 

What a great question! We’re a party that was founded over a century ago because we felt that wealth and power was in the hands of too few people. You probably joined the Labour Party because you still think that’s the case. For me, the cause of Labour is important because we want to build a fairer, more equal society and we want people to prosper and be all they can be. That’s why I think that even though we’re going through quite hard times as a party now, we’ll ultimately be triumphant because people need a Labour government that believes in the idea of an empowering state. We need to focus state energy and power to allow people to make the best of themselves, to create greater opportunities, and to provide security when people fall on hard times. I still think we need a party in the United Kingdom that has got those values, it’s just how do we put them in the context of the current situation we find ourselves in, and part of our solution will be down to your involvement within the party over the next few years.

How can we better organise the structure of the party from the PLP down to CLP to councillors and individual members?

Well firstly there is this idea of closed leadership. I genuinely think that we need a new leadership team that are far more in touch with our younger members and if I win this election, I see myself being very much the bridge into the sections of the party that the Shadow Cabinet need to hear for example, our councillors, our members, and our representatives in the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales. It also means getting out of Westminster more and taking more time to listen to our members, so if I win it, I think I’ll be out of Westminster each week. We need a closer leadership and a more federal structure as well where we have representatives from the English regions and Scotland and Wales help shape our future.

You say you want a digital revolution, how do you do this without discrimination against people who may not be able to afford much up to date technology? 

I wrestled with this when I was the Digital Engagement Minister in the Cabinet Office. The answer is that you don’t do digital only services. You have to give people choices. There are different channels by which people can involve themselves in the party. I represent West Bromwich East where some of my members still want their correspondences sent using an envelope and stamp because they don’t want to receive emails. It’s important that we don’t forget people who choose to not use digital channels. But the experience of being a member can be much richer for those that do. Every so often we get opposition debates in the House of Commons, and there’s always a debate within the party about which topic we should discuss. I don’t know why we don’t occasionally ask our 250,000 members to choose from an option of three because they are the ones who are out in the community talking to people all the time. This is about supplementing the work we do, not just replacing the work we do.

When is the Labour Party going to stop letting the Conservative Party dictate the agenda when it comes to policies, for example on the benefit cap?

The difficulty of being in opposition is that the government quite often makes the weather. They’re the ones who decide the debates that take place in the chambers. They’re the ones who lead the newspapers with announcements. But we still have the power to set out our own agenda. When it comes to the attempt by the government on the benefit cap to divide our movement and to set political traps that they want us to jump in, I think we can try and set out another agenda to challenge what the government want you to believe – the idea that anyone in receipt of some kind of benefit is a lazy, fat, anti-citizen. We know that most of the social security budget is spent on pensions; people who have worked all their lives and paid into the pot and are now trying to find some peace in retirement. But also those benefits that are paid to people may be in work benefits but these people are still suffering. I think we can make the case that people on in work benefits need to be respected not marginalised.

Would you support any young member running to become an MP?

I would! I believe in votes at 16, I supported measures to reduce the age at which you could stand for parliament from 21 to 18. I think our youngest MP is 26 at the moment. What I find interesting in the Labour Party is we’ve now got a huge intergenerational range of members from 26 to MP’s in their 80’s. That’s very good because you need that mix of energy and experience and wisdom in a political party. We need more young people standing

Do you think we can challenge the budget tomorrow effectively?

I hope we can. It’s very hard when you’re in opposition because the government set the agenda all the time, as I’ve just said. They’ve obviously been leaking parts of the budget to the newspapers this week, and you have to respond to that. We don’t get to see the budget until just before it is announced. Harriet Harman will have to respond to it as best she can on the spot. Behind the scenes there will be a team of people who will be going through the red book, looking for all the clauses in the budget that George Osborne would rather not promote to find out whether there are policies where people are being penalised.

How can we get young people engaged in politics?

