In the traditional closing speech to the conference by Labour’s deputy leader, Watson declared that Corbyn’s mandate should be respected after he was “resoundingly elected in a great outpouring of democracy”.
Watson said: “Jeremy wasn’t the pundits’ choice, after all. He was the people’s choice – the members, whose party this really is. And let’s be clear: because he’s the people’s choice, he’s the right choice.”
The deputy leader rallied behind Corbyn at the end of a trying conference that ended on a sour note when the shadow defence secretary, Maria Eagle, openly defied her leader after he said he would never authorise the use of nuclear weapons. Watson made clear that Labour MPs should recognise that Corbyn, who won the leadership contest with 59.7% of the vote, had handed the party back to its members.
In one of the more thoughtful – and carefully crafted – speeches of the week, Watson also had strong words for some of Corbyn’s supporters as he reeled off a list of achievements by the governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. “In government we made this country a far, far better place,” he said as he highlighted the creation of the minimum wage, civil partnerships and maternity and paternity leave.
Corbyn, a serial rebel against Blair and Brown, briefly applauded Watson as he added: “That’s what a Labour government means: a country that we can be proud of.”
The deputy leader also raised concerns that some Labour members question the wisdom of championing small and micro-businesses employing up to nine people. “I still sometimes talk to Labour people who can’t understand why I talk about small and micro-businesses,” he said. “The 0-9ers, as they’re known – businesses with less than 10 employees. But if you don’t think these are our people, think again.”
The speech showed that Watson is emerging as one of the key figures in preserving unity in the party amid deep misgivings among Labour MPs in the shadow cabinet and beyond about Corbyn’s leadership. Watson helped to calm the atmosphere earlier in the week when he suggested to some of the leader’s supporters that it would be unwise to deepen divisions at a sensitive time by holding a vote on Trident. The bid failed.
Against this background, Watson toned down the usual end-of-pier show feel of the deputy leader’s speech. But he did open with one of the better jokes when he appeared to apologise for saying defecting from Labour to the Liberal Democrats would be like leaving the Beatles for a Bananarama tribute band.
“I did go too far though when I compared the Lib Dems to a Banarama tribute band. Some people were angry, and I accept that I crossed the line. What I said was demeaning, unjustified and wrong. Siobhan, Sara, Keren – I should never have compared your tribute acts to that useless bunch of lying sellouts, the Lib Dems and I’m sorry.”
Watson spent the rest of his speech delivering home truths as he warned that the top of the party was dominated by former special advisers, such as Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall. “An even greater waste of our natural talent is the lack of working-class Labour MPs,” he said. “We need more. Simple as that.
“No offence to any individual, but there are too many special advisers at the top of the parliamentary Labour party. Don’t get me wrong, we need special advisers, but we can’t afford to be a party which only promotes people like that. We can’t afford a shadow cabinet which is monochrome and monocultural.”
The Labour deputy leader, an early adopter of Twitter, also told Labour it needed to do more to embrace digital communications. “You don’t just sign up to Twitter but carry on as you were,” he said. “The very nature of what you are and how you relate to the world changes.”
Watson’s description of Corbyn as the “right choice” to lead Labour may revive memories of the notorious declaration by Jim Mortimer, the chair of the Labour national executive committee. Mortimer came out of a meeting of the NEC during the 1983 general election campaign and said the executive had unanimously agreed that Michael Foot was leader of the party.
Watson mentioned two previous Labour leaders – John Smith and Ed Miliband – in his speech. He did not mention Blair or Brown by name.
This article was written by Nicholas Watt Chief political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 30th September 2015 17.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010