Tom Watson's exit is the end of the end for New Labour

The deputy leader’s wing of the party has failed and his decision to stand down is the inevitable result

November 07, 2019
Tom Watson has announced he will be stepping down as Labour deputy leader and as an MP. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images
Tom Watson has announced he will be stepping down as Labour deputy leader and as an MP. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images

Few political reputations have been shredded quite so comprehensively in recent years as Tom Watson's reputation as a backroom fixer who mastered Labour's internal machinery. His sudden departure last night was that of a man who had been comprehensively outmanoeuvred for four years by the people who weren't supposed to be good at politics. The man who initiated the moves that brought down Tony Blair surrendered to the might of Magic Grandpa.

There is much that can be written about the rise of Momentum and the role of the membership in seeing off Owen Smith's leadership challenge in 2016—Smith, of course, is also quitting parliament.

But just as the rise of the centrists began with the collapse of Old Labour's political economy in 1976, the reverse is also true. The decline of the Labour centrists began not with Iraq—though that became the common stick to beat them with—but with the collapse of Northern Rock in 2007 which marked the beginning of the swift end of Blairite political economy.

Corbynsceptics are a broad group, spanning centrist Blairites and more left-leaning social democrats, social liberals and social conservatives, Leavers and Remainers. Some, like Blair himself, oppose Corbyn on all grounds; others on grounds of foreign policy and anti-semitism; others simply because they consider him unelectable.

What unites them all is their comprehensive failure—not simply to outmanoeuvre Corbyn’s allies inside the party and on the ruling National Executive Committee, but more fundamentally to outline a better politics that people might actually sign up to.

It's worth recapping this decade in Labour politics. The 2010 election saw Blairite princeling David Miliband take on his social democrat brother Ed. Ed won; the Blairites spent the next five years throwing an enormous strop that their man had lost.

But while Ed clearly wanted to push Labour in a new direction, he lacked the bottle or skill to actually do it. Instead he ended up triangulating over austerity in a way that convinced no-one—least of all the British public. Meanwhile Blairites demanded ever-more obedience to Tory doctrines of austerity. Never forget that disability benefit tests, the hallmark of Tory cruelty, were introduced under New Labour.

The 2015 leadership election was the absolute nadir of New Labour's old guard, as Andy Burnham assumed he had the backing of the unions and started banging on about immigration, while Yvette Cooper said little at all, hoping to win almost by default. Acting leader Harriet Harman ordered the party to abstain on Tory benefit cuts—forget the revisionist takes that it was all 4D chess; Harman simply didn't want to look soft on welfare—and Corbyn's victory was sealed.

There is no doubt that many across the broad swathes of Corbynsceptic Labour had ideas for how to build a new political economy. But they were flushed out by the timidity that the New Labour political machinery bred—the patronage and promotion based on obedience. By 2015, Labour centrists just didn't know how to fight. With the old guard unwilling and unable to counter austerity, Corbynites were left as the only holders of that mantle.

The final shambles came early this year, with the creation of Change UK as a liferaft for Labour MPs unable to stomach Corbyn as prime minister. Watson moved mountains to stop the trickle becoming a flood that would fundamentally shift the balance of power on the centre left. In true New Labour style, he had no strategy beyond that. Change UK was hamstrung, but the Liberal Democrats filled the Brexit breach while Corbynites frogmarched Watson to the door.

At no stage throughout this decade-long decline had any serious attempt been made to move on from Blairism in a way that reduced inequality and improved incomes and services. All that turf was left to the Left. Labour's old guard defeated itself because they forgot why they were there.

What comes next rests on circumstance. Whoever wins this month's general election, Corbyn's leadership will not last years into the future—and unless the party receives an electoral shellacking, the next leader will be (a) more or less a Corbynite who (b) doesn't have his baggage on foreign policy and anti-semitism and (c) isn't steeped in the sectarian politics of the hard left.

That new leader will almost certainly be more palatable to Corbynsceptics than Corbyn himself is. After all, most of them can live with Corbyn's economic and domestic agendas as long as they don't cost votes. Some may simply move on, retire, maybe ape Burnham and seek opportunities in devolved government. Others would assimilate into the new Labour Party, either to influence it or simply to extend their careers.

But whatever Corbynsceptic MPs do, they are a dwindling breed. Many have already left, others leave this month, and many Blair-era MPs are fast approaching their 70s. Of those who remain, some will sign up to the new order, as shadow members Liam Byrne and Barry Gardiner already have. Others will focus on select committees and constituencies. Those who try too brazenly to rein in the leadership may face the threat of deselection—in which case, the prospects for an eventual counter-revolution are far smaller. The Corbyn revolution of 2015 looked as implausible as Leicester winning the Premiership—but Corbyn could at least run, having never been deselected.

Longer term, two questions remain. The first is which party do young centre-left wingers embarking on a political career join? The only alternative available is the Liberal Democrats, whose future direction is likely to be a balancing act between the competing economic instincts of pro-European economic conservatives who would once have joined the Tories, and fiscally cautious social democrats who would once have joined Labour.

But how many of the latter are there? The centre failed and has been hollowed out. There are few Blairite believers among millennials and Generation Z, and political opportunists will find few opportunities there, unless and until Corbynism fails in power. The future comes back to the past—until centrists figure out what their point is, others will conclude they don't have one.