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Labour’s New Era: The View From Tom Watson

Tom Watson

Former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, shares his thoughts following the Labour leadership results

The early bird catches the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

Like Keir Starmer, Owen Smith is steeped in Labour traditions yet lacking the sentimentalism that often paralyses tribal politicians. He’ll be in reflective mood today as a new Labour leader starts his term of office in urgent discussions with the PM.

Smith, a member of the Open Swimming Society, jumped in at the deep end in 2016, dragging many possible successors to Jeremy Corbyn with him into a doomed leadership contest. Into choppy waters went Rachel Reeves, Yvette Cooper, Lucy Powell and Lisa Nandy. Why does Labour not have a female leader today? Because Keir Starmer knew the next Labour leader would be a member of Jeremy Corbyn’s second, appointed, shadow cabinet. He remained on the front bench.

As Owen Smith knows, politics is fickle. Cruel, even. To survive two election defeats, a parliamentary insurgency and the brutally unforgiving faction at the helm of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer has already distinguished himself as a master tactician, a diplomat and consummate political operator.

Yet to lead a political party, first a leader has to establish whether it wishes to be led. That task will be very much easier for Mr Starmer than one might imagine. His triumphant victory on Saturday delivered an unexpected bonus. Control of Labour’s National Executive Committee was effectively handed to him after three candidates from the momentum faction were defeated in a mid-term by-election.

Don’t expect many headlines from these arcane internal goings on but be in no doubt that the NEC is the font of power in the Labour party. If he wants to reform Labour, change the rule book or recruit a new top team, Starmer now has the votes to do it. Asking new deputy Angela Rayner to be a full-time party chair without a departmental policy portfolio suggests wholesale reform and personnel changes are underway.

Starmer’s critics whisper that though he looks the part, he is too cautious. Their faint praise observes his noetic qualities, whilst asking if he has the necessary political craft to manoeuvre in a party riven by factions. Some go further and ask whether he knows what he has let himself in for.

It’s true, that unlike poor former MP Owen Smith, the worst is yet to come for Keir Starmer. He is going to be tested 10,000 times over before the next general election. Nothing really prepares you for the job of potential PM.

Is he too cautious? In direct contrast to the last three Labour leaders, Starmer has shown he can sack people. His removal of Gardiner, Lavery and Trickett was clinical and swift. This is a man who can make tough decisions and communicate them, with courtesy, according to Barry Gardiner, after he was sacked in a phone call by his new boss.

Is he too cautious? I bet most Labour party members had not heard of their new Shadow Home Secretary and Chancellor until yesterday. What unites Nick Thomas-Symonds and Anneliese Dodds is their lack of label. Neither has the prefix “Blairite” or “Corbynite” in front of their name. Both share a reputation for being collegiate, decent, even. They’re the brightest of their generation and that’s the point. Sure, they’re not grandees. And yes, they are risky appointments. But they represent generational change. Their door is open to new ideas, particularly to those who are not faction leaders in the brutal world of internal Labour politics. Starmer wants his new team talking to the country not just his activists.

The new appointments show a leader sending a signal that factionalism will not be rewarded nor tolerated. It’s a subtle signal, but not lacking in significance. Remember when good politicians were praised for their subtlety? It seems a long time ago doesn’t it.

Starmer’s internal critics underestimated him by mistaking subtlety for caution. And now he is leader and they are waiting at the end of a mobile phone to see whether they are to be courteously sacked or riskily promoted.

Does he know what he’s let himself in for? Probably not. Does anyone in frontline politics know the answer to that question though? All we know so far is that he’s past the test of day one. Only 9,999 to go.