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Tom Watson: From Stump to Social Network

In the first of a special series on the upcoming local elections, Paul Waugh speaks to Tom Watson, who is heading up Labour’s campaign

WORDS: PAUL WAUGH


Sitting in his Portcullis office, Tom Watson is for once not preoccupied with phone hacking but with vote-gathering. Thirty years after he was first employed by the party, Labour’s media star is busy with his day job as deputy chair and campaign co-ordinator for the coming local and London elections. And it’s clear he has strong ideas about how to measure success or failure.

Labour will have two key messages for the coming battle. “We need to show that Labour is with you in tough times, and I would imagine that you would see that slogan used quite a lot during the campaign.

“I think we also need to continue to make the case that the Conservatives are out of touch with the British people. The reason that’s important is because we believe they are making the wrong decisions and it’s harming families.”

“If there’s one thing I’m trying to drill into all wings of the party, it’s that this must be simple. For the last three years at least, excellence has been the enemy of the good when it comes to the Labour Party trying to communicate its powerful message of change to the British people.”

Watson says he’s going to be “very honest and open” about the difficulties of selling Labour’s message of opposing Tory cuts, while implementing others at local level and trying to get frontbenchers to say they will be responsible with voters’ money.

“It’s going to be quite challenging for us,” he says. Crucially, Labour lost the game of expectations management last year, he suggests. “We won the election last year but lost the media war, in the sense that we won 850 seats – which, given that was 12 months after the most damaging general election defeat in our history, was frankly an electoral miracle. But it was written up as a victory for the Conservatives.

“There were nearly 9,000 seats up for grabs last year; this year there are nearly 2,500. The truth is I don’t know how many seats we are going to win. But I think a realistic, stretching challenge will be 350 seat gains.”

The party is fighting on four fronts, in London, England, Scotland and Wales, and each will be tailored to local needs. In the capital, Watson says: “London is quite a tall order, the numbers are stacked against us. The Tories have set the test as Boris, but we need to also make one or two gains in the GLA.”

Watson says that an extra challenge is the party’s “scarce resources”, and the fact that it has the lowest number of professional organisers in his lifetime. Older voters in particular are being targeted.

“In local government elections, turnout is lower and older people tend to vote in greater numbers. We know that some of the big gains that Labour have made in the polls since the general election are with the generation of young people. But we’ve not been as successful with older voters. We’ve got to really convince people, particularly those in retirement, that being responsible with their finances is at the forefront of our decision-making.”

He says that Ken Livingstone has done well in London by hammering his ‘Fares Fair’ message, but stresses that crime and cuts to police is the other big issue.

“Boris essentially won by convincing people that crime was significantly on the rise, in fact he led on the campaign on knife crime. He sort of frightened people that this was out of control. Well, what do you know? In the last four years knife crime amongst young people has consistently gone up every year since he made that pledge.”

Yet Watson is also leading Labour’s assault on Boris’s celebrity image. “What we know from the work on the doorstep, work on the polls and the limited private polling we’ve got, is that the one thing that really frustrates Londoners is the fact that he’s got a second job and he’s a part-time mayor. And the thing that sends people off the Richter scale is when it’s explained that Boris Johnson earns a quarter of a million pounds a year with his second job, and that he’s described that as ‘chicken feed’.”

Let battle commence.

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