Tom Watson Interview: On Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Blair, Leveson, Digital Democracy; And How He Sleeps At Night


Tom Watson is one of the most famous Labour MPs outside Westminster, thanks to his phone hacking and child abuse campaigns. Now pitching for the deputy Labour leadership, has he got the 2020 vision the party needs?

Tom Watson has a guilty pleasure. He likes sleeping with Lenny Henry. Or to be more precise, and at risk of disappointing Sunday tabloid journalists, the Labour MP says he loves the Premier Inn beds made famous by the newly knighted Sir Lenworth.

After months on the road during both the general election and now his Labour deputy leadership campaign, Watson has grown attached to the deep sleep induced by the hotel chain’s night-time attraction.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with Lenny Henry lately,” he laughs, referring to his fellow West Midlander. “For three months every night I went to bed with a wraparound of Lenny’s picture. I must have stayed in 60 or 70 Premier Inns this year.

“They have the same beds in every room and they are the most comfortable beds I’ve ever slept in. Actually I mentioned it to a manager a couple of weeks ago. He said they’ve got a secret place on the website where you can buy them because they have a number of customers who get so used to the beds that they want the bed at home.

"I said to myself if I win, I’m going to buy a Premier Inn bed.”

Lenny, counting sheep

That personal reward is quite some way off yet, with many more miles to be travelled before the deputy leader and leader election results are announced at a special conference on September 12.

Until then, the West Bromwich East MP and former Government minister is continuing with a gruelling schedule of party meetings and events on a daily basis. Speaking over a pint in a pub in West London, he explains: “You do wake up and think ‘I can’t remember where I am’ each day.”

Peter Mandelson claimed a few weeks ago that Labour had ‘gone to sleep’ since its election defeat in May, forgetting the shock of that exit poll moment when it became clear David Cameron was going to lead the first Tory government in 18 years.

But despite Watson’s noctural comfort on the road, he insists he’s been wide awake about the need to radically reestablish the party’s connection with the voters.

And as he bids to outscore deputy leadership rivals Stella Creasy, Ben Bradshaw, Caroline Flint and Angela Eagle, he says the party should not forget how it can affect change even without being in government.

Tom Watson, post-pint

In recent years, Watson arguably achieved more than many frontbenchers in his party, most famously for his stand on the phone hacking scandal and in exposing historic cases of child sex abuse.

“We can make a difference in Opposition,” he says. “You can actually achieve change, I was one of the MPs who helped get us two judge-led inquiries in the past five years. You are there to try and make the world a better place and you can try and do things from Opposition.

“But also, in terms of morale, don’t forget the fact the government is sitting on a majority of 12 with a lot of people who personally don’t respect their leader. We’ve already got them on the back foot on their human rights policies [he and David Davis recently won a High Court case on surveillance powers]. On votes at 16 and other issues we’ve defeated them on in the Lords.”

Yet Watson knows that while Labour has to get on with its day job of providing effective Opposition, it also has to learn some hard lessons from the shattering 2015 general election defeat.

Having visited 109 key seats in the run up to May, he is acutely aware of how far the party fell short. For all of Ed Miliband’s much-vaunted ‘four million’ conversations with voters, wasn’t it really the message that was to blame rather than organisation?

“I don’t think you can divide the two,” he says. “I think we lacked clarity to what our purpose was. Could you have reduced our manifesto down to a single sentence last time?

"In 2020, it’s going to have to be something like ‘vote Labour want to build an entrepreneurial, fairer, kinder country’ and there needs to be a policy framework to actually make voters confident in that.”

He says that in terms of organisation, “I’ve never seen as many people involved in an election campaign on the ground. Our lay membership on the ground were heroic, more so even than in 1997”. But there are still big questions to which he hasn’t yet found the answers, not least why Labour lost some seats, never mind failed to win its targets.

Ed Balls on election night

“Given that we were collecting so much data around the country and we have got various smart people who can analyse the data, why didn’t the smart people pick up we were in trouble in Telford, Vale of Clwyd, and dare I say it in Ed Balls’ seat? I want to find out why that happened.”

As one of the few digital natives in Westminster, Watson has the biggest Twitter following of any of the deputy leadership - and leadership - candidates and has used video conferencing regularly on his campaign.

But while he’s keen to play down the edge it will give him in the race, he’s determined to use digital tools to help Labour get back in touch with its activists. “It feels like the Labour frontbench is further away from our members than at any point in our history and the digital revolution can help bring the party closer together,” he says.

