A Debunking of Owen Smith
“What you call ‘love’ was invented by guys like me. To sell Nylons.”
-Don Draper, Mad Men
“ Peter Mandelson and John McTernan support Smith. That’s it, i don’t need to know anything else. Literally nothing. To quote Jerry Maguire you had me at hello.”
-Some random person on the Guardian Website.
Owen Smith probably won’t win the Labour leadership contest. At the time of writing, he has a whopping 32% mountain to clime in order to unseat the incumbent, Jeremy Corbyn. Nonetheless, given the current fractious of state of politics and given the support that Smith enjoys from both the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the mainstream media; there does at least appear to be the potential for Smith to close the gap and eat into Corbyn’s much needed mandate from the membership. As Corbynite Labour member, I clearly do not want this to happen and think it would be very damaging to the future direction of the Labour Party.
The pitch being made by Owen Smith is potentially seductive to many Labour members. The decisive demographic of the Labour electorate is the ‘Soft Corbynite’ (in essence the ‘Mondeo Man’ of Labour 2016) and it is this group who Smith is deliberately trying to sell himself to in order to make his campaign competitive. This person is social democratic but not radical socialist, skeptical of Corbyn’s leadership qualities but does not want a return to Blairism. Someone who is not happy about the PLP coup to unseat the elected leader but who hates the Labour Party division and is not sure who to blame. Smith’s PR background has taught him to position himself adroitly with the aim to win over this key ‘target market’ but — as I will demonstrate- he monumentally unlikely to give them what they actually want.
The Owen Smith Strategy
As seen from the opening leadership debate in Cardiff and from his non-grilling by an existentially tortured Owen Jones; it is clear that the Smith pitch has has a number of central features. On virtually every policy or political ‘principle’, Smith agrees with Jeremy Corbyn. He claims difference only on the idea of being a ‘unifier’ and by saying that he is more likely than Corbyn to win a General Election. In addition, he has repeated the media narratives about Corbyn being soft on both the anti-antisemitism and abuse which is alleged to be endemic within the Corbynite wing of the Labour Party. Every single aspect of this narrative is fundamentally false.
I Agree with Jeremy (Smith on Policy)
“Labour moderates will spend the coming months simulating agreement with their adversaries on the left.”
-Rafael Behr, The Guardian.
Yes Labour members, you can have your cake and eat it. If you agree — like I do- that we should have Keynesian anti-austerity economics and investment led growth AND beat those Tory evil-doers… then I - ladies and gentlemen - am your man. I know that this may sound too good to be true but…
Politicians do change their policy positions over time. Elizebth Warren, acclaimed star of the American Liberal Left, had a career in the financial services and was a Reaganite in the 80s. Tony Benn was once on the moderate right wing of the Labour Party. The difference is that these are politicians who have been honest about their past records and have given explicit reasons for their own personal evolutions. Not so with Owen Smith.
His pre-leadership bid career completely contradicts his claim to be anti-austerity. Not only did he abstain on the Tory welfare bill last year but he is on record as saying that reductions in welfare spending are right. Owen Smith has claimed to have been opposed to the Iraq War but was quoted in 2006 as saying: “I thought at the time the tradition of the Labour Party and the tradition of left-wing engagement to remove dictators was a noble, valuable tradition, and one that in South Wales, from the Spanish Civil War onwards, we have recognised and played a part in.” This could have been the inspiration for the Hillary Benn speech on Syria and we can generously say that it falls somewhat short of outright opposing to the Iraq invasion. The same 2006 article also shows his support for PFI and - of course - NHS outsourcing.
Smith denies being a lobbyist for Pfizer but his job title was ‘head of policy and public relations,’ for a company that was actively pushing for more NHS privatisation. He was not, as a Leadsomesque slip of the CV claimed, ever a company director of Amgen. Part of Smith’s appeal (as oppose to say, Angela Eagle) is that he is a relative clean slate who can present himself as a genuine ‘soft-left’ candidate in a way that someone who voted against the Chilcott Inquiry clearly could not. Unfortunately for him, this strategy seems to rely on the assumption that the Internet doesn’t exist.
Jeremy is Soft on Abuse and Antisemitism
“The best apology against false accusers is silence and sufferance, and honest deeds set against dishonest words.”
