made his name in 2011, as a member of the Commons select committee on culture, media and sport, as the scourge of the Murdochs in the phone-hacking scandal.
He was in between frontbench jobs when Huw Spanner met him on 15 October 2013, having lately resigned as Labour’s first-ever deputy chair. In 2015, he was elected as the party’s deputy leader.
Photography: Andrew Firth
What do you think is the single most important quality in a good politician?
You are very much a party man – until recently you were Labour’s co-ordinator for the next general election – but you’re better known as a campaigner, digging for the truth first about phone-hacking and then about allegations of abuse in British children’s homes. Is there a tension between those two very different roles?
I think the tension is between being part of a movement that at its heart has [a sense of] collective responsibility and the increasing demand in politics for charismatic individuals who will take up causes they believe in. Obviously, sometimes the two come into conflict.
Is there a conflict between being a man who ‘speaks truth to power’ and working to get your party back into power? After all, Labour has not always been squeaky-clean itself.
‘Conflict’ is probably too harsh a word. There are tensions, I would say. Drones would be an example, in that I’ve got quite strong views about what I see as the next iteration of military technology falling through the gaps in the framework of international law and I want the Labour Party to do something about it; and at the moment we’re being a bit slow.
It was pretty hard for me in the Shadow Cabinet because as the party’s campaign co-ordinator [from 2011 to 2013] I didn’t have any policy brief and so if I took a view on any area of policy I was probably standing on someone’s toes. But political parties are cauldrons of ideas and people battle away to try and win the argument and that’s how our democracy works.
When you first went into politics, which hat did you see yourself wearing: party man or campaigner?
Well, neither, really. I mean, I joined the Labour Party at the age of 15 because I believed it was going to change the world, and make the town I lived in a fairer place and give its people a better break. I never had a sense of self within that. I didn’t know what I was going to do in life, but it certainly wasn’t going to be a full-time politician! You know, I enjoyed politics but I’d rather have been a roadie for the Specials, to be honest.
My first memory is of sitting on my bunk bed and saying, ‘Why are the lights out, Mum?’ and her saying: ‘Because Mr Heath won’t pay the miners enough money, son’
Would the people who knew you back then have been surprised to see how you’ve turned out?
I don’t know, actually. The friends I went to school with say, ‘We always knew you were very political.’ But most of the time they just make fun of me.
What about your family?
Some of them think I’m a great letdown! Not really, but politically they think I’m too moderate. But I think they are secretly proud. Or, if they’re my mum, they’re openly proud.
When you look back at your upbringing, what do you recognise now as the things that really formed you?
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. I was born in Sheffield, though we moved to the Midlands when I was quite young. I can remember paying 3p on the bus, and the hanging baskets in the centre of town. There was an idea of municipal socialism – you know, that everyone in the city pulled together – and piecing all that together when I was growing up made more of an impression on me than I probably knew at the time. (I remember going back in the Eighties and seeing all this destroyed – the hanging baskets had gone, and all the things of beauty I remembered as a child.)
My dad’s mum was a communist and worked in the steel mills and so there was quite a powerful ideological force there. My mum’s side were not so political, but my mum went to the church run by Alan Ecclestone, who they called ‘the Red Rev’ (I think he stood for the Communist Party in local government quite a few times in Sheffield). So, she had that strand of Christian Socialism in her, though I don’t think she would describe it in those terms, and that was as powerful a force in my upbringing, though I didn’t know it at the time.
Politics was always – my first memory is of sitting on my bunk bed and saying, ‘Why are the lights out, Mum?’ and her saying: ‘Because Mr Heath won’t pay the miners enough money, son.’ The conversations you had as a child – you know, they were principled conversations, so they were very important to me. And Sunday lunchtimes would be spent in the Social Club: Dad would be with the young Labour Party activists – he was only in his twenties – and I’d be sitting with all the other kids with a bottle of Coke and a packet of crisps while they talked about putting the world to rights. I suppose it’s unusual to grow up in a family where there is political debate of that kind of intensity.
And then in adolescence, where you’re forming your own sense of self, music had a massive appeal for me.
Apart from the Specials, who were you into? The Clash?
Yeah. [Billy] Bragg, [Paul] Weller, all that kind of stuff.
And were they formative for you?