Members should able to help choose which Opposition day debate topics Labour decides on, he argues, and he wants to go further. “I’m going to ask our NEC to see whether we can have digital branches and digital delegates to conference. Not replacing what we do but providing an alternative platform. It’s a way of organising for a different generation of people who do their politics differently, get their news differently.”

One big challenge is to reconnect not just with party members, but with voters and, specifically, those voters who chose the Tories in May. How can Labour win back those aspirational voters, who live in newer housing developments, have skilled jobs and see themselves as ‘getting on’ in life?

“Here we are, 70 years on from the Labour government of 1945,” Watson replies. “Attlee’s genius was he aligned individual aspiration with the collective aspiration of the nation. That’s what Labour’s got to do again.”

And he says that it’s through helping small businesses - what he calls the ‘nought-to-niners’ - that the party can make inroads. “I met them in Nuneaton, I met them in Stockton, I met them in all those key seats. We’ve got to have a policy for the nought-to-niners, those microbusinesses that employ upto nine staff. These are people who work long hours, very often not getting paid much because they are running small businesses, family businesses and there’s millions of them and they are growing.”

Labour needs to recognise that the labour market itself has changed hugely since its landslide in 1997. “Back then you might have been a warehouse manager, now you’re an outsourced supplier. You might have been running the canteen at work, now you’re outsourced caterer. Those individuals have got a very different sense of themselves. They are probably not in a union now, but they were still powerless in the market.

“When the banks started to foreclose in 2008 they were the ones whose lines of credit were shut down first. Very often they have less security than those vulnerable workers were were targeting in 2015. They are the people we need to target in 2020. I think you can do that without compromising our values.”

He says he met one man on a constituency visit who summed up the problem. “He said to me ‘I employ 6 staff, I can’t get a mortgage because I’ve got an insecure cash flow. But my six members of staff have all got a mortgage because they’ve all got a regular income from me’.

“I just think to myself that’s where governments can provide reassurance to businesses, look at Germany where there’s still a strong tradition of supporting family businesses, I think we can make the case to those groups of people. We need to be very methodical in re-engaging with those microbusinesses and SMEs.”

Labour also had a big problem with voters switching to UKIP too and Watson wants to ensure the party is in better shape to fend off Farage’s ‘People’s Army’, which is now in second place in scores of it seats.

Just as tricky will be tempting back Labour voters who stayed at home in May. A recent tentative conclusion of the inquest into the polling companies’ failure found that it wasn’t so much ‘shy Tories’ but ‘lazy Labour’ who weren’t picked up in surveys. In some cases, it was ‘lying Labour’, ie those who said they would vote but then didn’t. How will Watson win them back?

“You certainly don’t do it by calling them lazy - or liars. This is about having a compelling message and having a programme that can excite people to come out and vote.”

The SNP tsunami

Another key plank of any Labour government will be turning back at least some of the SNP tide in Scotland. Watson has spent a lot of time north of the border, visiting Inverness, Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling and Hamilton among others.

“I’ve been doing a lot of listening to our members and to voters. The first conversation I had, after I went up to Inverness on the sleeper, came when an old fellow stopped me in the street, he recognised me. He was an SNP member or supporter and he started to explain to me the SNP were the true inheritors of Keir Hardie’s legacy.

“I was thinking OK, Keir Hardie was in favour of home rule, but we delivered devolution. There was about to be a strike because the SNP government were about to privatise CalMac ferries and I thought to myself I don’t think Keir Hardie would have been in favour of this. And wherever I went in Scotland people said to me the SNP Government had never supported a living wage.

“What it did is make me understand this: that kind of nationalism that perhaps we’ve seen it in an extreme form in England in the fascist groups, that drumbeat of nationalism in Scotland is appropriating Labour, it’s commanding the arts, it’s commanding culture, it’s commanding the intelligentsia. Our challenge is to restate Labour’s causes and what its values are.”

Watson says that it’s time for the Scottish Labour Party to have more autonomy within the framework of a national party. “The paradox is that in 1997 we devolved massive constitutional power but didn’t devolve political power from Labour HQ in London.”

Still, no matter who becomes Labour leader or deputy leader, isn’t it true that the party is set to go backwards in the Holyrood elections next year? “It’s not going to be easy to make progress immediately,” Watson replies.

