Down-hearted moderates at this year’s Labour conference have received a much-needed boost this afternoon from the party’s Deputy Leader. Tom Watson gave a barnstorming speech to congregates as he defended Labour’s record in government and vowed to take the fight to the Tories in the next general election.
After months of navel-gazing in the Labour leadership race, Watson turned his ire on the opposition. He described Theresa May as a Lib Dem manifesto pledge — ‘abandoned’ — as he accused her of ‘ducking and diving; humming and hahing’ on everything from the Northern powerhouse to the Single Market. As for the Liberal Democrats’ claim that they are the real opposition, Watson remarked that they ‘couldn’t be the strong opposition in a baton-twirling contest’ let alone the House of Commons.
Watson did also take time to reflect on the state of his own party as they try to embark on a happier chapter. With Jeremy Corbyn the elephant in the room, Watson said it was time to talk about Saturday’s ‘difficult’ result before announcing his disappointment that Ed Balls had come bottom on Strictly Come Dancing. Watson was more forthcoming when it came to the party’s elected mayors — praising Sadiq Khan as ‘outstanding’ and Marvin Rees, the Mayor of Bristol, as marvellous.
While he failed to find a suitable adjective for Corbyn, Watson did offer a thinly-veiled message to the Left of the party. He used a large chunk of his speech to defend Labour’s record in government as he called for the party to be pro-business and warned that ‘capitalism is not the enemy’:
‘I don’t know why we’ve been focussing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown government’s for the last six years, but trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won’t win elections like that — and we need to win elections.’
Although these comments received a standing ovation in the hall — minus the occasional heckle — Corbyn refrained from clapping, instead opting to stroke his beard. While the speech will no doubt hit a sour note with purist Corbynites, the mood in conference among the centrists has certainly been lifted. Despite Corbyn’s increased mandate, it’s clear the PLP will continue to fight to put the party on the path they believe will win elections — not just members.