So, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) has finally decided on a challenger for the leadership: Owen Smith. Like it or not, Smith is never going to be viewed as a left-wing candidate whilst sharing the limelight with Corbyn.
This means, however unfairly, he will be seen by the membership as the candidate of Progress, of the Labour Establishment, and of Blairism. Let’s take a brief overview of what the layman party member knows about Smith. They read that previously he voiced support for Private Financial Initiative (PFI) schemes to fund hospital construction; that he once worked as a press advisor for Pfizer, and he is very evidently not Jeremy Corbyn.
What do I mean by this? To truly understand, one has to look at the reason Corbyn won the 2015 Labour leadership election so resoundingly (it must be stressed, amongst all groups in the party, not just registered supporters and affiliates). Even for those in the party almost diametrically opposed to the Corbynista’s underlying ideology, it is essential to understand and acknowledge Corbyn’s successes in order to put up an effective and electorally viable opposition to it.
The very reason for the heady atmosphere of Corbyn’s ‘straight talking revolution’ that captured Labour’s imagination, was precisely that it offered a completely fresh vision. Corbyn emerged with a coherent, expansive platform he’d unwaveringly supported for years, and - much to the horror of dismissive party grandees - policy backed up or even produced by expert economists and tax campaigners like Thomas Piketty, Richard Murphy, and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman.
Platforms like unilateral disarmament, scrapping tuition fees, expansive state ownership played to the sensibilities of an exasperated Socialist grassroots, convinced it would never see the return of its true political colours. I believe Corbyn’s originality actually had very little to do with the fact he’s somewhat doddery and not media-schooled. Members finally felt that they were having a real say, not just in selecting a figurehead, but in shaping the whole ideology of Britain’s largest political party.
This concept of ‘participating in a movement’, perpetuated by both Labour leadership and Momentum has not dissipated with time. Quite the opposite. Indeed, it contributes to the relative unpopularity of Smith & co.
Love or loathe them, Corbyn and McDonnell have engineered a crystal clear platform that is not only popular with a majority of members, but on which Corbyn and policy are almost indistinguishable. For many members of the party now, Corbyn is Socialism and Socialism is Corbyn. Far more slyly, through establishing such coherent foundations, McDonnell has, for many, destroyed the credibility of any anti-Corbyn sentiment by making it seem founded not in policy but bitterness. This is where the main problem for Smith arises.
Through no fault of his own, Smith is being viewed through a prism of buzzwords like ‘Blairite’, ‘plotter’, and ‘red tory’, which distort his political positioning. Thanks to some quite brilliant political operating by the hard left, Smith now faces a huge battle to be associated with policy, and not just become the ‘anyone-but-Corbyn’ candidate.
The issue is that Smith’s prominent standard bearers have failed to grasp that merely pointing out Corbyn’s faults is not enough. The complete refusal of Corbyn’s core supporters to either accept or care about his unelectability and alleged incompetence is evidence to this.
In fairness, since winning nominations from his fellow PLPs, the stall Smith has set up for the voting public has been fairly policy oriented, including a £200bn pound stimulus package for public investment, courting the vote of the unions by supporting a nuclear replacement, and even proposing a second EU referendum.
Nevertheless, it remains the case that those who most vociferously support Smith are doing so by going after Corbyn. This proves especially true for those on the anti-socialist right of the party who have attached themselves to Smith as the unity candidate, but in truth share less of his beliefs than they would have one think. MPs like Michael Dugher, Mike Gapes, Jamie Reed amongst others regularly slate in derisory terms Corbyn’s team, Momentum, and even supporters, signposting the many gaffes and failures of their short tenure.
These genuine Blairites (I use the word free from judgment, it is a moniker I believe they wear proudly), do not seem to fully comprehend that a group of MPs who have constantly undermined a leader with a vast mandate don’t best please the electorate by attacking the left of the party. Even putting aside the slurs, (I don’t claim for a second they are unreciprocated), their enthusiastic trashing of the hard left does little to aid Smith’s cause.
On Friday morning Smith announced his campaign team, including some inspired picks such as the ever-insightful Lisa Nandy, who in a recent interview with Owen Jones spoke very saliently of the divide between “two opposing wings of the party [fighting] a battle which could smash it to pieces”.
The mammoth task facing the Saving Labour team is to associate themselves with neither. The only way Smith comes out of this election on top is to be the candidate of neither Progress nor Momentum, but the candidate of liberal, progressive policies that a country battered by draconian Tory rule is crying out for.
When people question Smith’s credentials I want to see more than finger pointing towards Corbyn’s past working for Iranian state T.V. If members start throwing the word Blairite around, the reply I want to see is Smith’s role in delivering two major U-Turns over Personal Independence Payments and tax credits.
I do believe Owen Smith could genuinely be the man to save the Labour Party. But to be our knight in shining armour he has to do more than just not be Jeremy Corbyn.