These are testing times for the Labour Party. Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader in September the Party has become riddled with infighting and looks from the outside to be short of direction.
Responding to the terror attacks in Paris, Corbyn struggled to articulate a cogent position and faced a storm of coded attacks from backbenchers in the Commons. Subsequently, polling from YouGov revealed that just 28 percent of the public think the veteran member for Islington North should take Labour into the next election. Worryingly, evidence is emerging that Labour are 15 points behind the Tories across the UK as a whole and have fallen into third in Scotland.
In times of crisis salvation can come from strange places. Diminished by time and electoral defeats, the Parliamentary Labour Party has been shorn of its ‘big beasts’. John Reed, John Hutton, Ed Balls, Jim Murphy and Alan Milburn are just a few of the figures who have left the political stage in recent years. One man, however, remains: Tom Watson.
To the casual observer Watson might seem like a natural ally to Jeremy Corbyn. He was once Len McLuskey’s flat mate and made his name as a trade union organiser. He is mistrusted by many moderates for effectively wielding the knife that precipitated Tony Blair’s exit from Downing Street. An antagonist of the right-wing press, he has led a one-man crusade against Rupert Murdoch and vested interests.
However, the two men are from very different sections of the party. Corbyn takes his cues from the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and is marinated in the Bennism and Marxist internationalism that swept London Labour in the 70s and 80s. Watson, however, is informed by the ‘old-right’ of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, the St. Ermins Group of trade unionists and Labour First.
While Corbyn is an avowed unilateralist and supporter of mandatory reselection, Watson has drawn red lines around both of these issues. In many respects they embody what John Golding described as the divide between insurgent-socialism and traditional-labourism.
Perhaps more importantly, Corbyn has historically operated on the fringes of the Labour Party, touching on various campaign groups from Stop the War, of which he was a founder, the Venezuelan Solidarity Campaign and, latterly, Momentum.
Watson, meanwhile, is a machine politician. “If there’s a body to be buried, Tom’s your man” is how one member of the House of Lords glowingly described him. He has allies among MPs, gaining 62 nominations for deputy leader. These included figures as diverse as veteran of the hard-left Ronnie Campbell, Blue Labour godfather John Cruddas, and Lisa Nandy, a rising star of the ‘soft left’ who has been widely tipped as a future leader. He is known to be close to General Secretary Iain McNichol and, crucially, gained 174 constituency nominations before comfortably winning the deputy leadership.
It is this support among the grassroots that is so important. Despite a string of high-profile gaffes Jeremy Corbyn remains popular among members, indeed more than two-thirds believe he is performing “well” as leader. If he is to be replaced before the next election it is unlikely to be by a recalcitrant Blairite. As deputy leader Watson has his own mandate among members and the opportunity to forge important links at a local and national level.
His personal ties to Len McCluskey could also prove invaluable. Though often characterised as a throwback, McCluskey is nothing if not a savvy operator. He answers to more than 1.4 million trade unionists and knows that delivering for them will be challenging while a Conservative government in power. It is therefore unsurprising that McCluskey has already urged Corbyn to “come to terms with his leadership” and recognise that he “can’t necessarily say the first thing that comes into his head.”
Labour MPs have a long history of backing their leader: even George Lansbury was forced out by TUC General Secretary Ernest Bevin rather than his parliamentarians. However, Labour have never been led by a man so detached from the rest of the PLP and despite internal division over airstrikes in Syria most MPs have wearily accepted that Corbyn won’t be removed until he has been defeated at the ballot box.
Poor results in London, Scotland and council elections next May would undermine Corbyn’s leadership and may signal to MPs and trade unionists that the time is right to replace him. Given his hold over the party apparatus and ability to transcend normal right-left divisions, Watson is an obvious candidate, if not as king then certainly as the power behind the throne.