Well firstly I think it comes down to having the right policies for young people; that they feel attracted to our party. Your generation entering the labour market for the first time have fewer opportunities than previous generations. If you choose tertiary education then you’ll enter the labour market in debt. If you live in a city you will probably be the first generation who will have the expectation that you’ll never own your own home. The private rented sector is lacking in security for long term tenancies, so times are tough for young people and I think that Labour needs to work with our young members to get a framework of policies that are attractive to young people. When we get that bit right, you also need to show respect to our young members and that means supporting a space where they can decide their own policies and be supported by an officer that helps them do that. In the end, young people need to set their own agenda within the party.

Is there a need to re-establish Labour’s underpinning philosophy? What would this be under your Deputy Leadership?

Well I think you definitely need to look at our history on this, to see what are the fundamentals of the party and why did we come together as a movement? How do you put that in a modern context? For me, the greatest leader that managed to respect those values was Clement Atlee who managed to merge the idea that your individual aspirations align with the collective aspirations of the NHS. He persuaded people that they should put money in the pot to create a National Health Service, even in the good times. I think we need to get back to that kind of notion that individuals gain when they see things as a collective good. It means that our public services need to be incredibly efficient and modernised. I’ve been trying to write a one sentence mantra about what our mission should be in 2020. I haven’t got it right yet but it should be something like ‘Labour stands for a more entrepreneurial, but fairer and kinder country. When I say entrepreneurial, everyone always shakes their head because it’s a long word and can be narrowly focused but for me it means that everyone can realise the best of themselves.

It is very anti-Labour in mid-Wales and it feels like Welsh Labour have forgotten about us. Their campaigning resources go to the north and south of Wales. What are you doing to address this?

The only way that Labour is going to have deep roots in all communities is by putting trust in its members and we cannot run the Labour Party in the United Kingdom with our professional staff alone. So it’s about devolving power down to local constituencies in my view and having faith in our members to do that. I genuinely believe that community organising should be at the heart of what we do, and I hope that we can expand the training we give to our lay members so that they can become leaders in their own communities. In the end, it’s not down to Labour. It’s down to all of us to make sure that Labour is represented in the community.

What should Young Labour do to appeal to young people as the home of democratic socialism? 

There are now 10 Conservative MP’s who sit on majorities that is smaller than the Green vote in their constituency. Had all those Green voters voted Labour we would have 10 more MP’s now. For me, it means we have to have the best policies on climate change. My kids are 10 and 7 years old, I don’t want the planet to warm up more than the projected 2 degrees centigrade because terrible things will happen. Already our economy is having to reform itself in order to adapt to the challenges of climate change. I also think that we need to make sure that in local authorities we can out do the Green’s. The Labour Party in Brighton (the only Green constituency) are now prioritising a green agenda. i also think that in the Parliamentary Labour Party, we need to plant a flag; we need MP’s that can lead on climate change. Perhaps using this technology can bring together those members of the party who are particularly focused on green issues.

Are you comfortable with our party identifying as anti-austerity? 

We’re a party that stands for the many not the few. We want every individual in this country to do the best for themselves and we know that George Osborne is likely to bring out policies that are going to benefit people who are sitting on inherited wealth, and that’s not the party I want to be part of. I want to be part of a party of opportunity where everyone can make the best of themselves.

How do we have less of the Westminster politics?

There’s a famous American Senate majority leader who worked for the Kennedy Administration called Tip O’Neil who coined the phrase ‘all politics is local’. For me, I know that back home when I was a young MP in 2001, my case worker complained that there was a lady who was very very upset and agitated that a tree in her front garden was blocking out the light. He said that he have more important things in the world to deal with. I said ‘no’ for this lady, the most important thing in the world is that she can have light so that she can read the newspaper. Her world was small; she was retired and used the shop at the end of the street and didn’t often go into town. If she couldn’t read the paper in the day then that was a very big deal for her. As politicians, we need to be at the grass roots, in our communities building strong relationships between our local councillors and our campaigners on the ground.

How do we improve the communication between Young Labour groups and the Constituency Labour Party?