Oh, yeah. Most of the bands I followed talked about politics and it just seemed like I was part of something bigger. And then in the mid Eighties I remember the Red Wedge gigs and the sort of sense of excitement about it. It probably makes me too nostalgic these days…
So, when I see bands today like Drenge, whose lyrics are a brilliant expression of small-town alienation – you know, they wouldn’t describe themselves as ‘political’ but I think they are. Since I mentioned them in my resignation letter [to Ed Miliband],1bit.ly/16QPqxy I get about four bands a day emailing me to say: Will you tweet this link? There’s this young rapper who calls himself NxtGen and he has an amazing ability to tell a polemical tale in a way that reaches out to people. He’d got 25 views on YouTube and I tweeted about him the other night and last time I checked he’d got 20,000.2youtu.be/HiEqPzpMA9M
There are lots of people in the Labour ranks who are very courageous and stand up for a lot of issues, and often they’re ridiculed and then prove to be right
You have had a reputation in the past as someone who plays the political game quite hard – your enemies like to portray you as a bully and a ‘boot boy’. You’ve traced the criminality at the News of the World and the Sun to Rupert Murdoch’s approach of ‘Do whatever it takes to beat the opposition’ and I wondered how far you think it is legitimate to go in politics to ‘beat the opposition’.
It’s quite hard to answer that question – it’s quite open-ended. I think what you’re asking is: Does the political system create the conditions where people do things they don’t feel right about? I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot recently in relation to [Gordon Brown’s special adviser] Damien McBride’s book, Power Trip.3Power Trip: A decade of policy, plots and spin (Biteback Publishing, 2013) It’s a tell-all account of his time at the heart of British politics, a lot of which, you know, a lot of politicians didn’t know about. I got thinking: Was he a one-off? How did it happen? And there is a sense in me that says there’s something wrong with a system that allows that sort of thing to happen unchecked; and actually it’s only politicians who can sort it out.
I can imagine readers thinking I’m being naive here, accepting your word for it that no one else in Brown’s inner circle knew what McBride was up to.
Well, I hope you do take my word. I mean, I would certainly not put up with a lot of the things he’s admitted to in that book.
But you used to be a whip, and the whips’ office is very much the muscular side of –
Actually, I’ve always thought that that is a [travesty] of what goes on in the whips’ office. In fact, Mark Fisher, one of the most rebellious MPs of his generation, once described me – though I did ask him not to make a song and dance about it! – as the most charming whip he’d ever worked with. I don’t think that whipping is what’s wrong with politics – or, certainly, the way whips conduct themselves. The portrayal of them as henchmen just isn’t true. I think the days when they could threaten to, you know, destroy people’s careers are long gone.
In 2006, you publicly called on Tony Blair to make way for Brown, which he reportedly described as ‘disloyal, discourteous and wrong’. With hindsight, do you wish he had made way for Brown a year earlier than he did?
I wish they’d worked their personal relations out, and I wish the big players in the party at the time had worked out a smooth and orderly transition. I wish people had behaved better, including myself. There’s lessons for everyone in that episode. But, you know, I guess that’s politics, isn’t it?
Let’s return to the campaigning side of things. In 2010, Tommy Sheridan4The Scottish socialist politician who was jailed for three years in 2011 for perjuring himself when he successfully sued the News of the World for defamation. He was released in 2012. wrote and told you that you had ‘real backbone’ and added: ‘Sadly you are the exception among your colleagues.’ How are you regarded by your fellow MPs? Do they admire you? Or do they think you’re a pain in the neck?
I think you’d have to ask them, really. In politics, you – you know, I think if you do your job right, people probably admire and detest you at the same time. Generally I think people in the party have been very supportive, both on the ground and in Parliament. In fact, without their support in a very difficult few years I don’t think I’d have got through it.
It was very kind of Tommy Sheridan to say that but I don’t think it’s true. I think there are lots of people in the Labour ranks who are very courageous and stand up for a lot of issues and, you know, often they’re ridiculed and then prove to be right. I think of Stella Creasy for one – nobody was really listening to her when she first started campaigning against payday loans, but she has built a national movement around that. There are lots of other people who do that.
In your book, Dial M for Murdoch,5Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the corruption of Britain, by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman (Penguin, 2012) you said there were times during your investigation of phone-hacking and the alleged cover-up when you feared for your safety and even your life. Looking back, do you think those fears were justified?
