Last Friday I headed over to the Leftfield stage at Glastonbury to watch a political debate. My mates thought I was crackers, spending the first day of the world’s greatest music festival watching Owen Jones and Tom Watson have a scrap over austerity in a tent. It was something of a busman’s holiday, sure, but I thought a debate in these surroundings would be fascinating. And so it proved to be – it was Tom Watson’s last official act as a member of the Shadow Cabinet.
With the benefit of hindsight it’s possible to note now that Tom didn’t quite seem invested in what he was saying last Friday. At the most lefty tent at a broadly lefty festival, his towing of the party line on austerity was always going to be a tough gig. But this most combative of political characters wasn’t as pugilistic as I’d expected. Since then Watson has admitted that:
“Almost to a man, woman and child the people wanted me to give them the route map back to supporting and believing in Labour. Yet I couldn’t traverse the chasmic gap between the words coming out of my mouth and the voices in my head.”
For someone who – despite his flaws – has always been one of our most blunt and human politicians, it must be hard to continue playing the party line with a straight bat if, on some level, you find yourself less invested in what you’re expected to say than you might otherwise be. At Glastonbury last week, Watson appears to have hit the brick wall that divides political life from normal life. It’s sad that wall even exists, and one day – I hope – it might crumble. But for now it is insurmountable – going to music festivals isn’t what politicians do, more’s the pity.
Of course the subsequent suspension by the party of Karie Murphy – Watson’s aide – over the selection in Falkirk have cast a pall over his decision to move on. It’s impossible not to see an inextricable link between the two. Party officials are clear that Tom played no part in the Falkirk farrago, and no blame for what transpired there has been attributed to him. But it’s hard to see how he could have carried on in the Shadow Cabinet after a close associate was so sanctioned by the party.
That’s not to say that Watson hasn’t played an active role in party selections over the past decade – because he undoubtedly has. Labour leaders of the past – and present – have known or even tactictly endorsed his involvement in how the party selects candidates. Ed Miliband was no different to his predecessor on that score. Sometimes that’s meant Watson being involved with selection processes and by-elections with a taint of the unpleasant around them. But all the while I still found him an engaging, passionate and honest campaigner. That’s the Watson paradox – and when I interviewed him a few months I was keen to probe which Tom Watson – the campaigner or the fixer – was the real one. I didn’t get much closer to the answer. It’s probably both.
Although I’m sad to see Tom leave the Shadow Cabinet, I’m also looking forward to what he gets up to next. This is his third frontbench resignation. All have been in the teeth of a media firestorm. None of today’s media coverage will be particularly new to him. When you’ve had the tabloids rifling through your bins, being on the front page of the broadsheets must feel like a walk in the park.
There was a clear signal less than an hour after he stood down that the backbench crusading Tom Watson would be returning, rather than slipping silently into the night, as he rattled off a letter to Senator Rockerfeller pushing for further investigations into Rupert Murdoch, his bete noir. Being in the Shadow Cabinet was restrictive, the green benches hold fewer ties. Expect a swift and pronounced resumption of hostilities against News International and others. He’ll be back fighting his corner and pursuing his causes. Because he’s always had them. Phone hacking is the cause he’s best known for. But Gordon Brown was a Watson cause too. Ed Miliband likewise. And Miliband will continue to be a Watson cause. You can expect Tom to still go out to bat for the Labour leader if that is ever needed or asked for.
It just won’t be his day job.
In his piece for Vice magazine on Glastonbury, poignantly published a few hours before he stepped down (and how many politicians would even have attempted to write such a thing) Watson – wrongly – suggests that the Rolling Stones were “shite” last weekend. He left after a couple of songs. But perhaps if he had stayed until the end, he would have heard a hundred thousand people screaming some old but wise advice across that famous Pilton field that he himself could heed:
“You can’t always get what you want.
But if you try sometimes, you just might find
You get what you need”
This may be “Goodnight Mister Tom”. But it’s not goodbye. Not by a long shot. I expect we’ll be seeing him more on these pages before too long. I for one look forward to seeing what happens next…