The Labour Party has around 500,000 members and Jeremy Corbyn has 750,000 followers on Facebook. If all of these were good people then it would truly be an unprecedented statistical miracle. It is of course possible to find examples of bad behaviour in any large group. For example, the number of citizens in the country of Luxembourg is similar to the number of Labour Party members but only one Luxembourger is called Jean-Claude Juncker. Luxembourg does not actually have a problem with systemic Junckerism, no matter how much this guy hits the news. The point being made here is that a media amplified minority does not a majority make.
Racism exists in a racist society and bullying has the potential to exist in any place where there are any differentials of power. Sexism exists too, Owen. Is there proof that these things are systemic problems within the Labour Party or that they are problems particular to the Labour Left? No. Absolutely not.
Every Momentum member I know condemns all forms of abuse and rightly so because it represents the exact opposite of what we take to be our values. Conversly, the PLP and the mainstream media love the idea that we are a crazed horde of Nazi Trotskyist thugs. The Guardian - among others - waste no opportunity to imply that Corbyn supporters threw a brick through Angela Eagle’s window, even though it was merely a stairwell of the same building and in a high vandalism area on a weekend night and there is absolutely no evidence for any political motivation. Tessa Jowell even linked homophobic abuse to Momentum and blamed Corbyn directly. Eagle herself wasn’t even at the meeting in which she was supposed to have received the homophobic abuse. Not that this lack of evidence has stopped the Labour Party deciding to close down all meetings during the leadership contest. And also - by some strange freak coincidence — this has also closed down the democratic process which includes CLP anti-coup motions. The lack of evidence also hasn’t stopped most of the media (and Owen Smith) repeating the apparent abuse epidemic as a fact, used as as a political scare tactic and in order to score points.
The ‘antisemitism’ controversy follows much of the same pattern. It is also based on a striking lack of evidence. Where this is different is that it also related to the (already overlapping) interests of pro-Zionists and Corbyn opponents. My friend Roland Rance articulates a critique of the politics at work here far better than I could ever hope to do so. But suffice to say; if the Labour Party really was an unsafe place for Jewish people then surely all of the Jewish people would leave? Instead, Jewish socialists fiercely defend Corbyn and the supporters behind him.
Not that any of this prevents Smith from using these tropes in order to scare moderate Labour members into backing his leadership bid. Owen Smith even attempts to link all of this to Corbyn directly by claiming that he was ‘too slow’ in dealing with ‘the problem’, which is demonstrably untrue. Smith does not even specify what he would have done differently. Not only is this a dishonest and divisive tactic from a would be unity candidate but it also diminishes genuine instances of abuse.
I am a Radical Who Can Win an Election.
“The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,”
In part of the leadership debate, Owen Smith said; “We need to win 100 seats off the Tories,” seemingly implying that he alone has the ability to do so. He really doesn’t. Labour has huge electability problems that the relate to our electoral system, changing voter demographics and the general crisis for European social democratic parties. To blame all this on Corbyn is not just wrong, but bonkers.
Short of a Grapes of Wrath level economic crisis (highly unlikely but unfortunately not impossible) or a UKIPs of Wrath level Tory implosion, it is just not tenable for Labour to win a majority in the next General Election. That was true at this time last year and it remains true now, regardless of who is the leader. It sucks but its the truth. Deal with it.
Owen Smith is no more charismatic than Corbyn and is not a household name outside of Pontypridd. Stephen Bush, who in my estimation is by far the most honest and insightful commentator of the Labour Right put it very concisely on the New Statesman podcast: “Owen Smith. He’s a bit s**t isn’t he?” That is harsh and unfairly personal, though it does seem to reiterate the fact that Smith is regarded as a political middle-weight even by his own supporters.
In terms of actual winning tactics, the utterly impressive Clive Lewis has the most interesting thing to say. He has suggested a ‘progressive electoral pact’ as the only realistic strategy to defeat the Tories and I can find no reason at all to disagree. Obviously this has problems but all wings of the Labour Party need to understand that without PR, this is the ONLY thing that can work.