Well, that relates to a very specific time when the small group of us that were looking at this started to uncover networks of journalists, police officers and rogue private investigators that had links to the criminal underworld, and some of the relationships, though still unproven in the courts, were pretty terrifying. So, at that time I was feeling incredibly isolated, wondering how on earth we could continue to get the story out, not sure whether it would ever crack open and sort of feeling like there was a [brick wall] I kept crashing into. It’s a very dark story and there are some very sinister characters in it. I think there are more revelations to come, and when the whole story is told I think people will still be shocked.
Your book has a rather theatrical title and it recounts a lot of dramatic things you said and did. As I read it, I often found myself thinking: I wonder whether Tom felt like he was playing a role in a play or a film. And was there someone you were modelling yourself on?
I know what you mean, but I wasn’t conscious of self, because it was too intense. I mean, I didn’t know where it was going. I always thought that eventually someone would have to admit that a cover-up had taken place, but did I know that it would lead to 130 arrests? No. I don’t think anyone could have imagined that. Even at what people call ‘the Milly Dowler moment’, I didn’t know where it would go from there. I just knew at that point that there was no going back – that the nation would realise that it wasn’t just about celebrity tittle-tattle, there were actually very serious issues that we needed to deal with.
Actually, it was other people who cracked the story open – it was actually journalists – but in the early days, when no one was listening, I was certainly ratcheting up the rhetoric in speeches and generally using sort of a jagged tone to try and provoke interest and, you know, action. I don’t feel it’s my natural way of doing things.
It also struck me that but for the revelation that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked, which really made the public angry, News International (and others) might have got away with it all. And that made me wonder whether you feel that the general public, too, is to some extent complicit in all this. I mean, 10 million people used to buy the News of the World…
People say this to me but I don’t buy that argument. I spent a bit of time in Australia this year and it makes you really appreciate what’s on offer with British journalism. It is genuinely the best in the world, I think –
Do you really think that?
Oh yeah, I do. Yes, I do. Even tabloid journalism. I can appreciate beautifully crafted news and features in a tabloid format, even though sometimes it’s painful to read what they say.
I probably feel more of an optimist about humanity in middle age than I did when I was young. I mean, good people can change the world, you know?
In 2012, when you revived old allegations of rape and torture in British care homes, you said that ‘people who should know’ had warned you to watch your back…
Yeah, well, that’s a totally different story, a totally different part of the turf, and a very different threat – and actually I don’t feel personally threatened at all over that. What I wasn’t prepared for was just the sort of volcanic eruption of information that has come into my office. A lot of very vulnerable survivors got in touch about their individual cases, and there are people who are extremely damaged reliving childhood experiences and sometimes their language is quite intense.
Are more and more people coming to you now with causes they want you to take up?
Yeah, you get a lot of that, and I’ve always found it quite hard to say no to people. But I have said no to quite a few people, actually.
It’s often said that people on the left have a naive belief that human nature is essentially good and whatever we do wrong is likely the fault of ‘the system’. I’m interested to know whether that is how you have seen our nature in the past and whether your investigations, of tabloid malpractice and child abuse, have changed your view.
It’s funny, you know, because I probably feel more of an optimist about humanity in middle age than I did when I was young. I think that’s mainly to do with the fact that I’ve now got two kids, who have changed my life forever. But… I mean, when I look at the hacking story, it took courageous journalism to expose corrupted journalism, so I’ve got faith in that. Good people can change the world, you know? People like Nick [Davies] at the Guardian can really make a difference.
And on the child-abuse inquiry, the reason I got involved was that an email dropped into my inbox late at night and it was a very brave retired child-protection officer who had been living with these cases where he thought an injustice had been done and over the years he had tried to sort it out.
Some of the things you have helped to bring to light are evil in almost anyone’s book. Where do you think that evil in human society comes from? Is it ‘the system’ that is responsible? Or a few sociopaths? Or is it just the sum of all our less-than-perfect natures?
Gosh, well, I think there are individuals in society who wield great power, some irresponsibly, some very conscious that they’re allowing terrible things to happen, and they should be held to account. You know, what I see in both of these cases is a lot of little guys who did bad things because they were in a corrupted system and there were people further up the food chain who could have changed the system. So, it’s not one or the other, is it? But I think what I’ve come to appreciate in middle age – I’ve been in Parliament [nearly 13] years now and I feel like I’m a different person to the man who was elected in 2001, and that difference probably lies in understanding the responsibility that power brings far more than I understood in 2001 – and feeling a sense of individual responsibility.
