Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Watts happening at the PLP

Congratulations to Dave Watts, the new chair of the parliamentary Labour party, elected by 138 votes to 88 in a race against leftwinger John Cryer.

Cryer, a Morgan-driving parliamentary retread, achieved an impressive vote for a candidate associated with the parliamentary left. Your insider would attribute this to respect and affection for Cryer himself, rather than a dramatic shift to the left among the PLP. But the winner in this particular race was always going to be Watts, who had the quiet backing of the leader’s office, and, as an ex-union official and whip from the north-west, could draw on regional, union, and whips’ office loyalties to secure his victory.

Beyond parliament, it is possible to wonder why a PLP chair matters. Surely chairing PLP meetings and meetings between backbenchers and shadow cabinet members requires nothing more than a sort of Labour equivalent to the speaker, a well-regarded neutral?

But the PLP chair matters, far beyond the role of chairing meetings, picking questioners and choosing agenda items.

First, there is the TV news. If they need a voice of the Labour backbenchers, who do they turn to? Why, the democratically elected chair of the PLP, who is regularly invited onto Newsnight to be a vox parliamentari. If that person is willing to be loudly supportive of the leader, that can be a crucial prop. One of Tony Lloyd’s great qualities as chair was his willingness to go on TV and defend the party he loved, helping pour oil on some very troubled waters.

Second, there is the issue of cold, hard cash. In opposition, the Labour party receives some £5.5m a year from so-called ‘Short money’. This is intended to support Labour’s parliamentary work and so the chair of the PLP naturally has a strong voice on how this money should be spent, and whether MPs as a whole, rather than just frontbenchers, are benefitting.

But there is a sting in the tail here for those near the leader’s office. There is no doubt Watts will make an excellent chair, but he is no unconditional Milibandite, putting Ed and David third and fifth in the leadership election, respectively.

Indeed, one way of looking at the election of Watts is that it represents a further strengthening of the traditional, union-minded, loyalist Labour right in Labour’s parliamentary team, something also seen in the political strength of canny street fighters like John Spellar and Andy Burnham, self-identified outsiders, who, like Watts, have had to fight hard for what they have achieved, and are consciously not part of the ‘London metropolitan elite’ (and three cheers for that, says your insider).

In short, while Watts will be a supportive and loyal chair, he will also have independence of spirit.

The Victoria Street shuffle

Your insider does not claim much talent for foreseeing the future, so when last month you read in this column that the Labour party was planning a top-level reorganisation of staff, the most accurate observation in the piece was that there would be many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. And a slip there was, to put it mildly.

The final decision for the reorganisation was to go for a leader’s office takeover of Victoria Street. Unfortunately, this became public knowledge before people who had applied for jobs had been told they had been passed over.

Add that to the fact that the executive board as originally described looked rather different to the executive board that was announced, and stories that the party has overspent this year, and you have a recipe for murmurings in the ranks.

At some point, writing gossip about jobs and positions becomes mean. These are people’s livelihoods, and we are talking about talented, dedicated individuals, who work really hard.

That said, it is hard to speak to anyone, and I mean anyone, outside the top team at the leader’s office who are happy with these changes.

If the new executive board do not know they are facing an organisation that is deeply unhappy, all they need to do is ask those who were at the all-staff meeting held in the wake of the announcements being leaked.

The staff at Victoria Street feel slighted.Those who embraced the ‘reform’ agenda that won Iain McNicol the job of general secretary feel let down, while most MPs and political advisers are just confused. Basically, if you work for the Labour party, and do not have the words ‘executive’, ‘strategy’, ‘director’ or ‘senior’ in your job title, you are feeling pretty alienated.

Oddly, none of this means the changes will not actually work. Your insider is a centraliser by instinct, and if the party machine must be in the hands of anyone, it should be the leader’s praetorian guard.

The question is more what they now want to do with the power. If the new executive board are able to produce a strong direction for the party, with a clear focus on policy development, key seat organisation and communications, alongside a party structure that is more welcoming and open, all the current gripes will melt away. That, of course, remains a big ‘if’.


Cartoon: Adrian Teal

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