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by GK Strategy 14th September, 2015
3 min read

What about Watson?

Headlines over the weekend were understandably and inevitably dominated by the news of left-wing veteran Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide victory in the Labour leadership contest. As we enter Corbyn’s first week as Labour’s premier, the focus is now beginning to shift onto the winner of the deputy leadership, Tom Watson, and the challenge he faces as the Labour party’s second in command.

While Corbyn is putatively tasked with winning over the electorate in time for 2020, the timescale for Watson’s challenge – party reunification – is far more imminent and pressing. Internally, the party is in disarray; Watson’s duty as deputy will be to reconsolidate his party and bring true the call made in his victory speech “that only through unity comes the strength we need to fight the Tories”. True as this may be, as Gordon Brown’s former ‘hitman’ and a key figure in the bringing down as Tony Blair, Watson’s capacity as pacifier and deliverer of union will be mocked by many. New Labour might have been rejected by its membership but lives on in the Commons – assisting the man who helped end their last bout of electoral success will be difficult for many to digest.

Watson’s credibility as party harmoniser is questioned further by his fundamental clashes with Corbyn on key policy areas, which Watson has taken little time to voice. Filling in his slot on the Andrew Marr show yesterday (13th) after a last-minute cancellation from Corbyn, Watson refused to budge on his pro-Trident and pro-NATO position, in stark contrast with central tenets to Corbyn’s campaign.

A Labour insider was quoted in the New Statesman in the run up to the leadership election who described Corbyn and Watson as Trotsky and Stalin; Corbyn as a romantic philosopher, Watson as the fearless marshal. Watson spent the last parliament as a lone warrior on the backbenches – his standing for deputy leadership signals a desire to move back into mainstream politics, and more importantly, back into power. He has signalled a willingness to respond to the public voice – demonstrated by his calls for hardening the Labour line on immigration and the expansion of the armed forces as a means to win back Tory and UKIP deflectors. Such narrative and compromise seems unthinkable from Corbyn.

Watson is a politician whose party profile as the archetypal machine politician is in stark contrast to his public persona as a passionate issues-based campaigner. He will need to marry together these two distinct strands if he is to have success in his new role. We shouldn’t underestimate the possibility that this is not his end-game, and that he has his eye on a greater prize; as Deputy Leader, in the event of a Corbyn defenestration, he is next in line to the throne. This fact might have passed some people by – but it won’t have escaped Tom Watson’s notice.

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