Thursday, 6 August 2015

Tom Watson: A digital and Community Inspired Revolution

There has been plenty written about the Labour leadership campaign recently and rightly so, but what of the Deputy Leadership contenders? And what exactly is this role of Deputy within the Labour Party as we hear very little from them unless the leader is on holiday and the Deputy has to fill in. I went along recently to an event in N Wales that Tom Watson was speaking at, in his bid to become Deputy Leader.

Tom is MP for West Bromwich East and at 48 considers himself to be a "middle aged" veteran of  numerous election and general election campaigns. (Thanks Tom, you're a fortnight older than myself and I try not to think I am middle aged!) Tom has a completely engaging style of talking "with" not "at" an audience. He set out his vision as Deputy Leader in a business like fashion, firm yet humourous, direct yet intrinsically knowing what the burning issues are with the grassroots members. And that is where Tom began and ended the evening.. It's time to bring Labour back to communities, back to its grassroots members and activists, take the party out of London and on the road and listen to what community leaders are saying in the regions and connect Labour to the 21st century in a digital revolution.

Tom is the ultimate campaigner. He sees his role as Deputy Leader as a bridge between the Leader and the members, constantly listening and reporting back, so the Labour hierarchy stay in touch with the issues in the constituencies and wider electorate views.  Tom has huge campaign experience and is renowned for bringing Murdoch and the Sun before the courts in the phone hacking scandal that enraged us all. His vision of bringing Labour back to local communities is refreshing and judging by the audience on the night, much needed and a breath of fresh air as the party attempts to get away from being London centric.

He spoke with fervour about providing more training for local councillors and listening to them and community leaders so party policy can reflect what the people really want, instead of being set up by special advisors in London who are wholly focused on opinion polls (which got things so wrong in the recent General Election). He wants himself and a Labour shadow cabinet to spend one day a week on the road talking to local councillors, party members and Labour supporters who abandoned the party at the election. He recognises that different regions and indeed countries within the UK have different priorities. Here in Wales he would like to see Welsh specific literature on our policies and issues for example.

I questioned him on language and rhetoric. For me the Labour Party lost its way by talking like the Tories on issues like "welfare" and not social security. I felt MPs certainly didn't sound genuine when talking to people about issues and talked "at"us. What were Tom's views? Tom agreed wholeheartedly and told us that MPs used to have briefing sheets back in 2001 when he was elected, but increasingly instead of selecting issues to talk about, they started talking to people from the sheets in soundbites people couldn't understand. This needs to change he said. We need to talk to people and be genuine when engaging with them. He told us the whole language issue and way Labour speak about party policy must change to enable an election victory in 2020.

Excitingly, and due to Tom's incredible criss  crossing of the UK throughout the General Election, Tom is proposing a digital revolution at the heart of the party. On his travels he was asked by many activists time and again who were hiking up and down streets in pouring rain with soggy paper to input people's voting intentions on, why couldn't it be input online? Why can't polls be conducted online? Why can't we vote online? Young activists in particular simply can't understand in this day and age why everything has to be done manually and a lot of us older activists feel the same way too! Tom wants to arm us with technology on the doorstep to input data on tablets, phones etc and move the Labour Party into a digital revolution community based. This is going down very well with party members, wearied of everything taking a lot longer than it should in reality.

For me, Tom Watson's bursary scheme idea to enable ordinary working class people to stand for political representation is what makes him stand out from other candidates. His idea is to establish a financial bursary scheme for candidates who do not have the financial means it takes to stand for office. Currently candidates have to take months off work to campaign prior to an election with no guarantee of winning of course. Many working class candidates are losing their jobs and being left penniless to pursue political office.  He also recognises  that  ethnic minority and disabled candidates are woefully under represented at local and national level and wants to encourage and see more candidates who reflect the electorate and the regions they come from.Tom says it is time the party recognises this and acts. And he will.

One audience member asked Tom "Are you a socialist or a democratic socialist?"  Infamously during the 2015 campaign Ed Miliband was asked whether he was a socialist on live TV and replied he was a democratic socialist as that is what it says on the back of the party membership card. Tom looked at the person asking the question and said "I'm a socialist." The member then came back and asked Tom to elaborate on that. "Yes" he replied, "I'm a socialist." A big round of applause followed. Tom
obviously wants to hear that word used within the party and I suspect is as fed up as members are for previous apologies by Labour leaders for being socialists. With Tom as deputy leader I think being a socialist will once again be at the heart of the Labour Party.

I'll leave the last word to Tom Watson, the conviction politician, the campaigner and indeed I believe unifier of the Labour Party should he be elected as Deputy leader. Use your vote to ensure as a party member or union affiliate we get a Deputy Leader who understands Labour is rooted in local regions and communities and listens to the people and their issues and ultimately will act upon them.

"We need to rebuild the Labour Party in the interests and image of our communities. That means listening- really listening- when people tell us we're not getting it right. But also having the courage to keep going when we are."