Your weekly update from Tom Watson MP, deputy leader of the Labour Party.
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As you are probably aware, I have long been suspicious of Russian attempts to influence our democratic processes. But today's blistering revelations in The Observer and Sunday Times take my fears to a new level.
Both papers are alleging that Arron Banks, who gave £12 MILLION of services to the Brexit campaign, was offered a business deal involving six Russian goldmines in clandestine meetings before the EU referendum. We are told the deal could be worth billions to Banks, Nigel Farage's chum.
I thought the idea of Kremlin gold being used to destabilise our democracy became redundant at the end of the Cold War or was the stuff of political thrillers.
If it's true that Mr Banks's previous account of events is inaccurate, his alleged links to Russian financiers and mine owners warrant further scrutiny.
I should say at this point Mr Banks categorically denies that the Russians sort to influence his referendum campaign and has dismissed today's reports as a "political witch-hunt". On Tuesday he gets the chance to have his say before the DCMS Select Committee. It should make for a very interesting session.
Taking a stand
I am really proud of Labour's new policy of supporting safe standing at Premiership and Championship football matches.
Shadow sports minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan and my DCMS team took this decision after a comprehensive consultation with clubs, safety experts, supporters' trusts and councils - and listened to the views of more than 100,000 fans who signed a petition.
We now expect the government to take the case for safe standing seriously, rather than dismissing it as the pursuit of a "vocal minority".
As Rosena said: "Clubs, fans and local authorities know their stadium far better than anybody in Whitehall - the decision should rest with them."
Hours after we unveiled our new policy, the Premier League also backed our call for "local choice" on safe standing. Look out for a Government U-turn - and yet another Labour policy turned into law.
To Russia with fun
On the subject of football, England's Young Lions fly out to the World Cup in Russia on Tuesday. What a joy it is to see supporters and the media, for once, not talking up the team's chances to preposterous levels.
I really hope Gareth Southgate's team show us flair and passion. And because they don't have a World Cup song, I'd like to suggest a tune to get them in the mood.
Click on the pic to hear the track.
This week saw the first anniversary of the day when The Sun newspaper found out it was no longer relevant. Many happy returns!
Access to online computers in libraries is an absolute necessity for many of the poorest.
Yet shocking new data - unearthed by my colleague Kevin Brennan - reveals that there are 3000 FEWER terminals with internet access in England's libraries since 2010.
Proof - if more we needed - that the Tories will decimate our country's digital potential given half a chance.
And yet again that those most vulnerable and most in need are the victims of their cruel austerity.
Having spent hours in the gym, and walked, cycled, boxed and dieted my way to a six stone weight loss, I know how sport and exercise can change your life for the better - and make you happier.
So I was delighted to be asked to give a speech to celebrate the work of the Sport and Recreation Alliance.
Think about this. Every volunteer - every coach, minibus driver, steward or supervisor - creates the capacity for 8 people to take part in sport, with all the health, fitness and wellbeing benefits that brings to lives and communities.
In this Volunteers’ Week, I want to pay tribute to everyone - young and old - who help other people to take part in sport and exercise. Thank you!
Righting wrongs with Jeremy
It was great to see Jeremy Corbyn and MPs from across the political divide at an event I hosted in parliament for supporters of the campaign to honour our nuclear test veterans with a medal.
As Jeremy said: "The UK government put these men in harm’s way by asking them to take part in nuclear tests with little to nothing by way of protection. The veterans have had to live and die with the repercussions ever since.
“A medal is the first and least thing we can do to right the wrongs these veterans and families have endured."
Please join Jeremy and I in signing the petition here.
‘Older, white people are in the majority, even when the cast is majority Black or multi-racial.’ That's the view of theatre producer Tobi Kyeremateng who is on a mission to open up theatre access by offering black people - especially the young - free tickets.
Her initiative The Black Ticket Project, launched last year in London with poet Damilola Odelola, is now going national. The project demonstrates how diversity in the arts needs action, not just talk.
Tweet of the Week
A special award has go to Jeremy Vine for making me laugh a lot. Sorry about stealing your song, Jeremy!
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Your weekly update from Tom Watson MP, deputy leader of the Labour Party.
This week started in the saddest of ways, waking up on Sunday morning to hear that my dear friend Tessa Jowell had passed away.
