Can Owen Smith win?

Owen Smith has begun the leadership election with gusto. If the latest YouGov survey of eligible Labour voters proves correct then he had to- he is some considerable distance behind. Can he win? If so, how?

There are three preconditions for Smith to have a chance: (i) Jeremy Corbyn’s support has to be less granite-like than it currently appears; (ii) A significant balance in Smith’s favour of new registered supporters and undecideds will be necessary and (iii) His personal story and performance will have to stand up to scrutiny. So let’s assume these preconditions.

There is a fundamental context here that can’t go unremarked. The evidence is that the Labour Party is now a far left socialist party. It was previously a soft left social democratic party. Since the 2015 election, the influx of new supporters and members has changed that. This leadership election – whether Smith or Corbyn wins – is likely to reinforce this fact. For members and party representatives a key question will emerge: do you want to remain in a far left party or do you believe you can change it back to its social democratic ethos? A Smith victory might be the beginning of a return to Labour’s previous state. It’s a very long road indeed – and one that requires either the party to shrink or for it to be grown considerably with more moderate members.

Smith has pulled off a smart early manoeuvre- one that allows him to concentrate on the party core. By hinting at favouring a confirmatory referendum on the Brexit deal, he’s appealed to the party’s right. That gives him freedom to play for the party’s left. And that is how, ultimately, he can win this election (with my three assumptions in place….).

His current argument is that he is a more competent version of Jeremy Corbyn. Undoubtedly, that is true on the basis that it is nigh-on impossible to be less competent. But the ‘I’m a competent version of Jeremy’ relies on the fact that enough of Jeremy Corbyn’s support is driven by ‘competence’ as a virtue. I don’t think it’s too controversial to suggest that the very fact they are backing Jeremy Corbyn suggests that competence in the parliamentary or electoral domains are not their most important concern. Moreover, if he is to win this election has to be more about Smith and less about Corbyn. Currently, that is the mistake that a lot of Labour moderates are making. The road to victory is in Smith convincing- views on Corbyn are already polarised.

Therefore, Smith has to demonstrate some big, idealistic thinking to make his leftwards pitch and that he is authentically left-wing. He’s trotted off some of the easier ones – public infrastructure investment, nationalisation of the railways and so on. The symbolic change to the party’s constitution to refer to inequality is good- and a reasonable way of providing a contrast with Blair. Yet, it is still symbolic. Smith’s commitment to a more equal party on gender is an inevitable move given there is no woman candidate in this election. On the less symbolic front, a £200bn infrastructure fund can build a lot of houses, windmills, urban transport systems, digital infrastructure, and new types of care and support for our most vulnerable citizens such as the very elderly and disabled. This myriad of benefits will need to be spelt out in more detail and linked to a left concept of social justice.

But where does he go now? He might have to think about a more ambitious agenda on workers’ rights, perhaps even rolling back some of the anti-trade union legislation from the 1980s. He could commit to a serious boost for public sector workers’ pay. He’s foregone Trident as an option. So he may have to do something very robust on when and how he might or might not support any future military action (perhaps even outlining some potential criminal responsibility if very precise legal and planning steps are not adequately undertaken).

He may also need to think about some measure on boosting support for the disabled, sick, homeless, out of work and low paid. There will need to be a show-stopping policy on taking on irresponsible big business: criminal responsibility for poor treatment of workers (The Ashley Act?), taxation of multinational sales given difficulties in taxing profits, break up of some of the largest firms? Might he even commit to increasing corporate taxation in some way? A financial transactions tax and a wealth tax of some description (potentially even an increase of taxes for larger estates upon inheritance) are other means of getting on to this territory. Corbyn would likely say yes to all the above but if it is Smith making the running relentlessly then his ‘authenticity’ quotient could increase.

Smith will have to describe all these policies not as choices but as fundamental moral commitments. He will have to concede policy-making authority to the party in some respect to show his willing to be held to account. The point is that Smith has to go beyond saying he’s authentically left-wing; he has to prove it and embed it.

It might be that I’ve completely misjudged the granite – like qualities of the Corbyn 55%. Like everyone, I’m trying to understand a rapidly changing picture. The sophisticated strategists amongst you will have spotted a problem with the above agenda. It takes Smith quite a long way away from ‘electability’ should he win. But frankly, Labour is in survival mode rather than grand strategy mode. Smith can only play the field ahead of him and hope that my starting three assumptions/conditions hold. He’s in threading the needle territory. And so is Labour’s survival.

So Smith, if he becomes leader, will be a left wing leader of a far left party. But that provides more hope than the current situation. At least he will have organisational control of the parliamentary party and the majority of the membership behind him. With this control, he could begin Labour’s long march back to political relevance. That this is the most optimistic scenario I can outline shows how far things have gone towards the edge. The future of progressive politics might lie outside of the Labour Party. It’s a future that is likely to remain hidden for some time to come.