Tag Archives: peter watt

Zac Goldsmith, Peter Watt and the anti-politics age

On the face of it, Zac Goldsmith and Peter Watt are two very different people. One thing they have common however is that they are high stakes rollers in the game of politics who claim to not be politicians.

Writing in today’s New Statesman, Peter Watt bemoans the fact that:

Working in front-line politics is like working in a goldfish bowl: everything you do is a potential story, good or bad. Elected politicians rightly have their say, argue their corner and defend themselves. It’s different for the staff of a political party. As a political staffer, you know there’s a risk that one day you could, however inadvertently, become a bad story yourself.

You know, too, that if and when that happens the “machine” will protect you as best it can. It is an unwritten but understood insurance policy andgoes to the heart of how and why political staff will go the extra mile.

I think it would be hard to deny that Labour did not treat Watt at all well and that Gordon Brown ratted him out at the first opportunity. So much for Gordon Brown. But it isn’t quite a simple as Watt would have us believe. After all, he was not strictly speaking a member of staff but an elected official. We was not there simply to do his political masters’ bidding; he had a political mandate of his own (from Labour’s National Executive Committee).

I think that failure of insight on his part explains a lot. If his agenda from day one as general secretary was merely to carry out instructions, it is no surprise that he failed to get Gordon Brown to commit to an October 2007 general election. If he failed to appreciate the political nature of his role and the importance of watching his own back, it is no surprise he was caught unawares by the Abrahams donor scandal.

Meanwhile on the other side of the political spectrum, we have Zac Goldsmith in the Evening Standard today airily announcing that:

“I hate politics. I hate the game of politics. I don’t want to get involved in this childish Punch and Judy. I have seen enough of politicians to know that it is not a class of people I particularly want to spend my time with.

“I don’t like career politicians. I don’t like what they stand for. I look at a politician who votes 100 per cent with his party and think: why did you do that? It’s all about career.”

There are several problems with these claims. First of all, Zac Goldsmith is by any rational definition a career politician. He started as editor of the Ecologist magazine back in 1998. I got the magazine for a few issues, discarding it because it had a distinct weakness for tinfoil hat theories regarding things like “electrosmog.” The other thing that used to wind me up were Goldsmith’s often polemic – and highly political – editorials, especially the ones where he bafflingly claimed that the EU was actually bad to the UK’s environmental policies (we would almost certainly be less green without the EU to prod us and a European Economic Community to enable us). The sort of pointed criticism he has received in recent months is exactly the sort of thing he has written himself, only on a different subject. And even if you ignore his former role as an environmental commentator, the simple fact is that he has been a party politician for four years now.

The only sense in which Goldsmith can be said to not be a career politician is that, as a dilletante, it is arguable that he does not have a career at all. His aversion appears to be less towards politicians per se and more towards those who lack the sort of financial independence he does. In short, he is waging class warfare here, pure and simple. For “career politician” read “oik”.

Either way, this whole “politician, moi?” stuff annoys me tremendously. I hated it just as much when Brian Paddick tried it on during the London mayoral election in 2008 with his “a policeman not a politician” posters et al. Paddick had a much better claim to not being a politician than either Goldsmith or Watt but his biggest problem lay in the fact that in his shiny suit he looked more like the consummate politician than any of his rivals (be it “regular bloke” Ken Livingstone, “toff” Boris Johnson or “hippy” Sian Berry). There’s a lesson to be learned there: if you indulge too much in this populist anti-politics mood then the ultimate victors are not “ordinary” people but consummate politicians who have enough cunning to hide it from view. The 2008 mayoral election was a great taster for what we might see in 2010: an election dominated by personalities, haircuts, tactics and name calling where the issues take a back seat. Neither Peter Watt’s book or Zac Goldsmith’s above-it-all act will exactly help in this respect.

Which side is Peter Watt’s side of the story?

Why has Peter Watt chosen now to put forward his side of the story? It is hard to see how any of this helps the Labour Party’s cause. If his book were being published six months earlier he could at least argue that there was still time to get rid of Brown; if his book were published six months later it wouldn’t matter either way (and it would subsequently be less profitable for him to do so). One hopes that the full book will go some way to answering that question but at the moment it is mystifying.

Based on the Mail on Sunday extracts, I would tentatively conclude two things. The first thing is that Gordon Brown is even more of a waste of space than I assumed he was. Even if only half the things in these extracts are true, they portray a man totally ill suited to lead the country, let alone a general election campaign.