“I know there’s a lot of focus on the Scottish Parliament, but in Scotland our local government base needs supporting.”

Warming to his theme, he recalls just how long he’s been a Labour activist. “I’m a veteran at the age of 48, it’s an unusual position to be in,” he says.

“I did start collecting polling numbers in the ’74 election when I was seven. And I was on the steps of Walworth Road when Neil Kinnock was defeated on the Friday afternoon after the 1987 election. And I was there in ’97 in Downing Street when Tony Blair walked in. The one thing about losing elections has taught me you have to rebuild from the grassroots up. It starts from Labour councillors in communities, your trade unions in workplaces.”

As for Falkirk and the row over the selection of a Labour candidate, he is clear on the lessons. “The only reason I was involved in Falkirk was because a member of my staff was a potential candidate. I don’t feel vindicated, I just feel very upset it ended the way it did. But I think we need to move on.

“The one thing that came out of that process, if Ed Miliband has got a legacy, one of them will be he has handed power to the members of the Labour party in a way they’ve never had in our century of existence.”

Stormin' Corbyn

With an influx of nearly 50,000 new members since the election, so far it’s Jeremy Corbyn who seems to be the beneficiary of the new one member, one vote rules and £3 supporter membership. Does he think that the influx will bring lasting charge? “I don’t think anyone can know,” he says.

But does he find it exciting? “It’s certainly enlivened the election,” he replies. “I don’t think you can predict the outcome of this election by the popularity of candidates on Twitter, otherwise I’d be in a much stronger position. It’s actually down to the the third of a million of members, and a lot of them are still making up their minds, despite a lot of what you are reading in the papers about relative support.”

The new reality of the power now vested in the party rank and file has to be accepted by MPs at Westminster, he adds. “What I’m very clear about is that given we are now quite literally a member-led organisation, MPs have to have a different sense of their responsibilities. Whoever the members elect as leader, it’s our duty to work with them.

“The leader in particular will have been given a mandate to cast a new vision for 2020 and we have to work with that lead. Frankly what’s disappointed me about the debate in the leadership is the slugging it out. To call supporters of Jeremy Corbyn ‘morons’ I just think devalues the whole process. Likewise Liz Kendall is not a Tory, she’s a pro-European social democrat that represents a body of thinking in the Labour party that you can track back more than half a century.”

Yet given that Corbyn rebelled more than 500 times against the party whip, how will his leadership command loyalty? Watson is blunt. “If he wins he will be the leader and he chooses his Chief Whip, so it would certainly be a difficult thing for him to try and command discipline within parts of the Parliamentary Labour Party with that voting record,” he says.

“But you know, members are aware of this. It’s their choice. What he’ll have to do as a leader is try and unite the Parliamentary Labour Party. I think as MPs what we first of all have to recognise that our members have chosen the leader. It’s our job to make that work.”

But if it looks like the new leadership is not working, either in personal or national poll ratings, should the leader quit before the next election?

“I can’t really predict what’s going to happen,” he replies. “But I’ve just got this sense that the leadership candidates, seeing recent history, would decide that if they don’t think they are going to win the election, and they are part of that, I think they would be quite clear headed about it. I can’t put words in their mouth. I think they are pretty clear headed people, all of them.”

Watson is not in favour of creating new mechanisms to allow MPs to unseat the leader after three years, as some have suggested. But his answer sounds like a pretty strong hint that he expects the next leader to voluntarily put the party first.

Tony Blair telling his party to calm down

Tony Blair, of course, stepped aside in 2007 following calls for him to make way for a new leader. Watson was famously among those who signed a letter in 2006 urging Blair to go. He was forced to quit as a minister and the then Prime Minister described his actions as ‘disloyal, discourteous and wrong’. Was Blair wrong on all three counts? “I’ll let your readers be the judge of that,” Watson replies.

“I resigned as a minister because I’d lost confidence in him. And it unleashed a whole series of events that I couldn’t possibly predict at the time. The party now we have moved on, it’s eight years ago, that’s more than half my Parliamentary lifetime. I think the challenges facing the party now and Tony has acknowledged this, is there is a different challenges. What worked in the mid-1990s isn’t going to work in the battle for 2020.”

Blair recently intervened in the current leadership election, urging those whose heart was with Corbyn to ‘get a transplant’. Watson tries to be charitable: “I think it seemed to be a spur of the moment comment. I know what he’s trying to say. He’s trying to say this is a huge responsibility picking the next leader of the Labour party, don’t do it on a whim, don’t do it on a sense of emotion. But I’m not sure his choice of words will have been interpreted positively.”

