Tom Watson: 'If we don’t get an election, then obviously a people’s vote is still on the table'
Tom Watson has found a new lease of life since shedding no fewer than 102 pounds. With the Brexit vote careering into view, and all that might follow, it is a good time for Labour’s deputy leader to find a new level of focus. He talks to Kevin Schofield
Tom Watson is a politician who is now at peace with himself. After our interview, one of his aides remarked on how I had caught Labour’s deputy leader in one of his “Zen-like states”. He has quite a lot of days like that, it seems.
His well-documented weight-loss – 102 pounds at the last count – has undoubtedly played its part in helping his mental wellbeing. But he also appears to be more relaxed about his place in the Labour firmament. Neither a Corbynista nor a member of the awkward squad, he is now a vital buffer between MPs who will never be reconciled with the direction the party is currently taking, and a politician with absolutely no intention of changing his approach after 35 years in Parliament.
Watson and Corbyn have a decent working relationship, texting one another daily to discuss, among other things, football and family. “Anything other than politics,” suggests one Westminster wag.
The unique nature of their relationship means Watson is often called upon to clarify what Corbyn meant to say during an interview. To that end, I ask him precisely what the Labour leader meant when he told German magazine Der Spiegel that Brexit could not be stopped. His comments, reinforced in a subsequent Channel 4 interview, appeared to contradict the party’s official position that the possibility of a second EU referendum – a so-called people’s vote – should remain on the table.
Watson says: “To re-state the Labour conference position, we think for a complex deal like this the best way to assess its merits are in a meaningful vote. We need to really press very hard to make sure that whatever motion comes to the House can be amended.
“If you get to the point, and it’s looking more likely, where Parliament cannot decide what the best option is, we think that’s the point where you go to the people in a general election. They voted to leave the European Union, they didn’t vote for food shortages or problems with medical supplies or not to be able to sell goods to the European markets. They voted to bring sovereignty back to the UK. If that plan isn’t going to work the way to do it is to put your option to the people in a general election. If we don’t get that, then obviously a people’s vote is still on the table and our position has not changed.”
Intriguingly, he adds: “We’ve been saying that is on the table for a year and a half. At that time, it seemed very unlikely that there would be a people’s vote, that was the insurance option at the end of a series of unlikely events.
“It seems to me that it is more likely given the weakness of Theresa May’s position. She leads a government without a majority, it now looks like she leads a Cabinet without a majority as well. Given the weakness of her own government, I think it is more likely that we could get there.”
Nevertheless, Watson says it is “inconceivable” that the Prime Minister will not choose to have an election if the Commons does not support her Brexit deal. Most opinion polls suggest the two main parties are virtually neck-and-neck, but the headline figures mask the difficulties Labour would face in securing a majority.
Primary among them is the party’s ongoing difficulties in persuading working class voters that Corbyn should be Prime Minister. While Labour far exceeded expectations last year, their failure to advance in their traditional heartlands was what ultimately cost them an unlikely victory.
Watson, the MP for West Bromwich East, acknowledges that suspicions about Corbyn’s political hinterland still persist, and must be addressed if Labour is to win next time around. In particular, he points to the recent controversy caused by Corbyn outrider Aaron Bastani, after he described the Poppy Appeal as “white supremacist” and called for the Royal British Legion to be disbanded, as the type of distraction that the party can well do without.
“Working class communities have not had their fair share of the economic pie. They liked our manifesto, but they want to be convinced about a couple of things. Firstly, that we’re really going to deliver for them because they’ve been let down by successive governments in the past. And they also want to be reassured on issues like security,” Watson says.
“West Bromwich is a very patriotic community, the whole West Midlands is, so you get that kind of bone-headed populism of people like Aaron Bastani last week attacking poppy sellers and what the poppy stands for and people worry about that. I know Bastani is a periphery figure in Labour politics and he’s not an official spokesperson, but that kind of view just leaves a question mark, particularly in working class communities, and we need to reassure them that we understand that they want to live in a secure country where they feel safe in their homes and their communities, and where they know their country is defended.”
Another issue which could stand in the way of a Labour majority is the party’s handling of its anti-Semitism problem, something which Watson brings him “great shame”. He is, however, encouraged by the performance of Jennie Formby, the party’s general secretary, in addressing an issue which dogged Labour all summer.
“I hope that Jennie’s changes will mean that we are finally going to deal with racism against Jewish people and the small number of anti-Semites who have led to so much dismay and misery in our party,” he says. “I wish we could have dealt with it quicker and more decisively. It’s going to be a slow road back to rebuild trust with the Jewish community, but Jennie has assured me she has done everything she can to make sure the process is speeded up.”
