Tom Watson’s Future Britain Group could be a game-changer for Labour

By Simon Fitzpatrick, Account Director, Cicero Group

When seven Labour MPs announced on February 18th that they were leaving the party to sit as The Independent Group, one person in particular was not slow to grasp the significance of the moment: the Labour deputy leader, Tom Watson.

While Jeremy Corbyn supporters, including John McDonnell, were urging the defectors to resign and fight by-elections, Watson adopted a much more conciliatory and understanding tone. In a video message posted on his social media accounts that afternoon, Watson declared that while he loves the Labour Party (which he joined on his fifteenth birthday), he “sometimes no longer recognises it”.

But this was not a mere lament for departed colleagues. There was a clear call to action in the message too: if Jeremy Corbyn would not take steps to broaden representation of the social democratic wing of the party, then Watson would take steps to ensure their voice would be heard. He spoke in somewhat elliptical terms of working with Labour colleagues in the coming weeks and months to develop policies within the social democratic tradition.

Now, three weeks later, Mr Watson’s vision is beginning to take shape. Last night, he led the first meeting of the ‘Future Britain Group’. Watson states that this will be a forum to restate social democratic values, to ensure all voices are heard within the party, and to address major policy challenges facing the country.

It is reported that around 130 Labour Parliamentarians attended the meeting – approximately 70 MPs and 60 Peers – including 12 former Cabinet Ministers and former Labour leader Lord Kinnock. One MP in attendance said the meeting gave “hope” to many backbenchers whose “talents are being wasted”, and it is suggested that the group will assign policy areas to particular groups of MPs to develop a policy base.

Critics argue that Watson is convening a party within a party and that this is merely a first step towards engineering a much larger breakaway from Labour. Watson counters that, on the contrary, the Future Britain Group is in fact the vehicle by which Labour can avert a split, by giving a platform to those who fall outside the left wing circle that now dominates Labour.

So, what is really going on here?

It is worth pointing out that the concept of different groupings within parties is hardly a novel one. This has been most evident in the Conservative party of late, where the European Research Group (ERG) has wielded a degree of influence within the party during the Brexit process which belies its banal sounding name. But in Labour too, there is a long tradition of sub groups of MPs who adhere to broadly similar worldviews. On the ‘soft’ left, there is the Tribune Group, while party ‘centrists’ in recent times have tended to be associated with Progress.

And then there is the Socialist Campaign Group, to which Jeremy Corbyn himself belonged for his first 30-plus years in Parliament. This group of socialist MPs was out of step with the leadership of successive Labour leaders from Kinnock to Miliband, but succeeded in keeping the socialist flame (just about) burning all through that time. When the hardy band of Campaign Group MPs convened in 2015 to discuss which of their number would be the ‘token lefty’ in the leadership contest that was to come, they could hardly have dreamed that their man would win the contest and, three years later, they would have all but taken control of the entire Labour Party machine.

But there are two cogs the left has not yet taken over: one is the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) which, although more left wing than it has been for many years, remains tilted towards the soft and centre left; the other is the deputy leadership, which Mr Watson won in 2015 and has not relinquished, despite attempts by figures around the leadership to clip his wings (for instance by mooting the idea of a second deputy leader).

Until the TIG breakaway, both Watson and the PLP seemed cowed. But the departure of the ‘Gang of Seven’, followed by two more MPs quitting the party, seems to have sparked Watson back to life and restored his sense of having real leverage within the party.

With due respect to the ex-Labour TIGgers, none of them had the stature within Labour’s Parliamentary Party that Watson has. While he has had his ups and downs over the years, his role in bringing about Tony Blair’s early departure, not to mention his efforts to take on the Murdoch empire over phone hacking demonstrate that he is a serious political operator. Reports suggest that figures around Corbyn are genuinely concerned about Watson’s intentions.

In his video message on February 18th, Watson said he felt his colleagues who had left had reached a “premature conclusion”. Other party moderates have made similar noises, for instance Jess Phillips stating in an interview this weekend that she feels she owes Labour a “last throw of the dice”. The implication is: we are staying put – for now – but the option to leave is real.

At a time when British politics is in flux, the Future Britain Group is yet another moving part to keep a watchful eye on. Will it be a group that stays for the long haul, making the case for change from within? Or is it a sign that Watson and others already have one foot out the door?

Time will tell, but in the fractious political times we live in, I would not bet against the latter.

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