As I said in my statement she was a passionate believer in a fairer, more equal society, a damn fine Culture Secretary, a wonderful boss, and a truly courageous advocate in the fight against cancer.
But what struck me most over the next few days was the astonishing outpouring of love and appreciation from across the political divide for Tessa and her public service, whether it be her work bringing the Olympics to London, as architect of Sure Start or just as someone who believed in helping the most vulnerable in society.
I think it reminded many of us in parliament about why we chose to enter politics and public service in the first place.
Praise where praise is due
I was mindful of the cross-party tributes to Tessa when it came to Thursday's anouncement of the reduction of the maximum stake on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) from £100 to £2 a spin.
As you may well recall, I first began campaigning on the issue from the backbenches five years ago. And when I became Shadow DCMS Secretary in 2016, I knew I had a chance to help deliver a sizeable, and desperately needed, cut in the maximum stake.
But while I enjoyed ribbing Sports Minister Tracey Crouch for delivering on a Labour Party manifesto pledge, I was also aware of how hard Tracey had fought the ferocious lobbying of the multi-billion pound betting industry.
So when I made my statement welcoming the stake reduction, I was determined to praise Tracey from the opposition benches for sticking to her guns and doing the right thing. It's something we don't do enough of in the House of Commons.
The announcement is definitely a big step in the right direction. But cutting the stake is just one part of the puzzle.
We need a levy on tax-avoiding online gambling companies based in Gibraltar; research, education and treatment for gambling addiction; restrictions on betting advertising in football; and a new Gambling Act fit for the digital age.
Above all, the industry, which brings in a massive £13.8 billion a year, needs to start taking its obligations seriously to the 430,000 addicts, 2 million vulnerable players and 25,000 young people gambling every week.
To the leaders of that industry, which has got rich for far too long on the misery of others, I have a simple message: "Clean up your act or a future Labour government will do it for you."
You can watch my statement to the House of Commons by clicking the pic below.
Give music a chance
It should go without saying that every primary school child has access to learn a musical instrument. But, sadly, it doesn't.
Instead the huge pressures on school funding and the government's insistence on a binary curriculum are stifling the creativity of future generations. Worse still, they discriminate against children based on class, wealth and postcode.
That's why I'm fully behind the Every Child A Musician campaign launched by the winners of the BBC Young Musician competition.
Music should be a Universal Right for every child no matter their background.
Banking a good cause
It is 90 years since a charity was set up to pay off the national debt. Yet not a penny of the £475m in the bank has ever been spent.
Shadow charities minister Steve Reed said: “This money has sat idly for nearly a century, accumulating in value but contributing nothing to either the national debt or good causes. This money would help charities feed the hungry, house the homeless and care for the sick, as well as supporting other worthy causes.”
Steve's right. Surely it is time the government closed this moribund bank account and redistributed the money to good causes.
Book (Plug) of the Week
My friends Tom Hamilton and Ayesha Hazarika, who prepped Ed Miliband for five years, have just released Punch and Judy Politics - an insiders' guide to Prime Minister's Questions.
It's a brilliant take on the bear-pit cut and thrust of PMQs, part funny and part terrifying! It's published by Biteback and I thoroughly recommend it.
Thirteen thousand Sainsbury's workers will lose up to £3000-a-year under new contracts being imposed by bosses.
Please sign and share this petition, calling on management to rethink this assault on the wages of loyal, long-standing staff.
Tipping the rich
Each year The Sunday Times Rich List "celebrates" the deep economic divides and burgeoning inequality that allows the UK's wealthiest 1,000 to grow ever fatter.
As my shadow ministerial colleague Liam Byrne says: "We're at a tipping point. If we don't take action now, the world's top 1% are on course to control two thirds of world wealth - in just 12 years time."
It's time we ended the risible low-wage, weak rights economy - where food banks are now the norm - that allows the wealth of the undeserving billionaires to balloon.
One of these is a Neanderthal skeleton held under close security by the Natural History Museum, the other has lost 86lbs in weight!
Everyone deserves a dignified death. That means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
For more and more Brits it has meant a peaceful death at the time of their choosing at Dignitas in Switzerland. Last year one Brit went there every eight days.