Watson knows more than most how divisive the issue has proved to be for his party, with many members seeing any attempt to highlight the problem as an attempt to undermine Corbyn. When he called on Labour to fully adopt the international definition of anti-Semitism earlier this year, a Twitterstorm was hastily arranged with the hashtag #ResignWatson. He says it was an illuminating experience.
“I experienced a level of animosity and venom that a lot of my female colleagues experience every day,” he says. “Having then gone into it and looked at how these things operate, there were 112 Twitter accounts that published 5,000 tweets in an hour.
“From that, there were 12 to 18 people identified who were Labour party members and used some pretty anti-Semitic language and we referred them to the party’s disciplinary measures.
“There is an intolerance in a very small number of our members that was instructive.
“I think in the long run social media companies won’t survive if they allow that level of hate. Their take down procedures are poor. They often hide behind an argument for free expression to defend hate speech and they don’t resource their moderation well enough. They say they’re improving but I don’t think they are.”
Barely 24 hours after our conversation, a puff of white smoke emerged from Downing Street announcing that a deal had finally been done between British and EU negotiators on a draft Brexit agreement. Before the ink had had a chance to dry on the document, Tory eurosceptics and the DUP were telling all and sundry that it was a betrayal of the referendum result and they would not support it.
Assuming a general election or referendum are not called to break the logjam, a no-deal Brexit would seem to be the inevitable result. Watson, the Shadow Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, makes no bones about what that would mean for the arts world and the UK as a whole.
“I think a no-deal Brexit would be catastrophic for this country and the people of this country,” he says. “It would change the fabric of Britain in a way that would be impossible to recover from.
“In the arts, there’s a whole host of very technical challenges for our creative industries caused by Brexit, whether it’s the ability for our musicians to tour, to how we police copyright. What worries my team is that [Culture Secretary] Jeremy Wright is not answering the concerns of the creative industries, where it could have a dramatic impact.
“One-third of the jobs in London’s tourist trade are done by European nationals. If we don’t get a deal on labour, our tourism industry will be impacted on. If you look at the UK music sector, if bands need to get a visa to travel across two dozen countries it will have a huge impact on the industry. It would also make it harder for galleries to share works of art, and for touring theatre companies to come here.”
On the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, Watson says he worries about the deep divisions which the Brexit debate has caused across the country, and says he was impressed by French president Emmanuel Macron’s speech last weekend on the rising threat of nationalism. He says it contained lessons which prominent politicians in the UK would do well to heed.
“If you look back at the First World War, it was rival nationalisms that was one of the main contributors to what subsequently happened,” he says. “I know that Macron was looking at the growth of nationalism in Russia, but it does seem to me that the faux patriotism of people like [Jacob] Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson fuels that nationalism and the intolerance that sits behind that. I think wiser heads in all parties are increasingly concerned about an intolerant nationalism that divides and prohibits people working through their disagreements.
“You’ve also got this sense of national isolationism, which is a growing mood in Trump’s America. It’s incumbent on all of us to make the case for those international institutions that were painstakingly put together over many generations for a purpose.
“Our forefathers and mothers understood that if you don’t want the world to go to war again, you need to give all you’ve got to resolving your differences at international institutions, whether it’s the UN or Nato or even the European Union.
“I don’t know whether Rees-Mogg and Johnson are sufficiently aware of what they’ve done. They’ve unleashed real forces of intolerance in the UK that are disturbing for anyone, no matter where you sit in the Brexit debate. We need a more tolerant country and you should always do your best, if you can, in politics to bring people together. You need to be very careful about stirring the pot of nationalism because you lose control of it.”
Should anyone need any tips on tolerance and the need for moderation, they could do worse than knock on the Labour deputy leader’s door. It is fair to say that his decision last year to change his lifestyle has dramatically altered his outlook and improved his ability to function in the job.
“The honest truth is I just wanted to live,” he says. “I’ve got young kids and I kept reading about Labour politicians dying in their 50s, people like Robin Cook and John Smith.
“I knew I was way overweight and there was an inner conversation that was growing inside. I’m 51 and I want to live for another 51 years. I want a purposeful life and I want a rewarding life and every day I feel like I’m a transformed person. I’m clearer-headed, I’m more active. And I think I’m more tolerant, although my team might think differently.”
As British politics enters its most turbulent period in decades, with the need for cool heads and rational thinking more important than ever, Tom Watson could hardly have timed his transformation any better.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.