Sometimes loyalty means saying what your leader doesn’t want to hear

August 17, 2013 2:39 pm

So Tom Watson has given an interview to Decca Aitkenhead (who seems to have a remarkable ability to get Labour politicians to bear their souls) in which he argues that the way the Falkirk farrago has been handled by the party – especially reporting the selection to the police – was “silly”. He attacks the process as “trial by spin doctor” and defends his office manager and friend Karie Murphy, saying:

“The reports in the press are wrong. Karie has told me she doesn’t believe that anyone working on her campaign within Unite signed up people without their knowledge, and I believe her. I think a huge injustice has been done to her. When they complete this inquiry they will find she hasn’t done anything wrong.”

That’s similar to what many in the party (and the unions) have been saying from the outset, particularly in the wake of a BBC Radio 4 report last month that made a similar argument to Watson’s. It’s also not surprising to hear Tom saying this publicly, as anyone who has spoken to him since his resignation will know it’s his clear and settled view, and now he’s communicated it to the press. To be honest I’m not exactly delighted by that. Not because I don’t share some of Tom’s concerns about Falkirk. I do – especially in terms of transparency. But frankly, I’d rather not have heard the word Falkirk again for quite some time.

But as the issue has been raised again, let’s be clear about how the party could handle this differently.

As I’ve argued before, the only way to settle this once and for all is to release the report and have all of the facts out in the open. But the determination of many in the party (and, admittedly, many of the party’s opponents) to have the report made public is matched only by the determination of senior party figures to ensure it never sees the light of day. Only a handful of people have seen it. I’m astonished it hasn’t leaked yet and I’m not sure it ever will.

But that’s highly unlikely to happen. My breath is not being held. The report, alas, will remain something of a party mystery.

What I’ve also seen plenty of today is people raising Watson’s determination – as expressed in his resignation letter – to be Ed Miliband’s “loyal servant”. The implication being that if you disagree with your leader who are automatically disloyal. That’s a view of politics that needs to be knocked on the head. Whilst it’s manifestly dangerous to have MPs attacking the leader personally – which Watson clearly doesn’t – querying the political direction of the party is something that MPs should frankly be more willing to do.

As George Eaton has noted over at the New Statesman though, it won’t be Watson’s well known views on Falkirk that are problematic for Miliband, it’s his call for an EU referendum. It’s also his position on the economy, where he feels Labour – meaning his two friends Miliband and Balls – need to be bolder.

What Watson is saying is symptomatic of how many Labour MPs feel about the lack of messages and clarity coming from the leadership, which feeds a sense of drift in the party. But it’s not disloyal to point that out per se. Labour does need a better answer on the EU referendum (my preference is for a vote on General Election day) and Labour does need a better answer on how the economy can grow better and share the proceeds of growth fairly.

Saying that isn’t disloyal. And in fact sometimes loyalty means saying what your leader doesn’t want to hear – especially if it’s a message that needs to be heard. I hope Miliband is listening.

  • Amber_Star

    It’s clear that very few of the members, never mind the voting public, have any interest in this. All this ‘managerial’ stuff with allegations, investigations, (secret?) reports & expectations of leaks, briefings & counter briefings might be ‘exciting’ for the political media but it just seems daft to me. Everybody who is involved should just sit down together, put their cards on the table & sort it out.

  • Rob Marchant

    I’m afraid I think the argument wanting of Falkirk to have been a “storm in a teacup” to me looks like wishful thinking. It also, a little unfairly, implies that Ed Miliband has rather disingenuously engineered a crisis to do something he planned to anyway. On the contrary, I think he would have absolutely – like any leader with an ounce of common sense – avoided a big argument with major unions, had he seen any kind of alternative.

    For the record, I’ve documented the reasons why I believe the Radio 4 doc on Falkirk to have been wrong-headed here: Critically, the choice of Seumas Milne as key witness for the argument it is making does not smack of objectivity.

    • Daniel Speight

      Why are so many many afraid of the report being made public? If they can answer that maybe we can begin to understand either their views or is it their tactics over Falkirk.

    • Matthew Blott

      I didn’t realise Milne’s involvement in this, says it all really. He’d blame the bad weather on Western imperialism and is nothing more than a George Galloway with pretensions.

      • RogerMcC

        The one thing that prevented me from succumbing to Pete Willsman’s full recruiting pitch to CLPD at a regional conference a couple of years ago was his aside that Milne would be addressing their AGM last year – Even in the Guardian with its roster of apologists for every monstrous dictatorship on earth which have ever claimed however implausibly to be anti-imperialist he stands out as the most toxic columnist.

