Why I’m holding my nose while voting for Owen Smith

I’ve never really understood pundits when they say voters will “hold their nose” casting their ballot for this-or-that candidate. It’s a piece of paper, not a week-old fillet of fish, I think.

True, I felt uncomfortable marking that number 2 against Andy Burnham’s name during last year’s leadership election. I sure hoped the party wouldn’t end up being led by a man so hapless that he makes Mr Bean look the model of a statesman. But that was different: a second preference rather than a singular, positive choice.

Things are different this time around. It’s Corbyn or Smith. Good old fashioned first-past-the-post. The choice is binary.

And the choice stinks.

I voted for Owen Smith with my hand clamped firmly over my nostrils. Why? Because I don’t want him to win — I want Jeremy Corbyn to lose. That’s all. The sole appeal of Smith to me is that he is not his opponent.

It’s tragic exercising one’s democratic right with such ennui. This isn’t what politics should be about. The present state of the Labour Party, though, makes it necessary.

Don’t get me wrong- Smith will be incalculably better as leader than Corbyn. But only in the way Neil Kinnock was better than Michael Foot. He is a bridge candidate. To borrow from The Dark Knight, he is not the candidate we deserve, but the one we need right now.

Yes, he’s got policies by the bucketload. Unfortunately they’re either cribbed from the Miliband playbook or plagiarised off Team Corbyn.

On transport, Smith and Corbyn are in lockstep — they both want to see the railways nationalised. On housing, they’re scrapping among themselves over who will build more. Both want more money for the NHS, more money for education, more money for wages, with Corbyn generally outbidding Smith on the exact amounts.

Don’t get me wrong — I want many of these things too (well, I’m not sold on wholesale nationalisation of the railways, but that’s a story for another day). My problem is that the rational voter — if such a thing existed in the Labour Party — in favour of such policies would take a look at Corbyn, take a look at Smith, and vote Corbyn. Why wouldn’t they? Smith told George Eaton of the New Statesman that he was “pretty red.” Well, Corbyn’s as scarlet as the Soviet Flag. If you’re going to vote left, why not vote for the most left candidate in the field?

Furthermore, a general election fought on such a prospectus would lead to a 2015-style defeat in 2020 followed by a repeat of the current internal tumult. Yes, I know YouGov shows a majority of the public are in favour of rail nationalisation. I know that so, so many people tell pollsters they want greater equality. Yet people do not vote this way. They vote for a cohesive programme of government that encompasses everybody and every issue. They will not vote for one or two fuzzy policies they like in theory but worry about in practice. Smith does not have such a programme. He has a little bit of this and a little bit of that. A jumble of ingredients in place of a hearty meal.

Worse, infinitely worse, however, is that Owen Smith does not pass the Downing Street test.

I cannot see him waving to the cameras in front of the black door of Number 10. This is not his fault. He appears to be a pleasant chap and a talented speaker. Sure, he presents himself as reassuringly “normal”, which is what the British public want in a prime minister.

Yet I’m reminded of Bryan Gould’s interview for Labour: The Wilderness Years on why Kinnock failed in 1987:

“It was a sort of educational and social snobbery. In the end they could not quite see a Welsh working-class lad speaking in a gruff, macho Welsh lilt as prime minister. And in a way…they may just about have been right,”

I don’t think the British public would look at Smith as leader of the Labour Party in 2020 and see a shiny, Welsh middle-class lad speaking in a melodious Welsh lilt as prime minister.

That’s because he lacks the one ingredient in a leader that is also the hardest to define: gravitas.

A statesman-in-the-making does not deride his opponent as a “lunatic”, no matter how far out of step his views are from the mainstream. Nor does he make an awkward joke about the size of his penis/inner leg measurement at a rally.

He certainly does not, for a second, publicly state his intent to negotiate with barbaric terrorists who are intent on the destruction of the civilised world.

Do I want a leader without personality? No. I do, however, want a leader with presence. One who could win a crucial vote with a stirring performance from the despatch box. One who could encapsulate a nation’s grief following a terrorist attack or natural disaster. A leader who could transcend the bounds of party politics and act as spokesman for the entire country.

Owen Smith is not that leader.

So I vote for him, to save the Labour Party and to start us down that long, long path to power. Yet I do so holding my nose, and with a sad emptiness in the pit of my stomach.

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