Owen Smith’s Offer We Can (and Must) Refuse
What did we learn from the first Labour leadership hustings of 2016? Perhaps the main lesson, despite Owen Smith’s protestations that he’s ‘with Jeremy’ on virtually everything apart from Trident, is that the Labour coup was and is about policy and power. Centrist and right-wing sections of the party do not want Labour to move to the left, despite the overwhelming mandate received from the membership. The rebel MPs hide this under the issue of ‘electability’. Corbyn, as they repeatedly plead, is unelectable. However, if electability really was the issue, then why would they start a coup without any credible candidate (hence the sorry Eagle affair)? Any coup would only weaken the electoral appeal of Labour by causing disunity.
The nomination of Owen Smith, furthermore, has nothing to do with electability. If anything, he comes across as a slightly unpleasant version of Ed MIliband, who at least seemed approachable. Smith’s snide remark to Leanne Wood, suggesting that she was favoured because of her gender, and his even more odious ‘smash her back on her heels’ remark aimed at Theresa May, are hardly the kinds of statements that will endear him to the electorate. Similarly, his performance in the first hustings often made him come across as somewhat arrogant and theatrical, a noxious combination that has put many people off modern politics.
This leadership election, then, has little to do with electability and everything to do with power within the Labour Party. The offer on the table by Owen Smith is this: the only way you can have Corbyn, is to vote for me. If you vote for me, you will get Corbyn’s policies plus the backing of the PLP and thus unity and a functioning opposition. If you vote for Corbyn, you will get Corbyn’s policies without the PLP and a functioning opposition.
This ‘offer’ stretches credulity to its limits. Does anybody seriously believe that Smith, despite his strategic discovery of the word ‘comrade’, will really deliver the kind of politics that is being put forward by Corbyn and McDonnell? Just look at who’s backing him. Indeed, the very purpose of the coup was to re-establish the power of the PLP and the centrist/right-wing forces within the party.
The ‘offer’ made by Smith is thus more of a theatrical threat. Instead of simply saying: vote for me and the rebels and I won’t split the party, he is saying: vote for me and the rebels and I won’t split the party, and you won’t lose face because it will appear that you are voting for Corbyn’s policies. Everyone knows that isn’t true, but it is an ‘out’ for everyone. Such manoeuvres often work because they give people a way of solving internal conflicts in a way that makes them feel that they have not betrayed anyone. However, with the weight of feeling and support behind Corbyn, this is surely unlikely to work this time. This type of Machiavellian manoeuvre is also one that people have grown weary of. Members have one simple demand this time: that their MPs represent them by getting behind the democratically elected leader and letting the electorate decide who’s electable.
Representing people, alas, is not something that many MPs seem happy or willing to do.