Also on the electability front, Smith makes great play of the fact that the Tories have 14% lead over Labour - which in fact they do and in fact this is a bit of a big problem. What Smith does not mention is that Labour were actually level pegging with the Conservatives prior to the Shadow Cabinet resignations (of which he was one). A bounce for Thereasa May is also a likely factor. Either way, Mr Smith is highly unlikely to be able to “Smash Thereasa May back on her heals,” either literally or figuratively because A) he would lose to her in a fight and B) he actually has no chance at all of uniting the Labour Party.
The Kafkaesque Unity Candidate
“You could not have had a challenge in the name of “unity” with two “unity” candidates. At least the attempt to dislodge Mr Corbyn has avoided that absurdity.”
-Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer.
The Labour Party is hugely divided and these divisions are about policy (market liberal vrs something to the left), type of party (PR firm vrs democratic social movement) and structure (PLP and party bureaucracy vrs membership and the unions). This division has two sides and cannot be reconciled without a struggle. Owen Jones was actually quite right to say that Labour needs to split and would split if we had PR, even though he has spectacularly missed the point in recent weeks. Jones himself, (along with everyone else to be fair) has thus far failed to come up with a tangible strategy to unite the Labour Party.
Owen Smith does not represent a unity strategy, he represents one side of the key division. Though the dividing line seens clear to most, Smith can at least claim to be supported by all non-Corbynite wings of the PLP — by everyone from Margaret Hodge to Lisa Nandy and if you think there may be a catch to this, you are indeed quite correct.
Ed Miliband was from the same ‘soft-left’ wing of Parliament as Owen Smith but Miliband was constantly undermined by the Blairite wing of the party who saw him as a leftist throw-back with a ‘35% strategy’. Of course, the public undermining was relatively minor and subtle compared with that which Corbyn has to endure but it nonetheless was still a problem. Now please remember that Miliband’s policy proposals were already a fudged compromise of austerity light and were to the right of where Smith now claims to be. Does anyone think for a second that IF Smith actually did carry out his Corbynite policy platform that the Blairite rightists would accept that? Of course they wouldn’t and we would still have the same problems.
This is an academic point though because it is highly unlikely that Smith actually intends to carry out any more than a third of his would be agenda. His political malleability I mentioned above, surely indicates that much. Smith would succeed in uniting the PLP (apart from the Corbyn wing, why would that matter?) and unite the Labour movement (apart from the left membership and the unions, why would they matter?) and this would utterly solve the problems and permanently resolve the Labour divisions forevermore. Or in fact, not.
“Taking her round at the reception one of the guests asked her what was her greatest achievement. She replied, “Tony Blair and New Labour.”
-Margaret Thatcher, 2002.
This is what the Smith Campaign boils down to really. Someone taking up a faux-left position on behalf of the party establishment in order to crush an insurgent grassroots left, only this time in circumstances even worse. Unlike the Blair strategy of 1997, this is unlikely to even win an election. Unlike the Kinnock strategy of 1983, reversion to the mean would not be 70s Keynesian social democracy but New Labour with caveats. The main group that the party establishment probably want to expel is not the Trotskyist Militant Tendency but a broad-left group called Momentum. Also, Labour Party leadership rules are likely to be tightened after a Smith win to give the PLP more control because democracy has created a lot of problems for them. The new politics cannot be allowed to exist and must be crushed by any cynical trick in the book. And yes, Owen Smith is very much a central part of that process.
A Corbynite Future?
Corbyn’s Labour has not achieved this (societal change) yet. It has been a capture of a vehicle. Now is the time to transform the vehicle. I hope he succeeds but for me, whether Corbyn wins or loses, this is a transition in British politics towards formats in which the oppressed and exploited can fight back.
Nothing is ever easy and any road for Labour is fraught with problems but in Jeremy we should still trust. He is the best (and currently only) chance we have for a genuinely progressive-left Labour Party. For all that he is not a perfect candidate, I utterly trust in his sincerity and in his values. With the huge obstacles against him, he may never win an election (though we can’t completely rule that out). What he can do is move the Overton Window further to the left and set in motion forces that can transform Labour into a democratic mass organisation which represents the interests of ordinary people. That process has only just begun and Owen Smith is represents a classical counter-revolution. The Labour leadership election is not a choice about personality or about leadership style but is in fact a binary question as to whether you want to change British society, or you don’t.