by Stephen Tall on February 28, 2010
Let’s begin with the positive: Inside Out, Peter Watt’s autobiographical account of his two years as Labour general secretary during the handover from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown, is an entertainingly gossipy book which, at 200 pages, doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s packed with anecdotes and throwaway remarks which cast a new – and rarely flattering – light on Labour’s senior dramatis personae. In short, well worth reading.
But does Peter Watt come out of it well. Hmmm, there I’m less sure. Here are the five aspects of the book which struck me …
Thing 1: Tribalism
The over-riding impression of Inside Out is quite how tribal politics is. And not just tribal between parties – that’s, at least in part, to be expected – but also within parties. For example, the very New Labour Peter Watt boasts of exploiting the rift between Blair and Brown when hacking for the post of general secretary, accumulating a motley collection of votes on Labour’s National Executive Committee from “trade unionists, people on the hard left and passionate Blairites”.
Mr Watt presents the traditional mea culpa at the end of the book (“tribalism turns good men bad”), but it’s easy to be sage after the event: what politics needs is for its participants to recognise this when they’re in leadership positions, not when they’ve shed them.
And of course this tribalism has carried over into the resonses to Watt’s book, too. Roy Hattersley penned a snide review for The Guardian, falsely alleging – whether by accident or design – that Watt “missed an anticipated call from a prospective donor because he had ‘popped out for a pint’”, a shabby innuendo of boozeyness. Watt’s actual story is that he had waited well over 2 hours for a call on a Saturday evening, reckoned it wasn’t coming, and nipped out for a couple of pints of milk at the request of his wife: which is a bit more wholesome than Hattersley makes out.
But then that’s the problem with tribalism. It brings out the worst in everyone.
Thing 2: Not up to the job
Being general secretary of the Labour Party (its de facto chief executive) is no small job; and as Peter Watt reminds us more than once, came with a six-figure salary. So what were the qualities that made him supremely qualified to take on such an important role at the age of 36?
He had by that time been working for the party for just nine years. In the 2001 election, Mr Watt was heading up Labour’s east of England general election campaign; in 2005, the year he became general secretary, he did the same job for the national party.
Of course there’s no substitute for experience, and plenty of people, especially in politics, have to learn on the job, and quickly. But this was the guy running the Labour party, in operational charge of its infrastructure, finances and staffing. His inexperience is patently obvious when reading the book – too often he is quite simply way out of his depth, and too fearful to own up to it.
Of course it’s good to promote from within. Of course it’s fine to appoint (qualified) young people to big jobs. But to appoint as your general secretary a young guy with no previous experience of running a multi-million pound organisation, and whose on-the-job experience is limited to one organisation, is asking for trouble.
Which is what Labour got.
Thing 3: Self-pity
Peter Watt absolves himself of blame when it comes to the issue over which he was forced to resign: the Labour party accepting donations from David Abrahams through third-party agents. As Mark Pack has noted, this is rather puzzling:
… that piece of legislation, whilst certainly only one part of a very long act, was not really that obscure. … [it was] covered in the Electoral Commission’s guidance, which was emailed to Peter Watt and myself (amongst others), and indeed political parties had been asked for their views on this guidance. Moreover, the idea that you could side step a control by passing money through a third party should instinctively sound like something that requires checking against the law.
Well, quite. This basic error – which Mr Watt is keen to buck-pass to his predecessor – is compounded by the fact that the job Peter Watt occupied before he became Labour’s general secretary was as … the party’s head of compliance. Moreover, given the ordeal the party (and Mr Watt) had already endured over cash-for-honours, you would have thought Labour’s general secretary would have scrutinised all the party’s other major donors with a fine-tooth comb to ensure they were as squeaky clean as possible.
For all that Peter Watt feels hard done by, the simple truth is this episode proved his incompetence as general secretary.
Thing 4: how negligent is the NEC?
For all the media hype about the indiscretions at the top of the Labour party revealed by Peter Watt – Gordon Brown was shambolic, didn’t want Harriet Harman as his deputy, etc – for me it is Labour’s Natonal Executive Committee which emerges from the pages of this book worst of all.
Peter Watt was too inexperienced to be appointed general secretary – who gave him the job? The NEC.
Tha Labour Party has verged on bankruptcy several times in the last five years – who shrugged their shoulders? The NEC.
Labour proved to be, by Mr Watt’s own admission, financially and administratively screwed – who took no responsibility? The NEC.
If the NEC were a board of directors, or the governing body of a school or college, they would have been forced to resign by now for their utter and complete failure to oversee the affairs of the party for which they are legally responsible.
Thing 5: Oh dear, Ming
This isn’t a book about the Lib Dems, so unsurprisingly we don’t feature much. But former party leader Ming Campbell does earn an honourable (sic) mention. In a section focusing on the Hayden Phillips review of party funding, Peter Watt notes:
Sometimes the discussions bordered on the absurd, such as when we managed to clinch a deal with the Lib Dems by promising that Menzies (Ming) Campbell would get a taxpayer-funded car and driver if the reforms went through. (p. 115)
To be fair, we should note that this is the personal account of a not entirely impartial observer; Ming’s version might read very differently. Yet it does have the ring of truth about it.
It is of course possible to make the argument that the leader of the Lib Dems should have their own car and driver. But it’s impossible to imagine Nick Clegg (or Chris Huhne or Vince Cable) letting discussions into party funding be clouded by negotiatations that would seem self-serving to the public. It’s a reminder that Ming, for all his indisputable talents, never quite clicked as a party leader.
* You can buy Inside Out via Amazon by clicking here.
To read Mark Pack’s review for Lib Dem Voice of Inside Out, click here.