I recently met two of my constituents whose partners were suffering from terminal illnesses and wished to end their lives at Dignitas.
Their experiences couldn’t have been more different.
James Howley’s partner Helen was able to get the medical documents she needed to allow her the peaceful death she wanted.
But Julie Smith’s husband Paul could not access the medical letter required by the Swiss authorities because his doctor was concerned about falling foul of the law.
No doctor should be put in that position: having to choose between granting their dying patient’s wish or facing possible investigation.
What makes this story so strange is that Helen and Paul both attended the same GP surgery in West Bromwich.
Two people, facing similar challenges at the end of their lives, had totally different deaths – one dignified, one undignified and painful.
All because the law regarding helping patients go to Dignitas is a grey area.
It’s not often you have such a clear demonstration of a situation that is not working, unfair and devastating for those involved.
When this issue came to Parliament nearly three years ago MPs didn’t agree that the law should change.
I was among those not convinced by the arguments. Hearing James and Julie’s stories has changed my mind.
Over the past week some Tory-supporting publications have published a string of completely false and ridiculous smears,calling Labour politicians traitors and linking them with Soviet bloc spies.
Let’s call these stories out for what they are – propaganda, not journalism. They are not worth the paper they are written on.
The source for these stories is a man who claims Czechoslovakian security services set up Live Aid. Documents do not substantiate his wild claims. In fact, the director of the Czech security forces archive says that historic records show the opposite to what he claims; that Jeremy Corbyn was not a “collaborator” and that the Czech official he met deliberately concealed his true identity.
Unfortunately, printing stories based on discredited sources, without any evidence, that are completely denied by the subjects of the articles, is not even a new development. We’ve seen it all before over the many years in which the right-wing press has done everything it can to discredit the Labour Party.
Neil Kinnock was vilified by the Tory press when he was Labour leader, but even he conceded the treatment of Ed Miliband by some papers represented a new low. It wasn’t enough for the Daily Mail to attack him or his policies, it decided to run a double-page spread labelling Miliband’s late father, who served in the Royal Navy, “the man who hated Britain”.
The screeching vitriol from the majority of the press that greeted Corbyn’s election as leader was unsurprising – but even those of us most acclimatised to their baseless, biased and politicised attacks were shocked to read the 13 pages of furious and demented anti-Labour coverage the day before last year’s general election, which labelled Labour “apologists for terror”.
Unfortunately for these newspapers, the years of slurs, of stretching the truth to breaking point, of completely one-sided reporting, may be creeping up on them. They do not wield the power they once did, their circulations are falling and people simply don’t trust them anymore.
The Sun, which was one of the main proponents of this week’s ridiculous story, was rated least trustworthy of all major news sources in a survey carried out by Ipsos Mori at the end of last year.
There is no doubt that social media platforms such as Facebook are disrupting the news industry. But they are not the only reason so many papers are struggling. Too many proprietors point the finger at Facebook and Google and blame the tech giants for their own commercial problems.
But the handful of proprietors who control 71 per cent of the national newspaper market need to face up to the fact that they have spent years undermining decent journalism in the UK by pursuing a partisan approach to news.
Some have accused Labour of mounting an “attack on the press” for describing these baseless smears as what they are. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are right to criticise poor journalism because it undermines good reporting – and we make no apologies for doing so.
Newspaper proprietors in this country abuse their power. It’s a unique kind of self-harm for a newspaper to print a story they know is poorly sourced, decide to run it regardless because it suits their political agenda, and pass it off as news.
There are many reasons for declining newspaper circulation but there can be no doubt the public is beginning to tire of the fact that too many papers routinely present smears, lies and innuendo as facts.
The Competition and Markets Authority has done something that too many politicians over the last 30 years have failed to do: stand in the way of the Murdochs.
Tasked with assessing the effect of the Fox takeover bid for Sky, the CMA’s provisional conclusion was clear. The merger “would result in the Murdoch family having too much control over news providers in the UK, and too much influence over public opinion and the political agenda”. Put simply: the Murdochs are too powerful already. Allowing them even more power is not in the public interest.
The history of Murdoch media domination in the UK is a long one. From buying the News of the World, then The Sun and finally The Times and Sunday Times, to launching Sky, he has owned too much of our media for too long. The result has been successive governments and politicians bent to his will, too fearful of his power to take decisions that might have challenged his hegemony.