Still, the former PM also made clear that it was ‘important’ to get a woman as deputy leader and to “move away from machine politics”. Wasn’t that a dig at him? “I don’t know. If I’m being honest I probably wasn’t expecting a personal vote from Tony,” he smiles.

Watson insists that “having strong female role models in senior positions is quite important” and has welcomed the way all the leadership candidates want a 50:50 gender balance in the Shadow Cabinet. He also says he won’t be the one who replaces the leader at PMQs, as Harriet Harman has done when the PM is away.

“One of the things, with all humility, I’d say is that the deputy job is not the second most important job. That’s the Shadow Chancellor, that’s the person who’s going to have to build trust on the economy again.

“If Osborne is the lead [minister in the Commons], it should be the Shadow Chancellor who matches Osborne. I’ve talked to Andy Burnham about that [who first suggested the idea] and I’m very happy with it.”

Rupert Murdoch, not as close to Watson as to Blair

One other area where Blair and Watson haven’t seen eye to eye is on Labour’s links to Rupert Murdoch. Whereas the former Prime Minister did his best to woo the media magnate, Watson famously made waves in the phone hacking affair.

But the saga had a personal impact on his family and he says the strain of the period led to the break-up of his marriage to his wife Siobhan. “Any marriage failure is very difficult. I look back on that and it’s like I’m looking back on a different period in life. At the time it was a very dark period.

“At the point when I started looking at hacking in 2009, I felt I was out, there was no more I could do with politics, I was ready to step down from Parliament in 2010. I really regret that my marriage, we split up in 2010 because of the pressure. It just became too much for my loved ones.

“I don’t blame Murdoch. It did put immense strain on us...When you realise you’ve been followed by a private investigator, when you can see fingerprints of journalists who have been pressing their hands against your living room windows, when your neighbours complain about people breaking into your garage and going through your papers. As a politician, you are kind of used to that, but your loved ones aren’t and it’s not fair on them.”

He has a new partner, a former Labour election candidate Stephanie Peacock, though he sees his two children regularly. “I have got a new partner now but I’d rather not talk about my private life,” he says.

Watson’s campaigns helped trigger the Leveson inquiry, whose recommendations Labour vowed to ‘implement in full’ if elected. Now that David Cameron has opted for a milder version of the reforms, is he happy to let matters lie?

“I think the Leveson reforms need to be implemented,” he replies. “That’s not to say I’ve not seen progress in media reform. It shouldn’t go unnoticed that a few weeks ago the Times gave its first front place clarification, it was a tiny one, it could have been bigger. But that’s progress.

“If you look at News UK, I don’t think they’ve got newsrooms stuffed with people breaking the law anymore. And their internal reforms, the stuff they’ve done of corporate social responsibility, the tabloid end of the industry is cleaning up its act.

“But I still think there are challenges. There’s quite a big moment coming up later in the year when the independent assessor or panel assesses whether the self-regulatory arrangements are Leveson-compliant. And I think if they find that it’s not, then I think Parliament should try and apply a bit more pressure to go down that road.”

Watson says he believes in “robust, public interest journalism, doing investigations holding people to account”. So, what did he make of The Sun on Sunday’s recent expose of Lord Sewel?

“I have not read the actual story, obviously I’ve seen in the media brief the guy’s now stood down,” he says. “With all these things, is there a public interest for a private area like that?

“I just don’t know the details of the story. Although I saw the Prime Minister had commented in a way that he’d chosen not to comment on the history of his Shadow Chancellor,” he says. Is he referring to George Osborne’s alleged drug use? “He’s denied drug use, but white powder and sitting in front of a sex worker..?”

Judge Lowell Goddard, who's leading the child sex abuse inquiry

The other judge-led inquiry whose establishment he campaigned for, along with Simon Danczuk, was on historic cases of child sex abuse. Danczuk has talked frankly about the personal toll the cases have put on him, did it have a similar impact on him?

“It’s definitely the hardest public interest thing I’ve ever been involved in. Certainly in the early days the testimony of the survivors is incredibly draining, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically. And even though I was an MP I felt powerless about signposting people into greater support.

“One of the things I’ve been working on not in the full glare of publicity is to put pressure on institutions to provide greater support to survivors. There’s very little psychiatry and counselling is quite hard to find.