It’s important to use technology like this so that we can cross constituency borders and have debates on particular issues. I certainly want the relationship between party HQ and our members to be deeper. The only transaction that seem to go on is when we send out these emails, we ask for money, members send the money, and then you get another email asking for more. It can be much more than that. I think members can help shape our national campaign priorities and they can certainly help the national debate. I’d like our frontbenchers to be able to talk to you more regularly. It’s not always easy to get out of Westminster in the week if they are key votes but if we can have this technology then I don’t think it’s unreasonable that our education team can talk to our teachers and students a bit more often from their desks in Westminster. It’s about building a closer party and that’s partly to do with the way you organise yourself, but it’s also about the culture of leadership that wants our MP’s to be more open and accessible.

Attending CLP meetings may seem boring and bureaucratic to some members. How can we make being active in the local Labour Party seem more dynamic?

It can seem boring and bureaucratic to older members too. I’ve been to some dull meetings in the party. I’m a big fan of Young Labour groups and I hope that we can make sure to push for young members to be able to come together at a constituency or borough level so that they can share in slightly more lively debates. I also think that good meeting skills are important.

One way to get young people involved in politics is to introduce compulsory education into schools. Is this something you would support?

I believe that good citizenship begins in the classroom and it’s important to get young people understanding how politics works and how it affects our lives. Unfortunately, we’re not in government and so we can only make the case from opposition. We do have the power to change things now. We have got the power to educate young people outside of school and this can be done through developing our Young Labour groups and making sure that we’ve got a welcoming party to those young people who are interested in what goes on in their community.

Should there be community hubs where people can go and talk to their councillors and MP’s and to launch campaigns?

I view that one soft power that an MP has is the power to bring interested parties together to apply their wit and ideas to problem solving. I think if you want to stand for the Labour Party then you have to show leadership in your community and bring people together to try and make the world a better place.

Do you think that the Labour Conference will be useful in order to understand the movement? 

Yes, the conference is important because it’s our sovereign body; it guides what we do and decides our rules. But it’s not the only forum where we should be shaping our future.

What sets you apart from the other Deputy Leadership candidates?

I shouldn’t be saying this but you’ve actually got five really good candidates running for Deputy Leader and I think we’re all very able and can do the job. I think that a leader has to cast a vision for the country and the Deputy has got to help them realise it. For me it’s about campaigns and elections. I’ve been around a while. I first started collecting polling numbers for the Labour Party in the 1974 election when I was seven years old, and I’ve worked in ten general elections since. I’ve run or been active in about 60 parliamentary by elections, so I think I’ve got a lot of experience in campaigning and elections. I’ve also been a Digital Minister of Britain so I’ve got some knowledge of what is possible with digital technology. I guess I tick the single issue, single minded campaigner box. In the last Parliament I ran campaigns on media ethics and child abuse that have led to two judge led enquiries. So, I guess a have a reputation for being a tough campaigner.

How do you think you complement each of the Leadership candidates?

When you put your name in for the Deputy Leadership job you have to be reasonably confident that you can work with each of the Leadership candidates and I think I can. I’ve worked with all of them over the years from Jeremy to Andy. They’re going to be very different kinds of leaders; you’ve got an array of different views on the direction in which the party should take. I guess my ideas about campaigns and elections can be applied to whoever you choose as your leader. I very much see it as being part of a team. I view this role as being a bridge from the Shadow Cabinet into the different parts of the party.

– End of transcript –

Although the web conference was primarily focused on the role that Young Labour plays within the Labour Party, a whole range of topics was covered, from Labour’s underpinning philosophy to the problems faced by the UK as a result of austerity. I’m impressed that Tom Watson took the time to hold a web conference for members of Young Labour, but I feel like I shouldn’t be. This is something that needs to occur on a regular basis, incorporating all corners of the Labour Party from councillors to campaigners to front benchers. The conference didn’t necessarily help me decide who to vote for in the Deputy Leadership election, but knowing that at least one of the candidates is on the side of young people is definitely something I’ll remember when it comes to filling out my ballot.


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