But if Brown comes off badly, in many respects Watt himself comes off worse. The extracts all have the tone of someone who appears to deny any personal responsibility whatsoever. This may just be selective editing on the Mail’s part – seeking to emphasise all the bits that put Brown in the worst possible light – but it is hard to see how they managed to do this when publishing the substantive section on the Abrahams affair.

David told me he used an accountant to ‘legally gift’ the money to his associates.

He had apparently been advised that as long as they were UK residents, on an electoral roll, and – however briefly – legal and rightful owners of the money, there was no problem. Every donation was reported to the Electoral Commission.

Over a five-year period, Kidd, Ruddick, Dunn and McCarthy collectively gave us a total of £600,000 – money that was gratefully received.

Kidd had also donated money to Harriet Harman’s deputy leadership campaign. Nobody at HQ ever really thought these donations were anything other than lawful.

If no-one really thought that was the case then Labour is in an even worse state than we thought. As Mark Pack pointed out at the time, the guidence emailed to him and Watt by the Electoral Commission was quite emphatic. And as someone whose job at the time mainly consisted of pointing out all the potential loopholes of the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000, it was clear to me that any rational person perusing the law would quickly conclude that such an act was against both the spirit and the letter of the law. The problem with the law was how easy it would be to bypass in practice, not what it said (in this instance at least).

To read the fact that Watt still maintains that he had been neither negligent nor dishonest therefore is quite gobsmacking. To make matters worse, it appears to flatly contradict this article – written by Watt’s ghost writer Isabel Oakeshott – where it is “understood” that Watt did not know that the donations from Raymond Ruddick and Janet Kidd came from Abrahams:

Now the case against Watt is on the brink of collapse following evidence that he did not know that David Abrahams, the Newcastle businessman and donor, was using agents and took reasonable steps to ensure the gifts did not break the law.

Watt is said by friends to have been devastated by the so called Donorgate affair, believing senior party officials had made him a scapegoat. Sources involved in the inquiry say Watt told police that he believed the go-betweens – Raymond Ruddick, Janet Kidd and two others – were donating the cash in their own right.

It is against the law to make a donation to a party on behalf of someone else without making the true source of the cash clear. No prosecutions have been brought, however, and lawyers believe the wording of the law make a successful case unlikely.

This 2008 account flatly contradicts the Mail extracts. In the latter, Watt admits that he knew about Abrahams using Kidd, Ruddick and others to act as go betweens. In the former, he apparently told the police the exact opposite.

Given Oakeshott and Watt’s subsequent relationship, it seems highly likely that Watt himself was the source for the 2008 article. Perhaps the full book will in some way reconcile these two wavering accounts from the same people. Either way, the account given in the latest extract is barely credible.

Overall, Watt comes across in these extracts as an innocent, something which I don’t mean as a compliment. It suggests that he was out of his depth. It is an interesting counterfactual to wonder whether a more grizzled national secretary would have been able to keep Gordon Brown on track when he wavered over the 2007 phony election.

It is worth noting that, in keeping with other Labour national secretaries, Watt was elected by the National Executive Committee not employed. He was also not Tony Blair’s choice, with the “grassroots alliance” out voting him by 16 to 10. Whatever misgivings I might have about how the Lib Dems’ equivalent – the Chief Executive – is appointed and held to account – I wouldn’t wish Labour’s system on my worst enemies. You need a system whereby committees can come to a consensus, not one in which the individual is seen to be owned by a particular faction on day one. No wonder Brown didn’t bother dealing with him directly and left it to Douglas Alexander to work as his intermediary. The very best thing that can be said about this working relationship is that it cost Labour an unneccesary £1.2million.

Peter Watt has decided to tweet his experience of this book launch, using the very Grant Shapps-esque “peterwatt123“. Thus far, his utterances regarding the launch and extracts have been very Kung Fu, with him tweeting this morning that “Loyalty is a two way street” (there’s a philosophy essay in that). More bizarrely, with both his profile picture and past tweets, he appears to be using his kids as a shield on the apparent assumption that people will go easy on a family man (see this as another case in point). Why not keep this stuff seperate from the book? It’s all very odd (and before you argue that these tweets are none of my business, I was only alerted to them because his publisher started promoting them).