It is still unclear if Murdoch asked Theresa May to appoint Michael Gove to her cabinet and we are none the wiser about what was discussed in May’s secret meeting with Murdoch in New York in the autumn of 2016.
The corporate culture at News UK meant that phone-hacking and intrusion went unpunished. Nearly seven years after revelations about the scale of criminality at the company, and the corporate cover up that was launched in an attempt to keep it hidden, there are still ongoing civil cases alleging criminality by Murdoch papers. The second part of the Leveson inquiry, which was backed by every major political party in 2011, has still not been held and the Tories are doing everything they can to squirm out of their commitment to set it up, despite calls from people in the public eye and members of the public to hold it.
Although the regulator’s decision today is welcome, this isn’t the end of Fox’s bid for Sky. Judging by 21st Century Fox’s press statement, you would think this decision brings them a step closer to the takeover, rather than a step further away. The company maintains they “anticipate regulatory approval” of the bid by the summer.
That is why the CMA should treat any new undertakings from Fox about a structural separation of Sky News or so-called “behavioural remedies” designed to protect the independence of Sky News with caution.
The regulatory process will now continue until May, with further submissions from all sides. Whatever the potential remedies outlined by the CMA the reality is that the only way to guarantee the editorial independence of Sky News and check Murdoch’s power is to block the bid.
Matt Hancock, the new secretary of state, has repeatedly stressed the importance of a free and diverse press to our democracy. When the CMA process ends in a few months that sentiment will be put to the test. If he really believes in press plurality and democracy there is only one option open to him: accept the CMA’s judgement and act to curb Murdoch’s power and influence.
Much has been written about the impact of technological change and the dystopian future we could all face as a result of the rise of the robots. It can sometimes feel like we are preparing for a world in which artificial intelligence, algorithms and automation – rather than human endeavour and hard work – will shape every aspect of our society and our economy.
That sounds like a frightening prospect. But it needn’t be. The word robot derives from the Czech Robota, or forced Labour. If 21st century machines labour on our behalf, carrying out the heavy lifting and routine tasks of the future, then we could be free to focus on activities that generate greater economic benefits for a greater number of people.
That is liberating. Rather than causing mass unemployment, new technology could help to solve the trio of economic problems that are currently holding Britain back – low growth, low wages and poor productivity.
That’s one of the findings of the new report published today by the independent Future of Work Commission, which I set up and co-chaired alongside Helen Mountfield QC.
The commission is made up of experts from academia, industry and the union movement. It spent a year asking what the future of work in Britain will look like in the context of the technological revolution.
Our report found that the most apocalyptic predictions about the impact automation will have on jobs are far too pessimistic. We believe automation and artificial intelligence can, with the right policy framework around it, create as many jobs as it destroys.
But our report also contains some stark warnings about the future too. Because we aren’t doing enough to exploit the opportunities created by this new world of work. Our chronic inability as a country to spend enough money on research and development is still holding us back.
One of our findings is that Britain currently has too few robots, not too many. We’ve been slower to adopt new technologies than other wealthy countries and the problem is getting worse not better. The number of industrial robots installed in Britain in 2015 was down 21 per cent on 2014 levels. The number of robots per 10,000 employees is one of the lowest in the OECD.
That is why our report calls for 3.5 per cent of GDP to be spent on R&D. That will bring us in line with other wealthy countries like Germany and Japan and help us become a leader in this new technological revolution in the same way we led the world during the industrial revolution.
To make that happen, we need to change our tax system so that companies that invest in technology are rewarded and provide them with financial incentives to do so. We also need to fast-track the skills this new technological revolution will require as it picks up pace. That means teaching a curriculum built around creative thinking and developing digital skills, with a specific focus on AI, so British children finish school equipped to pursue the jobs of the future.
I’ve always been excited by technology and the opportunities it creates. I’m what they call an early adopter. That’s one of the reasons I set up this commission. I wanted to understand how technological changes will change the world of work and I thought it was important to try and establish whether the stark warnings about automation were grounded in fact.
In recent years, we’ve read stark warnings that 11 million British jobs will be lost – in blue collar jobs as well as white-collar professions. We’ve heard that algorithms and artificial intelligence would make doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers obsolete.
