Downsizing, by Tom Watson – book review

Here’s something I wrote a couple of weeks ago, but had saved up. I’m steering well clear of half-baked instant hot takes today (we’re into the aftermath of the 2021 local elections) though it’s interesting how quickly it is that Tom Watson has been forgotten as a protagonist even as the Labour party’s forever wars continue to rage. But on with the review…

Libraries are open again! Hooray! And to celebrate, I re-read Downsizing before taking it back. What a difference a year makes. 

Downsized by Tom Watson cover

Before lockdown, I had picked this up wanting to read Tom Watson’s policy ideas and proposals for addressing the UK’s obesity crisis and, by extension, food poverty, at a system level. Any reflections or anecdotes from his period as Labour’s deputy leader would have welcome, but a bonus.

It’s fair to say I was disappointed at the time. Watson teases us a bit by saying something needs to be done about the food economy, but parks it as an issue. And you really have to join the dots to draw any conclusions about his political journey from Brownite bruiser to master of zen. Where the book was strongest, of course, was about his own health journey. But without giving us more of a taste of his work in Westminster, we were left with slightly bizarre vignettes of press-ups in children’s playgrounds and the kind of flexibility to your work that’s possible when you’re the boss and less so if you’re juggling all kinds of commitments and at the wrong end of health inequalities (a subject that is crying out to be addressed by this book and which isn’t). 

As a result of reading the book, my step count went up for a while but I felt that Watson had really missed an opportunity. My disappointment was deepened on reading Left Out and also when Watson seemed to endorse gambling CSR by becoming an adviser to the owner of Paddy Power and other gambling companies. But perhaps he will surprise me on that score, just as Downsizing surprised me when I returned to it.

Perhaps seeing Downsizing on the supermarket shelves gave me a different perspective, for this time round I knew there was neither politics nor policy within its pages. I still think there could have been but I recognise that as someone who spends their time thinking about health policy I was perhaps a bit of a niche consumer. Watson isn’t talking to me in that regard. He wants we the reader to recognise that we may have more agency in our health than we imagine. So he tells us his story and gets us on board. He wants to come across as relatable, so he dials down the yarns about long meetings at Labour’s National Executive Committee and tells us instead about falling off his bike. The result is soft polemic but polemic none the less, but he’s still making a case and doing so in a way that is accessible to all his audience. It’s a story of false starts and final satisfaction, so to have to read it twice is kind of fitting. This time round I think the boost to my step count will be rather longer lasting.

You can buy Downsizing from the Cafethinking shop.

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