        But lets not forget Seamus’s dad ran the BBC – so hardly surprising he pops up as token left-winger occasionally.

        • Matthew Blott

          Indeed, an odious little man who likes to dish it out but is incredibly thin skinned when it comes to criticism. Say anything out of line in the comments and the Cif moderators are on you like a shot. I’ve received a threatening email from one of his groupies. When I transgressed again I was subsequently banned from posting for over a year – for something pretty benign.

          • Matthew Blott

            Well at least one person is a Seamus Milne fan. C’mon, instead of anonymously downgrading my comments, show yourself and be heard – tell us why posh boy isn’t an unctuous apologist for totalitarianism!

          • RogerMcC

            Clearly the man has fans as he represents a depressingly popular strand of bourgeois pseudo-leftism to which every issue can be reduced to a simple and Manichean pro- vs anti-imperialist/Western/American/Israeli dichotomy.

            (as this camp now includes right libertarians like Greenwald, Assange and Snowden as well as outright fascists and anti-semites like some of the Counterpunch contributors it is no longer necessary to add capitalist to that list).

            And I was one myself (I still have a dog-eared copy of The Enemy Within somewhere) until 9.11 drew new dividing lines and the scales finally fell away from at least some of our eyes.

      • Daniel Speight

        Yes, let’s shoot the messenger.

        Still no explanation as to why the report is secret.

        First excuse, it mentions names of local party members and may offend against the data protection act. Answer – if our politicians have taught us anything it’s what the word redaction means.

        Second excuse, it’s being investigated by the police who we called in. Answer – not anymore it isn’t.

        Come on now NEC, what’s the next excuse? Give us a good one to make us chuckle.

        • Matthew Blott

          I’m afraid in Milne’s case it is a case of shoot the messenger. He has a view of the world he wants to put across and frames his arguments according to that view with no objectivity whatsoever. This is a man who complains that Stalin’s Soviet empire gets a bad press for goodness sake.

          • Daniel Speight

            Third excuse. None. Well let’s talk about something else instead.

          • Matthew Blott

            I have no idea what you’re talking about.

          • Daniel Speight

            Talking about the BBC report and its author does not explain why the NEC’s report still hasn’t been published. You want to talk about Milne, and not knowing the man you are quite possibly right, but you are not so keen on protesting this secrecy. What you have to say just becomes spin when you do this. Does that give you some idea?

          • RogerMcC

            Always happy to pile in on Shameless but as they say even a stopped clock is right twice a day and this just might be one of those occasions.

            FWIW (which is literally nothing these days) I do actually agree that either the report should be published or that we should be given a detailed explanation of why legally it can’t be.

            Presumably it must include names of members who might properly object to having their names publicised (particularly if it were true that any were being signed up without their consent or knowledge) but the answer to that is to redact those personal details.

            If even with redaction the report is still likely to involve us in litigation that the party is unsure it can win then clearly we have a deeper problem….

  • Simon

    I agree with Amber_Star in one way however it is now clear that a narrative is building around Ed. Before he was elected I said that he was well known to be just like Brown – someone who micro managed but then dithered over decisions.

    Watson was allowed to become a big beast within the party and so his criticism is damaging to someone who is already, in my opinion, fatally damaged.

    Labour is running out of time and yet more navel gazing is unhelpful. Unless the party does something really big at conference then I think its only hope is a deal with Lib Dems in 2015.

  • Brumanuensis

    I see Dan Hodges had a ‘reds under the bed’ rant at you on Twitter, Mark, for publishing this piece. I was very impressed with Watson’s interview; he talked a great deal of sense. A pity Ed Miliband hasn’t got his spine.

    • PaulHalsall

      I don’t like Hodges, and hate his sniping perch at the Telegraph, where Mary Riddell does better, and even Obourne and Charles Moore can seem more human.

      But he is not a bad analyst. When other Telegraph writers were witterring on about Romney winning right up until the last day, Hodges read the situation perfectly.

      So, while not agreeing with his views, I think they are worth reading.

      • Brumanuensis

        Yes, Hodges is very clever and when he isn’t engaging in one of his diatribes about Ed Miliband, he can make some astute points. It’s just a pity he doesn’t do it that often.

