The left shouldn’t feel guilty about supporting Owen Smith
I joined the Labour Party in 2010 and started university a year later. For almost that entire time, I have identified myself as being somewhere on the left of the party. I’ve voted accordingly at almost every internal election since, attended countless Young Labour and Labour Students events and been labelled as a Trot at every single one.
It’s therefore a little strange to find myself backing the same leadership candidate as almost everyone who showed me such contempt at those events (some for the second leadership election in a row).
Indeed, if you’d told me a little over a year ago that Owen Smith — who I knew exclusively for being Welsh, soft left and of the same political persuasions of the likes of Lisa Nandy — would be the less left wing of the two candidates in a leadership election, I’d have probably been rather happy and more than a little confused.
It’s been a strange kind of year.
This post is meant as a brief and slightly mangled explanation as to why, given all of the above, I’m supporting Owen and I hope that he is our next leader.
The inescapable fact in the history of our party is that all but three of our general election victories were delivered in the era of mass union membership, class-based voting patterns and the obvious advantages that these gave us. The other three all came when Tony Blair parked our tanks on Tory Middle England’s neatly cut lawns. This is an uncomfortable reality for the Labour Left. While the reality isn’t nearly as simple as ‘to win, you must move to the centre’ in the post-industrial era, it demonstrates the scale of the challenge that we face.
Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters are right that the movement that has grown around him since he announced his candidacy last summer is remarkable. It has already propelled him to one leadership election victory, and will most likely push him through another. But I have my doubts that it can provide the basis for an election winning force on the scale of the postwar union movement or even the Third Way. The style is too confrontational, the support base is not rooted enough in the communities it claims to represent.
The argument over whether winning elections is an end in itself has been had too many times. So it’s interesting that one common criticism of Owen Smith from those supporting Corbyn this summer is that given that the two seem to agree on many policy stances, surely Smith is no more electable.
But of course the policies aren’t the problem. Most of us don’t know an awful lot about Smith, but it’s probably fair to assume that if he were leader he wouldn’t do things like forgetting to tell someone he’d appointed them to the Shadow Cabinet, as Corbyn did with Thangam Debbonaire. There is nothing left wing about incompetence.
Because most of us don’t know a lot about him, it’s been easy for those who want to undermine Smith to paint the picture they want people to see. The various criticisms — Pfizer career, opportunism, New Labour-esque presentation — obscure the fact that if elected leader he will be closer to the left of the party in his beliefs than most of his predecessors.
Despite this, if he wins the right of the party will be elated. They will have backed the winning horse and may have saved their own careers and, as they see it, their party as well. There will be pressure from MPs and party donors to bring key figures from both Progress and the old right into the Shadow Cabinet, followed by pressure to water down the radical policies already set out into something resembling the half-baked 2015 manifesto.
If Corbyn loses, many of his supporters will abandon Labour. Many more will stay, but distance themselves from the leadership and even seek to undermine it. Thousands will, somewhat justifiably, feel disenfranchised and want to leave the new leader alone to deal with many of those who voted for him.
This cannot happen. What the last year proves is that the party membership has become powerful enough to fight for the big values that the vast majority of us agree on — increased infrastructure spending, opposition to further cuts and privatisation, and so on. Both candidates reflect this in their own way. The membership as it currently stands possesses the ability to make whoever is elected leader stick to their pledges and deliver a manifesto in 2020 that we can all be proud of. Why throw that away?