But one of the main findings of our report if that there is much to be optimistic about if we harness the progressive power of the technological revolution.
If we make the right public policy decisions about investment, education and re-training, automation and AI can create good, well-paid and fulfilling jobs.
In short, we shouldn’t fear the robots. A former prime minister once famously instructed people to: “Hug a hoodie”. Perhaps we should also learn to embrace an android.
Ken Clarke has suggested that David Cameron did "some sort of deal" to win the support of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers in the run-up to the 2010 election. According to Clarke, in his evidence to the Competition and Markets Authority, when – at Cameron’s instigation – he held a meeting as justice secretary with Rebekah Brooks, she “described herself as running the government now in partnership with David Cameron”.
Clarke says that she tried to use this influence to get him to introduce prison ships. She failed in that particular lobbying effort – which turned out to be good news for some of her subsequently imprisoned former colleagues. But the Murdochs were interested in more than just prisons policy – they always have been.
Murdoch got his man – former News of the World editor Andy Coulson – into the heart of the Conservative operation, first as the Conservative party’s head of communications, and later at Downing Street. “That was part of the deal I assume,” says Clarke. Cameron was prepared to believe Coulson's denials that he had any involvement in the phone-hacking – a credulity that he later came to regret.
When it all came crashing down in 2011, with the phone-hacking scandal, the closure of the News of the World, and the – temporary, as it turned out – abandonment of the Murdochs’ bid to take over Sky, it looked as if the cosy deal between the Murdochs and the Conservative party might have to end. We learned about a corporate culture within the Murdoch empire – of documents deleted, of ethical standards conveniently suspended, of blind eyes turned to criminality – that nobody could defend. Suddenly, association with Rupert Murdoch was a political liability.
I’ve watched with fascination over the last few years as the Murdochs have tried to claw themselves back into the privileged role they so deservedly lost. Their papers backed the Tories (and, interestingly, the SNP) in the 2015 election, with some success. But this year has shown their powers fading. They threw everything they could at Labour, and at Jeremy Corbyn, in the general election – and it didn’t work.
On election day in June, the Sun’s front page screamed: "Don't chuck Britain in the Cor-bin". Millions of voters ignored it – and deprived Theresa May of the majority she’d taken for granted. For once, and perhaps, for ever from now on, it wasn’t the Sun wot won it.
Since then I’ve praised Karen Bradley, the culture secretary, for doing the right thing and referring 21st Century Fox's bid to take over Sky to the Competition and Markets Authority – a decision I don’t believe the Murdochs expected for one moment. Maybe she – like Corbyn – feels liberated by the election result. If the Murdoch papers can’t deliver on their side of the bargain for the Tories, why should she bend over backwards to do what they want, instead of following due process?
But Theresa May still faces questions about her relationship with Rupert Murdoch. We still don’t know what was discussed at her private meeting with her in New York in September 2016. And when I wrote to her in June, following a tip-off, to ask her if it was true that Murdoch had asked her to reappoint Michael Gove to the cabinet, I was surprised to receive a reply that refused to deny the allegation. It would, after all, have been so easy to deny it.
The Murdochs are still seeking to expand their empire, even as new revelations about corporate behaviour pile up. Their flagship TV station, Fox News, has been hit by a rolling sexual harassment scandal – in which we now know allegations were covered up, accusers paid off and alleged perpetrators handed new multimillion-dollar contracts, despite the company’s knowledge of serious sexual misconduct claims. I met some former Fox News employees in parliament this week and was shocked at the stories they told me.
In just the last few months here in the UK, Murdoch companies have paid out damages to a former army intelligence officer whose computer was hacked by private detectives working for the News of the World, and settled 17 cases of phone hacking and illegally obtaining personal information. And more cases are outstanding. The very fact that this legal process is lumbering on shows that the Murdoch empire is still unwilling to face up to what happened inside its newspapers: every new revelation has to be dragged from them.
The scandal hasn’t ended, as Clarke’s testimony shows. That’s why I still believe we need to see part two of the Leveson inquiry – promised in 2011 by all political parties – to look into the extent of unlawful and improper conduct within News Group and other media organisations. I hope the Conservative party can show that it’s no longer in the business of doing deals with the Murdochs, and get on with it.