By Rob Francis
This is a cross post from the author’s Medium blog, reproduced with kind permission. This post is Part 3, the final part, of a series by the author.
In my previous post, I gave several reasons why I believe Jeremy Corbyn is completely unelectable. Quite a few people asked, not unreasonably, whether I thought differently about Owen Smith.
Could Owen Smith win a General Election? I’m sure we all have differing opinions on that one, but going by the benchmarks I measured Corbyn against last time, the answer is that we just can’t know. We have no by-election results, no local elections, no accounts of his record in the leader’s office. There is nothing to reasonably judge this by.
But I think we can say he will very likely perform better than Jeremy Corbyn.
Compared with the previous ten months of turmoil, Owen Smith would lead a united parliamentary party. His victory would give Labour MP’s currently on the backbenches an opportunity to step up and take the fight to the Tories; talented people such as Dan Jarvis, Stella Creasy, Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, Chuka Umunna and Angela Eagle could all serve in a significantly strengthened Shadow Cabinet.
Although we have no idea how Owen Smith’s office would operate, it is very difficult to imagine it being as horribly dysfunctional as it has been under Corbyn. Despite being relatively unknown, Smith leads Corbyn amongst the wider public. And, of course, Owen Smith has none of Jeremy Corbyn’s history, which, like it or not, would be used against the party during any election campaign.
I think we can be fairly certain that Owen Smith would outperform Jeremy Corbyn at a General Election. Those people pointing to big attendances at Corbyn rallies and claiming it signifies huge support in the country really need to read a bit about what happened in 1983.
But can Owen Smith win this leadership contest? Given the polls, and my experience of the membership, he is definitely the underdog. To have any chance, we need to win over people who voted Corbyn last time. This requires an understanding of why Jeremy Corbyn won last year, and why his support remains high.
Many Labour members felt that, last summer, Jeremy Corbyn was the only candidate offering anything positive. Andy Burnham flip-flopped chasing votes, Yvette Cooper’s campaign was weak and only really got going very late on, and Liz Kendall put many members off with her comments on welfare.
The moderate candidates seemed uninspiring; preaching pragmatism without any purpose, trying to sell an “eat your greens” message to members with no positive vision, triangulation as merely a muscle memory. There was none of the radicalism that Tony Blair offered as he swept to power twenty years ago.
Fast forward to this year. At my CLP nominations meeting last week, members spoke of feeling inspired by Corbyn, and about how happy they were that someone was standing up for what they saw as “real socialism”. They saw him as the only person willing to stand up for refugees, the homeless, and the poor.
I don’t agree with much of this, but we need to understand the sentiment in order to win.
Although the welfare bill abstention wasn’t proof that most Labour MP’s love austerity, members don’t want any equivocation on such topics. They don’t want to go back to immigration mugs, or splitting the difference on welfare.
Hence Owen Smith’s route to victory lies in speaking to the party’s heart. Most members aren’t hard left entryists, but part of the “soft left”, a grouping who want power, but also appreciate Corbyn’s opposition to austerity, war, and nuclear weapons. They will swing this election, and so it is these members that Smith needs to appeal to. He will need to convince them that a shift away from Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t mean a return to the funk the party found themselves in last year.
This is very much the campaign that Smith is running. He offers a package that is catnip for the soft left; infrastructure investment, more money for the NHS, schools, and libraries, a 50p top rate of tax, reversal of various Tory tax cuts, a huge house building programme, investment in efficient energy, and much, much more.
This would represent the most radical Labour policy platform in many years. It’s no good Jeremy Corbyn complaining that Smith has taken his policies; a vague mention in a speech or an idea that Corbyn once had doesn’t count as a policy. Owen Smith has a genuinely radical, inspiring vision that the party could unite behind; rather than just mouthing platitudes about cuts, Smith has a plan.
It is a plan that sits firmly within the best Labour traditions. As with Ramsay MacDonald and Clement Attlee, Smith seeks to fight for workers’ rights. Infrastructure investment and ambitious house building targets echo Harold Wilson’s government. Tony Blair significantly increased spending on schools and hospitals, as Smith pledges to do now.
These are a set of proposals that should enthuse Labour members; surely this is what we all want to achieve?
Owen Smith is by no means perfect. The New Statesman recently listed four occasions he has made misogynistic comments, a worrying pattern. Supporting Owen Smith does not mean we turn a blind eye to this; even if we want him to win, we must be able to criticise if we think he is wrong. Smith seeks to represent us, and we should demand better from him.
His previous employment at Pfizer will have also concerned members, although its worth noting that the criticism doesn’t get any further than “he worked for Pfizer”.
In any case, any worries about Pfizer rank some way behind Jeremy Corbyn’s opportunistic proposals to nationalise pharmaceutical companies, and to cuttax relief for private companies developing life-saving medicines.
Seemingly a policy designed purely to attack a political opponent, this episode displays Corbyn’s cynicism and utter naivety; not exactly very “new politics”. As a party, we deserve much better than that.
All Labour members should rightly be proud of our party’s history. The NHS. The welfare state. Sure Start. The Open University. The minimum wage.
We have achieved some great things.
We can be a party to be proud of again. We can make a difference again.
In Owen Smith, we have someone with a radical left-wing platform, properly costed, and who would at the very least make Labour a more coherent, effective opposition. From here, he offers us by far the best chance of getting rid of the Conservative government.
The road back to power is long. Labour will still have to answer many difficult questions. But it is clear that Jeremy Corbyn does not have the solutions.
A vote for Owen Smith will mean Labour’s recovery can begin.