Labour members were delivered an enormous shock by the sudden resignation of Tom Watson. He was a stalwart of the party’s right wing. Nobody expected him to leave the party like this. His unexpected departure has effectively decapitated the right wing of the party.
Throughout the course of Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, Tom Watson has been the undisputed leader of the right wing and their attempts to remove the twice-elected Labour leader.
At times it seemed that others, such as Hilary Benn, might become their champion. But Tom Watson’s position as deputy leader of the party proved decisive, giving the right wing’s attacks on Corbyn the appearance of legitimacy.
At the same time, his office and resources provided the Blairites with an independent – and well-funded – base of power from which to plan and launch their attacks.
At the 2016 Labour Party conference, Tom Watson launched an open ideological attack on Corbyn and the party’s left wing, saying that: “Capitalism, comrades, is not the enemy. Money’s not the problem. Business isn’t bad.”
He constantly warned that the Labour Party was being taken over by ‘Trotskyite entrists’. He banged the drum about the so-called ‘anti-semitic stain’ on the party. He publicly undermined the party by absurdly claiming that it would “disappear into a vortex of eternal shame and embarrassment” for its supposed antisemitism, despite all the evidence that the party is in no way antisemitic.
Watson became a hate figure for many on the party’s resurgent left – not just for being the leader and figurehead of the Labour right wing, but also for constantly attacking the party in public with lies and distortions. In doing so, he was endlessly undermining all the hard work of activists to put the party in power.
It seemed that Watson had taken on the role of leader of the right wing with increasing confidence after Chuka Ummuna et al. left the party in February this year. It was at this point that he formed the ‘Future Britain’ group, aimed at organising right-wing Labour MPs, who still form the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). This was an open challenge to the party’s leadership and left wing.
Watson was quite openly strategising on behalf of the Labour right wing. He even complained that Chuka Umunna had left the party ‘prematurely’. In other words, it was not wrong for right-wing MPs to leave the party and deprive it of seats in Parliament – but that this could be done better and more effectively, in a more damaging way.
The Machiavellian deputy leader even had the cheek to use the departure of Umunna, Berger, and others to demand that Corbyn “reshuffle the shadow cabinet to give greater weight to MPs with social democratic rather than socialist views”.
It therefore comes as a great surprise that he has now joined Umunna in ‘leaving prematurely’. In doing so, he is depriving the party’s right wing of its most legitimate and powerful leader, who will now surely be replaced by a left-winger.
According to the Financial Times, “One official close to the shadow cabinet said more ‘moderates’ might quit before the election. ‘So far we’ve seen the Tories haemorrhaging some great MPs. Totally possible more of us could go too,’ said one MP.”
However, quitting at this point would only embolden the left wing even further, allowing socialists to quickly take the place of departing right-wingers as MPs in the coming election.
Instead, the move looks like an act of desperation and demoralisation. The Guardian quotes a ‘senior party figure’ speaking of “a great sense of desolation and abandonment sweeping the moderates.”
Sky News’ Lewis Godall has tweeted that ‘moderate’ MPs “are stunned and furious in equal measure” by Watson’s departure. “It’s not part of a wider moderate plot. Nobody knew it was coming,” the Sky journalist claims.
Watson’s resignation letter doesn’t even take the opportunity to attack Corbyn or the party’s left wing. Rather, it is a highly personal – and even friendly – letter.
By quitting in the personal and unexpected way that he has, Watson has ironically left his ‘Future Britain’ group with no future. The dynamics of the party are now changed – even more favourable to the left.
The right wing’s long term plan has always been to undermine Corbyn from within, dragging the party into endless manufactured crises. Eventually they would use one of these to either split en masse or force another leadership election.
At the very least, it seemed that the remaining Blairites in the PLP – organised around Watson – would stay behind in order to act as a Trojan horse on behalf of the establishment, bringing down a Corbyn government from the inside once Labour was in power.
But by leaving now, Watson has left the rest of the Labour right wing rudderless, significantly undermining this plan.
Nevertheless, these recent developments are a reminder that much of the PLP is still out-of-sync with Labour’s grassroots. After the election, once in power, we therefore still have a job to finish.
The truth is that the Labour right wing have never been able to score any real successes in the past few years. This is because they are deeply unpopular and represent the past.
The Labour Party has become the biggest political party in Europe under Corbyn. Rank-and-file members were emboldened by the recent party conference – the most left-wing in living memory. Tom Watson, on the other hand, felt so hated that he dared not even make his planned conference speech.
Corbyn has come out fighting in this election campaign. He is cutting a more determined and confident figure than previously.
Labour activists like ourselves are busy getting on with the job of winning this general election – something we are confident of doing. We are hitting the streets in record numbers, holding hundreds of thousands of conversations with voters.
We are determined to win by fighting for socialist policies and ideas. It is the right wing of the Labour Party that look to the future with foreboding, because they have no ideas and do not want to change society. Instead, they defend the broken status quo.
We look to the future with confidence and optimism, knowing that – armed with a socialist programme – the working class can change society.