“A lot of survivors say the NHS will give them four or five sessions of counselling or psychiatry but that’s it. I know some survivors where the NHS has said we are not going to start you on this treatment because it will do you more damage if we stop it half way through treatment and clearly that’s not right. I’m trying to find out whether there’s things we can do to increase capacity for the voluntary sector or increase support from the government. So far with little success.”

And does he feel that justice will now be done for those ignored in the past? “Already life long predatory child abusers have been sent to jail. We’ve shaken the tree and now seen properly resourced police investigations and a judge-led inquiry. I hope we get to a greater understand of the hundreds and thousands of kids who have been abused and whose voices haven’t been heard.”

To help tackle current and not just historic cases of abuse, he wants to see the creation of a new specialist police unit nationwide. “This would be like a permanent project team, made up of specialists from different police services. What they’ve got now is Operation Hydrant, which is an intelligence-sharing thing.”

“The author of ‘The Dirty Squad’ [Michael Hames, who wrote about the Obscene Publications Squad], he called for this in the ‘80s. People slip through the gaps when they move around police services and a national team with a cogent database can actually help use the intelligence a lot better. They need to be much more on the front foot.”

She's a Watson fan

Watson’s high profile campaigning has certainly won him friends beyond politics. JK Rowling helped fund his deputy leadership bid soon after he launched it in May. “She gave an unsolicited donation on our crowdsource site. Other than for me to gratefully thank her I’ve not met her or spoken to her,” he says. “I’ve not been seeking a huge amount of celebrity endorsement. But it’s nice when people chip in.”

“The guys from The Farm [an indie band from the 1990s] have been very supportive and that cheered me up. If I’ve got one celebrity endorsement that I’m very proud of, it’s Dennis Skinner - that’s definitely a badge of honour for me.”

And Watson does have a hinterland beyond politics, not least due to his love of music (he wakes to Sean Keaveny on BBC 6Music every day) and video games.

He became hooked on games as a child. “I remember the first time I put a 10pence coin in a Space Invaders in Silver Blades ice rink in Birmingham on a school trip and from that point on my life changed. It’s the one game I remember with most affection. I had a lifelong love affair with video games after that.”

So, what’s his favourite game of all time? “It changes all the time. The game I’ve probably spent more time playing than any other in the past decade is one called Destiny which is a PS4 game, which shifted me from the old cartridges into online gaming. That’s the one I’m missing the most now.

“I’ve not touched a video game since about three months before the election. The new Batman’s out there’s a whole host of games that I’ve just not touched, that’s the sacrifice. I am definitely going to be flat out until mid-September win or lose so I’m hoping to get a Christmas games-fest in.”

As for the indie band music he grew up with, is it true that he regaled in the name ‘Sheriff Fatman’ at Hull University, in honour of the Carter USM track? “I didn’t regale in it, it’s what the university newspaper used to call me,” he smiles. “I wasn’t self-styled. It was, as ever, budding tabloid journalists trying to characterise me. It was a great song though.”

As for his size, it’s now very much part of the Watson persona. He says he’s never tried dieting and has no intention of copying Lords Falconer or Lawson in the drastic weight loss stakes. “I’m a happy person, I feel comfortable in my slightly pudgy middle aged paunch. During the election I actually pulled quite a bit of weight off because of all the chasing around.”

He will pop into the Gregg’s near his constituency office in West Bromwich, and freely admits to a love of kebabs. “There was a kebab shop over the road from my office that I used to go to quite a lot. It was closed down when the environmental health officer said he’d found the worst infestation of cockroaches he’d ever seen. I’d been eating kebabs there for about four five years!”

Watson after his High Court civil liberties victory

Another key feature of the Watson brand are of course his specs. Just like Nick Robinson, he’s made his thick black-rimmed glasses almost a trademark. Unlike Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, he was never tempted by contact lenses.

“When I was about 30 I went back to a funeral in Kidderminster [his home town] and there was a lad I knew at school called Richard Buxton. And he said such a Kidderminster thing. He said ‘Tommy, you’ve been in London 10 years and you’ve still not got contact lenses!’

“It tickled me, just made me laugh, he thought you go to London and you’ve gotta lose the glasses.”

You may take the boy out of the West Midlands, but it seems you can’t take the West Midlands out of the boy.

And if he does win the deputy leadership, thanks to his nice new bed, at least he will sleep well on it.

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