What does Tom Watson’s departure mean for Labour?

© UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor
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Tom Watson is standing down both as a Labour MP and as deputy leader on December 12th. The announcement last night came as a shock, but makes a lot of sense: whether Labour wins or loses the upcoming election, the newly reconstituted parliamentary party would have more easily been able to trigger a deputy leadership election. And better to quit on Day One of the general election campaign than risk being taken out by the Tories in West Bromwich East, where people voted 68% to Leave in 2016. This context is important, but it is also true that Watson’s departure can be chiefly attributed to personal reasons.

To the disappointment of many Jeremy Corbyn critics, particularly those who want party failures on antisemitism to be highlighted wherever possible, this was not an outwardly acrimonious exit. Watson has promised to tour the country campaigning for a Labour government in the run-up to polling day, and his exchange of letters with the Labour leader acknowledged their “political differences” but saw both express warmth and recognise “shared interests”. It was certainly not a mic drop – though that also means it wasn’t final, and commentary from the Labour veteran on how the party is doing after the election should be expected.

What does this mean for the future of the Labour Party? Corbynsceptics in the parliamentary party may be wondering who will lead the resistance now. Watson leaving makes certain what we already knew would happen, and has already begun: internal battles in the future are to be fought between the leadership and the soft left. The ‘old right’ doesn’t get much of a look-in. The debate over Brexit has ushered in this new era, where having politics of the Labour left is a given – the question is where you stand on antisemitism, Remain and internal processes such as disciplinary reform proposals. If there is a leadership election in the next year, those are the dividing lines along which the contest will be fought.

John McDonnell had already started to assume the role of resistor, acting as a sort of head of complaints for Labour MPs. And he is the other party figure hitting headlines today, as the Shadow Chancellor is set to deliver his first big speech of the election campaign. Visiting his home town of Liverpool, just as Corbyn dropped into his home county of Shropshire yesterday, McDonnell will promise an “irreversible shift” of political power from London to the North under a Labour government. That means both infrastructure funding and a physical relocation of a section of the Treasury. The key priority is to make these changes difficult to reverse by any future Conservative administration.

There has been a lot of Labour news over the last 24 hours: don’t forget to read about what happened at the national executive committee (NEC) meeting as well as the latest parliamentary selections. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.

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