From New Labour to new leftie, who does Owen Smith think he’s kidding asks Steve Beauchampé?
There is a moment in Bob Dylan’s performance at Manchester Free Trade Hall in May 1966 where an audience member, appalled at Dylan’s decision to use electric instruments, famously shouts out: “Judas”. Having processed the remark Dylan retorts: “I don’t believe you…you’re a liar.” It’s a response Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn must have felt like offering his challenger Owen Smith numerous times during the last few weeks as Smith, trailing substantially in opinion polls of party members, takes an increasingly left wing stance on one issue after another.
Over the Bank Holiday weekend Smith was pledging to scrap tuition fees, earlier in the week he promised to give more power to Labour members and party conference delegates, reverse privatisation within the NHS, end the Right to Buy scheme and raise the top rate of income tax to 50%. Actually, these last two might have been announced a week or two earlier, I’ve lost track and I’ve lost interest because, in Owen Smith’s attempt to out-Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn (almost all of Smith’s domestic policy pronouncements are similar to those of his party leader and asked at the recent Labour hustings event in Solihull whether Jeremy Corbyn’s remedy for the UK would work, Smith replied: “Broadly yes.”) he comes across as both unconvincing and not a little desperate.
And when his opponent has a forty-year history of standing unswervingly by his socialist principles and passionately-held ideals this is not a good look for Owen Smith – with no discernible track record of being on the radical left and who used to lobby government on behalf of a multi-national pharmaceutical company – to be taking.
Quite what those within the neoLiberal, New Labour wing of the party, including many Labour MPs and much of the party’s current political hierarchy, feel about Smith’s almost daily promises and pronouncements, can only be guessed at. Horror would be a likely reaction, though tempered by the almost certain knowledge that the candidate they are probably now backing with reluctance will succumb to a decisive defeat and retreat to the back benches to see out what remains of his parliamentary career. So instead of a media and middle-England friendly, centre ground candidate, those behind the anti-Corbyn coup have ended up with someone who is trying to position themselves as Britain’s most left wing man!
Not that many in the mainstream media seem to have noticed, but this absence of a fixed political axis has inevitably led Owen Smith to a series of incoherent arguments and stances. He claims to want to democratise the Labour Party and give power to its 500,000+ members, but remained steadfastly uncritical when the National Executive Committee denied around 120,000 of those members (widely believed to be largely pro-Corbyn) a vote in the current leadership contest. He criticises Corbyn for Labour’s poor performance in May’s Scottish Parliamentary election, whilst absolving from blame the party’s leader in Scotland, Kezia Dugdale, a supporter of Owen Smith’s who unequivocally distanced herself from Corbyn during that parliamentary campaign.
Even more bafflingly, Smith stresses the need for Labour to attract disaffected Conservative voters whilst calling himself a proud socialist and proclaiming policies that would deter such a middle ground demographic in a thrice, whilst his call to overturn the EU referendum result by holding a second ballot is hardly likely to woo those vital former Labour voters who abandoned the party for UKIP between 2010 and 2015.
Ultimately, I’m with Dylan, because I can’t help thinking that if it was Owen Smith against Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis or Yvette Cooper, Smith’s policy programme would be almost unrecognisable to that which he offers Labour members today, meaning that that House of Lords he wants to abolish and those Free Schools he wishes to take into local authority ownership would once more be safe.