How did you feel when Rupert Murdoch told the select committee: ‘I thought [Gordon Brown] had great values, which I shared with him, and I am sorry that we have [grown] apart’?
Well, I felt very uncomfortable with – I mean, both of them would say – Gordon Brown and Tony Blair – they felt they needed to build a relationship with Murdoch in order to get some airtime for the progressive values of the Labour Party; and I understand that. When Tony gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, he was quite upfront and said: Look, I had a decision to make: I could either take these people on and try to reform the media or I could try to get my party programme enacted.
I dislike the Tory party for what they stand for and how they enshrine privilege. But as people I’m much more tolerant of them and I can appreciate where they’re coming from
But obviously I felt conflicted by it. I think we let Murdoch become too powerful.
I understand why they would want to make friends with Murdoch. I was referring specifically to his claim that he had common values with someone you have described as ‘a politician completely dedicated to the service of the public, and a man of the very highest personal integrity’.6bit.ly/1lGHvOs
Oh, I see. I don’t think they really share the same values, unless you’re talking of a distant notion of Scottish Presbyterianism and family. I take those kind of comments with a pinch of salt.
When you were your party’s campaign manager, you talked about Ed Miliband’s ‘vision for Britain’. Can you explain what your own personal vision is?
Yeah, well, the great thing about [returning to the back benches] is, I’ve thought a lot about it, actually – about what role I want to play in Parliament, and where do I want the Labour Party to be. I started with the phrase David Cameron used, that we’re now in ‘a global race’. The obvious next question is: How do we want to conduct ourselves in this race? What kind of team do we want to be? How do we lead by example and try and make sure that this international capitalist system – which if you’re the Labour Party you’re trying to reform and if you’re the Conservatives you’re trying to protect, I guess – how do we make what it does kinder? We should try to bring everyone up rather than, you know, drag ’em down.
Socialist and social-democratic movements are best when they have a big national purpose, I think, so how do we renew Labour’s national purpose? I think that trying to build a kinder, fairer but more entrepreneurial country is a good starting point.
I’m sounding a bit waffly, I’m sorry.
Is it possible for Labour genuinely to be a one-nation party? Isn’t it inevitable that political parties represent particular interest groups?
I’ll always remember Tony Blair, when I was the party’s youth officer, saying [of the vote to replace Clause IV of the party’s constitution], ‘Look, this is so important because it takes us from an ideologically-based party to a values-based party,’ and not really understanding the significance of that at the time. But I don’t think people particularly identify with the terms ‘working-’, ‘middle-’ and ‘upper-class’ any more, so ‘one nation’ is, you know, about how you adapt those values. How can everyone reach their potential? How can we work together to make the world a better place? You know? I think Ed’s fear is always that it’s too general an idea, and how do you make it meaningful? Well, you know, we’re still working that out, aren’t we?
Was that a politician’s answer?
In 2010, you called Michael Gove ‘a miserable pipsqueak of a man’ –
– which was not quite in the same league as Nye Bevan saying in 1948 that the Tories were ‘lower than vermin’.
Do you see the party opposite in Bevanite terms, or do you see them as perfectly decent people, much like you, who just have a different economic analysis or social prescription?
How would I like to be remembered at the end of my life? That’s such a tough question! ‘He tried to be kind,’ I think. ‘He tried to be kind’
As a party, I dislike them. I dislike them for what they stand for and how they enshrine privilege, and I feel angrier about that today than I did when I first joined the Labour Party. I think they stand for barriers to people who I feel very passionately deserve a break in life. But as people I’m much more tolerant of them, much more tolerant, and I can appreciate where they’re coming from. Some of them have got a good heart.
I think when you first get here, particularly if you’re elected quite young, as I was – well, I was 34, but some people get in in their twenties these days – it takes you a bit of time to work out your personal relations with people with whom you fundamentally disagree about the world. When I was new, I’d be firing on all cylinders all the time, but you just can’t lead a productive parliamentary life if you do that, and these days I’m much more relaxed.
I mean, it was probably the angriest I’ve ever been in the Chamber when I called Gove a pipsqueak. I didn’t realise it was unparliamentary language –
At least you didn’t call him a blackguard!
A blackguard, yeah – there’s a whole list.
But, I mean, what he’d done that day was take away £120 million that was committed to new schools in the poorest authorities in the country – which includes my constituency. I have been on the inside and there is no way a civil servant would have advised that, so I suspect it was a political decision.