      • RogerMcC

        I actually used to enjoy reading Hodges in the New Statesman – even when woefully mis-targeted his sheer capacity to hate was impressive – and as Carl Schmitt pointed out without emnity and hate there is no real politics.

        Plus you could be assured that his comments section would be full of people hating right back which is how things should be.

        But at the Telegraph I just can’t be bothered following him.

  • Daniel Speight

    Ed Miliband fired Watson over Falkirk. (Although this ‘firing’ is Westminster gobbledygook for not accepting Watson’s resignation at first and then accepting it a day later. I guess Ed’s spin doctor figures that makes him look stronger. Is this the useless Tom Baldwin’s work again?) He wants to use Falkirk to break the link with one of the founding parts of the Labour Party, the trade unions. Their is a NEC report that convinced him this was the right thing to do. Yet, the report is kept secret with no sensible reason being given for doing this.

    My fear is this is leading up to spring conference where the link is broken on Ed Miliband standing up and saying it’s either me or McClusky, still without knowing what bought about this major change. At that point Progess and Blairites will control the party and the only connection with the labour movement will be in the party’s name. Shame on Ed Miliband for being part of this stitch-up.

  • PaulHalsall

    How can we have a Labour Candidate in London blaming “The Gay Lobby” for attacking Russia for the anti-gay laws there?

    • Rob Marchant

      Wow. Probably one of the same crew as posted at Socialist Unity on that subject, I suspect.

      • dave stone

        Very astutely perceived Rob, well done.

        I suspect they’re now about to launch a campaign to criminalise homosexuality. Typical socialists.

        • Mike Homfray

          Unfortunately there is still an element who think that its all down to class and it will probably disappear come the revolution.

          This guy appears to be a candidate to be councillor – has he been selected anywhere yet?

    • Matthew Blott

      I can’t see the offending post on his Facebook page so he may have removed it. I’ve never heard of the guy but it looks like he has various Russia links so it’s not surprising but disappointing all the same.

  • Chilbaldi

    This really is typical of Watson. Briefing and drip drip to the media, all hidden under a facade of bumbling folksy charm. He is one of the most calculating politicians in the party.

  • Matthew Blott

    I’m guessing the wider point is that being loyal to the party and loyal to the leader are sometimes mutually exclusive. Gordon Brown was a truly awful Prime Minister and those calling for his removal were the true party loyalists because his replacement might have saved us from this current lot.

  • Pingback: One rule for the Left, another for the Right: in Labour, some disloyalties are more disloyal than others – Telegraph Blogs

  • Matthew Blott

    Here is what I said well over twelve months ago …

    “Cameron will eventually have to concede a referendum to assuage the Tory Right and so the other parties wilhavl follow. It would benefit Miliband if he was to come out now in favour of an in or out vote, looking bold in the process rather than playing catch up which he will be forced to do.”

    I fear it’s all a bit late now.

  • Matthew Blott

    Dan Hodges makes some interesting points on this here.

    • RogerMcC

      Although I used to be quite fond of Hodges in his New Statesman days his column really could be autogenerated now.

      • Matthew Blott

        I agree, his column is pretty boring now and I wouldn’t normally post a link to one of his pieces but I do think it’s relevant here.

  • RogerMcC

    You haven’t actually read the Maastricht Treaty have you?

    The preamble clearly establishes it as a development from previous treaties and of a long process aimed at ‘ending the division of the European continent’.

    Of course it doesn’t actually mention The War – but then you really wouldn’t with Germans in the room……

  • RogerMcC

    ‘bear their souls’.

    Would that be some sort of Iron John-like ritual accompanied by a drum circle and sweaty dancing?

  • RogerMcC

    If I am lecturing you on the history of the UKs relationship with the entity now known as the EU (which incidentally I am old enough to have lived through most of and to remember Britain’s original accession to it in 1973) and am quoting directly from the text of the Maastricht Treaty clearly I know all about its institutional evolution and could give you all of the key dates of name changes and major treaties without actually having to look them up.

    So I was actually paying you the compliment of assuming that you did too and do not need to be told the proper names of the institution at the various stages of its evolution.

    I could of course have said Europe but I have a semi-autistic aversion to ever using the name of a whole continent to describe a mere subset of its nations.

    I am usually similarly pedantic about getting the proper names of people and things right according to the date being referred to but life really is too short to do that for something that comes up for debate as frequently as the EU.

    So sorry, sloppy as it is you are just going to live with some level of terminological inexactitude on this one issue.


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