Tom Watson Declares MPs' Break from Labour 'Premature'
Since this article was written we have heard that Watson is setting up a 'social democratic' grouping ostensibly to "keep the party together". In reality this means the opening of a factional struggle for control of the party. Exactly what 'social democratic' policies Watson is talking about remains to be seen, But he obviously is counterposing a 'social democratic' direction to a socialist one. In doing this he is prepared to blow away the electoral prospects of Labour. It underlines the long standing opposition within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) to the election of a Labour government led by Corbyn.
You couldn't dream it up. Imagine a situation where MPs of a political party for which they have been elected, leave that party, form a group with members of an austerity supporting government party, and the deputy leader of the party they have left refuses to condemn them. The closest he comes is to say they have “made the wrong decision”. The members of his party in the constituencies of these MPs not unreasonably call for them to stand down and call by-elections, yet the deputy leader says this will be seen to be “spiteful”. So the deputy leader expresses his support for these people to continue as MPs even though their clear political objective is to stop his party being elected to government. It could never happen could it, except it has.
I refer, of course, to Tom Watson, and the Labour Party. For those who haven't seen it, he produced a video giving his thoughts on the departure of the seven (at that point) MPs. It appears to me, judge for yourself by viewing the video , that he is threatening a split if the party does not “change” as he wants. In a careful choice of words he said that the decision of the splitters was “premature”. Not wrong, just premature? He said that the leavers are people who have “drawn the wrong conclusion to a serious question” but he does not explain what the question is.
So the deputy Leader of the Labour Party (with no authority from any party institution) publicly attacks his party and refuses to condemn the splitters whose aim clearly is to cause as much damage as possible to the Labour Party and to prevent the election of a Labour government. He refuses to call for them to call by-elections which can only mean that he supports them continuing as MPs. He refuses to recognise them as political opponents.
The picture he paints is of “good people” driven out of the Party. In Luciana Berger's case “driven out by racists”. This, of course, relates to anti-semitism real or imagined. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that she has been the subject of terrible abuse and threats, the fact is that the three people gaoled for threatening her are from the far-right. For all the talk of abuse from Labour Party members whenever anybody has asked her how many complaints has she put in against Labour Party members she has refused to answer. If there had been party members disciplined or expelled for abusing her then you can bet that we would have heard about it.
She has collaborated with the Tory media and attacked her party leader in an audience which included government Ministers and Norman Tebbit. Has she been “driven” into an alliance with people who supported austerity? No, of course, not. It is her political choice to join a group which poses the building of a “centrist” party, a home for Tories as well as ex-Labour.
Needless to say Watson says nothing about Jewish members who have been maliciously accused of anti-semitism because of their political disagreement with self-professed Zionists over the nature of the Israeli state. Under the previous General Secretary the issue was used as a factional weapon against supporters of Corbyn. In particular prominent Jewish Labour members were denounced by other Jewish Labour members as anti-semitic, essentially because of their views on Israel. Some of these accusations were dismissed but nothing was ever done against the malicious accusers. Undoubtedly there is much abuse online, but there is abuse on both sides, with anti-zionists being called “kapos” (i.e. collaborators in the concentration camps) amongst other things.
Tom Watson is a great one for demanding toleration in the Labour Party, except of course, when it comes to abuse and vilification of the party Leader. He has been quite happy to allow some Labour MPs to write articles in the Tory press accusing Corbyn of all manner of things. He raised no objection when Ian Austin, in the House of Commons, told Corbyn to “sit down and shut up”, he was “a disgrace”. He did not object when Joan Ryan wrote to her electors saying don't worry, Labour won't win a majority, so you can safely vote for me. I cannot recall a single occasion when Watson has criticised Labour MPs for their abuse of Corbyn and his supporters. Essentially that is because he wants to get rid of him.
He has said nothing about the politics of the MPs who left. They have not proposed to reform a 'genuine' Labour Party or some such. They want to build a “centrist party” with members from all parties. This represents a political break with the programme of the Labour Party such as it is. Ultimately this is a refusal to accept a break of the Party from the politics of New Labour. Blair thought that the founding of the LP was a historic mistake which “split the progressives”. The pronouncements of the 'Independent Group' would suggest they agree. Yet they are not even posing a return to New Labour.
Watson says that “unless we change we will see more days like these”. Yet he doesn't say what change he wants. His statement that “It (the party) can only stay together if it stands for the whole country” is somewhat bemusing. What does it mean? Must it stand for the speculator, the slum landlord and the arms dealers? How can it stand for the “whole country”?
Watson's video shows that he is at least half in agreement with the leavers, he just disagrees with their tactics. Fundamentally there is a political battle around what we want a Labour government to do. We know from Chris Leslie that he doesn't want the railways renationalised and is in favour of keeping tuition fees. We know from Angela Smith that she supports the privatised water industry. We know that collectively they will support May rather than support a motion of no confidence.
Tom Watson's refusal to condemn the action of people whose aim is to split the party and prevent the election of a Labour government is extraordinary for the deputy leader. In contrast Party chair Ian Lavery's article in the Guardian is a better response from a party leader and a more accurate expression of the motivation of the 8 leavers:
“This establishment coalition of MPs who have split from their parties seem to share a passionate desire to preserve our failed neo-liberal system, defend austerity and protect corporate tax cuts and privatisation.
The only reason they want to stand against Labour candidates is to try to stop Labour winning the majority of MPs we need to form a government. Millions of people are reliant on the Labour party to transform our country so that it works for the many, not just the privileged few. We won’t be distracted by the last cries of the 1% for protection.”
These people are political opponents and should not be treated as friends gone a little astray. If they are successful they will allow the Tories or some coalition to take power and continue to impoverish great swathes of the population.
The 8 MPs were elected as Labour MPs. They have no democratic legitimacy. Having changed horses they should resign and call a by-election in which they can test their support under a different political hat. Watson's refusal to say this much is a disgrace. Even Mark Reckless, when he left the Tory party, had sufficient principles to call a by-election.
Since Corbyn was elected it was clear that many of those in the PLP who supported the politics of New Labour would do everything in their power to undermine him. They have attacked him in the Tory press. Watson was one of those who worked closely with the previous General Secretary who, at the time of the coup attempt, tried to keep Corbyn off of the ballot paper. Ultimately this is not about whether or not Corbyn is a good leader. It is not about anti-semitism. It is a dispute about political aims and programme. Watson's extraordinary video is an ultimatum to Corbyn that unless he does what he wants then the deputy leader will do what the 8 have done. The ultimatum should be rejected. The question which needs to be thrown back at Watson is are you prepared to destroy the prospects of the election of a Labour government or are you prepared to accept the democratic decisions of the membership? It's one thing to express regret at the breakaway but there can no middle ground between those who want a Labour government and a movement which aims to prevent one. The deputy leader cannot be allowed to have one foot on either side of the fence.
This article originally appeared on https://martinwicks.org/