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.