Cheer up, comrade, and toast the leader

by Tom Watson

Last week, every single Labour MP turned out to vote in the same division lobby. We voted ‘no’ to the tripling of tuition fees. There were no forgetful absences. Nobody rebelled. No-one sneaked off early. I couldn’t remember the last time this happened so I asked the House of Commons library to tell me. And guess what? It hadn’t happened in my parliamentary life. Not once since 2001 has the PLP felt collectively strong enough to march in complete unanimity through the same division lobby.

We’ve nearly ended our rollercoaster year with the whole Labour crew turning out resolutely to oppose David Cameron’s Tory-Lib Dem government. We’re ahead in the polls. Britain is now so broken that Nick Clegg can’t safely ride a bicycle – despite all those close protection officers. And the government is already a cabinet minister and a handful of PPSs down after resignations.

And when you started the New Year of 2010 would you, in your wildest dreams, have thought we’d be in such good shape today? I certainly didn’t. So cheer up, comrade. Your Christmas glass of sherry is half full, not half empty.

To remind you, 2010 started with Geoff Hoon – a man I admire, and Patricia Hewitt, a woman I do not admire, jointly calling for a secret ballot to decide whether Gordon Brown should resign.

Here’s what I thought would happen after that day: I thought we were going to lose the election by a considerable margin. I thought we would be sucked into a vortex of personal recriminations and political division. I worried that we would have some kind of pseudo-ideological fracture based around the personal ambitions of our intellectual heavyweights. I thought David Cameron would be a popular, canny prime minister guiding a united party to a commanding lead in the polls, thereby adding more friction to the daily lives of Labour MPs.

It has not happened. This is to a large degree because of the personal discipline of all of the leadership candidates and their teams. They’ve held it together. And David, Andy, Ed Balls and Diane deserve our respect. It can’t have been easy.

There are organisational challenges for our new leader. He has to build a private office team and reshape party HQ. Some of his colleagues in the shadow cabinet need cheering up after a tiring year. He will want to set some medium term goals – if only to move away from the unproductive weekly metric of success that is prime minister’s questions. Whatever tests his enemies try to set for him, the first one that really matters will be next May at the polls.

This week, Ed has made two decisive appointments to his personal team. Grassroots members may not know Tom Baldwin and Bob Roberts. They’re Ed’s new communications duo. One is creative and intellectually muscular; the other is a clear thinker, calm in a crisis, who can smell a story on the morning air. They’re a yin-yang pairing who will make a noticeable difference to our operation.

Our new leader will rise to the challenges but we have to be alert to the threats.

David Cameron is getting better at performing as PM. Like a majestic Ninja he has garrotted Clegg. He’s an invisible assassin from within. So much so that three months ago, I would have said that the Conservatives would force the Liberal Democrats into some form of coalition platform at the next general election. Now, they don’t need to bother.

And with the coalition being so unique, our responses to them have to be agile and pragmatic. That’s why providing a home to more progressive renegades within the Lib Dems is the right course for us to take. Where our values coincide, we must suppress our burning contempt for Mr Clegg, and work with wiser, more progressive MPs within his parliamentary party.

As Ed Balls warns in Tribune this week, we should never forget that it is the Tories who are driving this deeply regressive programme. The Lib Dems may be evaporating as a political force, but the Conservatives are not. They may not have advanced in the polls as they would have liked, but the Conservatives have not fallen either.

We have a leader who wants to win for us. He may look young, but he is steely. He can win but to do so, we all have to play our role. So make sure you toast Ed Miliband this Christmas. And hope he has a more peaceful new year in 2011 than Gordon did in 2010.

Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East.

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6 Responses to “Cheer up, comrade, and toast the leader”

  1. Dick Muskett says:

    Nice one Tom – I hope all the embittered little wonks who haven’t managed to get over their choice of Leader not making it read your piece, think about it, and make a New Year’s resolution to stop creeping round whingeing.
    Seasons greetings

  2. Mike Thomas says:

    Thing is Tom, the Labour Party voted against its own policy not seven months before.

    Including Ed, who voted strongly in favour of tuition fees.

    As for tempting left-wing Lib Dems into the fold, Labour’s track record in office including its 1997 offer on voting reform shows Labour has previous on lying through its teeth to any prospective partner.

    Labour will need some policy ideas before one MP jumps, otherwise, it’s out of the frying pan into the fire.

  3. James Cowley says:

    Great post Tom, it is still early days for ed but he is starting to find his stride and hit the coalition with the tough questions about britains future.

  4. felix thorne says:

    Like it!
    Hey look, have a good holiday and they go back and get them – Give Ed the time and he will.

  5. Tom Miller says:

    “Labour has previous on lying through its teeth to any prospective partner.”

    No, you’re right, when I think ‘trustworthy’ Nick Clegg is the first face that comes to mind!

  6. Tom says:

    “Including Ed, who voted strongly in favour of tuition fees.”

    Did he? Given he wasn’t in parliament when fees were introduced, that’s quite some achievement.

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