I was shocked to read, in a letter you wrote to the Cabinet Secretary in 2010, the line: ‘Nobody expects the Prime Minister to tell the truth or do the decent thing.’
Oh God, what was that letter about? I think that was about Jeremy Hunt, who I thought had breached the ministerial code, and it was a deliberately barbed comment to try and get a reaction.
It’s just that I remember John Major, when he was asked why he’d voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, saying it had never occurred to him that the Prime Minister would lie to the House of Commons. Now, you voted for the invasion (and against an inquiry into it)…
Yep. If there’s one vote that troubles me more than any, it’s that one. I believed Tony when he spoke to me, publicly and privately. I abstained on [the 2011 vote on military intervention in] Libya because I wasn’t prepared to accept the reassurances of a prime minister, I wanted to see more hard evidence; and I voted against [military reprisals against] Syria [in 2013], and had I been whipped to vote for that I’d have broken the whip, for the same reason.
I know I’m not unique in that. That 2001 intake of MPs will be more sceptical about these big international interventions for the rest of their parliamentary lives. And that’s probably a good thing.
If Labour wins in 2015, you must hope to get back into government yourself…
No… I’ve been on the front bench three times now, and left on three occasions; so it’s not the be-all and end-all to me. So, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know whether Ed would offer me anything, and I don’t know whether I’d want to do it. The last two times I’ve been offered jobs, I kind of knew the offer was coming and I was absolutely 100-per-cent certain I would say no on both occasions – and on both occasions I said yes. It doesn’t say a lot for my resolve, but… I’m not…
So, why did you say yes when it came to it?
With Gordon I felt I had something to prove, and with Ed I felt I had something to give – the role he offered was one that I thought I could probably make a difference in and I could see why he wanted me to do it. I’m not quite sure what the reason for me going against my instinct might be next time if an offer comes, so I honestly don’t know. But having only just resigned, I don’t think I need to think about that for a while anyway.
At the end of your life, looking back, what do you hope you’ll be remembered for?
The other day, somebody asked me: ‘What would you tell your 18-year-old self?’ I said: Drink more water!
How would I like to be remembered at the end of my life? That’s such a tough question! The obvious good answer would be: ‘He made a difference.’ Which is probably what I think we’re all here for.
‘He tried to be kind,’ I think. ‘He tried to be kind.’ I think kindness is a greatly undervalued idea in politics. I think it is so underrated.
This edit was originally published in the March 2014 issue of Third Way.
|⇑3||Power Trip: A decade of policy, plots and spin (Biteback Publishing, 2013)|
|⇑4||The Scottish socialist politician who was jailed for three years in 2011 for perjuring himself when he successfully sued the News of the World for defamation. He was released in 2012.|
|⇑5||Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the corruption of Britain, by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman (Penguin, 2012)|
Tom Watson was born in 1967 and educated at King Charles I School in Kidderminster. After a stint as a fundraiser for Save the Children in 1988–89, he read politics at Hull University, where in 1992 he was elected president of the students’ union.
He served as chair of the National Organisation of Labour Students in 1992–93.
He then began working for the Labour Party as its national development officer for youth and a deputy general election co-ordinator.
From 1997 until 2001, he was the national political officer of the trade union the AEEU.
In 2001, he was elected MP for West Bromwich East, a seat he has held comfortably ever since.
The following year, he became a member of the Commons select committee on home affairs. After serving as PPS to Dawn Primarolo, then Paymaster General, he joined the whips’ office in 2004 (and was soon after named a ‘top toadie’ by the Guardian), and became a fully-fledged whip the following year.
In 2006, he was promoted to parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Defence, but four months later he was obliged to resign after signing a letter calling on Tony Blair to stand down as PM.
He re-entered the Government under Gordon Brown’s premiership in 2007 as an assistant whip, and then served as a parliamentary secretary at the Cabinet Office and minister for digital engagement from 2008 to 2009, when he chose to return to the back benches.
He sat on the Commons select committee on culture, media and sport from 2009 to 2012.
In 2011, Ed Miliband appointed him to the Shadow Cabinet as Labour’s first-ever deputy chair and its campaign co-ordinator. He quit these posts last July amid the fallout of (as he put it) ‘the mess in Falkirk’.
He is co-author with Martin Hickman of Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the corruption of Britain (2012).
He married in 2000 but separated from his wife in 2012. He has a son and a daughter.
Up-to-date as at 1 February 2014