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domingo, 17 de julio de 2016

Owen Smith: decent bloke, good politics. But is that enough? Zoe Williams--Jaspar

A drooping red rose
P
undits ask a number of questions about Owen Smith – what’s his strategy; where on the left-right spectrum within Labour does he stand? – while everyone else asks a different question: who is he?

Three days after the EU referendum result, before Angela Eagle announced her challenge but after the cabinet resignations had begun, a group of soft-left MPs that included Lisa Nandy, John Healey, Kate Green and Owen Smith went into a meeting with Jeremy Corbyn to see if they could act as bridge between the leader and the parliamentary Labour party (PLP), since they were all well to the left of the so-called Blairites.
To this end they specifically requested that it be a private meeting. John McDonnell appeared anyway,, and behaved McDonnellishly, sitting on the table and when asked if he was prepared to see the party split saying: “If that’s what it takes.” Smith did not, allies say, emerge determined to stand: “Owen has leadership qualities, but he had to be encouraged to come forward last week,” said his fellow south Wales MP Nick Smith, also of the 2010 intake. Supporters are adamant Smith would never have challenged Corbyn before then.


This goes against the rumours that this had been his strategy all along, to position himself as the leftwing alternative who might just win over the grassroots, pending Corbyn’s inevitable implosion. John Mann, MP for Bassetlaw since 2001, tweeted that he was asked if he would support Smith six months ago: “What he thinks is, Wales is a good backdrop, tie up Wales, get the Welsh loyalty and you’ve got a key base, and you’re not London.”
If Smith tries to portray himself as an outsider, that would rely on people knowing nothing about Wales. His CV strongly resembles David Cameron’s: special adviser, media (he was a radio producer), lobbyist (for Pfizer), MP. His father, Dai Smith, was head of the Welsh Arts Council and is, according to an anonymous source, at the dead centre of the “Taffia”. What’s that, you may ask? “You know the mafia makes you an offer you can’t refuse? The Taffia makes you an offer you can’t understand.”
Anyway, Mann continues, “It was a fairly simple strategy, but the weakness of it was: who the hell’s Owen Smith?” He entered parliament as the MP for his home constituency of Pontypridd in 2010, long enough ago not to be disqualified as a novice but recent enough not to have been tarnished by the Blair years and the vote on the Iraq war. His allies were elusive; or rather, they were for a day – for 18 hours, all I had was the one source who knew his dad (off the record!) and then suddenly they were everywhere.
Smith was initially one of the winners of Corbyn’s cabinet appointments, taking the shadow work and pensions post last September. “He’s nimble, he’s a good Labour party dispatch box contributor,” said Nick Smith. “He’s got a warmth to his character, he’s quick to smile and quip, and he’s quick-thinking. People like qualities like that.”


Labour peers were impressed by his briefings, and his credentials are solid: he has never had that irritating New Labour reticence, where they expect their doughty defence of the poor to be taken as read, for historical reasons, but never actually say anything. He has been vocal on the erosion of disability benefits, the disastrous PIP payments, inequality between men and women in pension policy, the increase in child poverty. There is no ideas gap I can see between Smith and the loudest anti-poverty voices in politics. He just isn’t as well-known.
Green, who is at the heart of his campaign, underlines this: “I don’t think there’s a huge amount of difference in values between him and Jeremy Corbyn: democratic socialism, anti-austerity, equality, justice … The difference is that he might be able to take those ideas to the people that we need, in a way that I just don’t think Jeremy can.”
The other critical thing he may be able to do is bring the party into at least some semblance of array – if not heal every division (he’s not Jesus) – at least create the space for cooperation between those MPs whose opposition to one another isn’t implacable.
Michael Dugher, who isn’t running Smith’s campaign but has nominated him, thinks he can “bring the Labour family back together”. “He understands that the party has changed and that we can’t just hark back to either the New Labour years or the divisive, out-of-touch politics of the 1980s.” Nandy stresses that he is part of a new guard. “It speaks well of him that he’s gathered a good and loyal group of MPs around him. Many are part of the next generation of politicians, much more interested in dealing with the pressing problems of 2016 than in fighting old battles.” He already has more than 100 nominations, and looks, suddenly, to be in a much stronger position than Eagle, which would account for the rumours cranking up against him – including an accusation of sexism. A Buzzfeed storyappeared, by magic, in which he (really) did tell the Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, that she only got on TV because of her gender. It seems to me fantastical that a misogynist throwback could get the support of Green, Heidi Alexander or Nandy, who emailed unguardedly: “He’s a genuinely decent bloke.”


Decent bloke, on the left, can heal rifts that look meaningful inside Westminster and septic from the outside: is any of this enough? Wouldn’t we have said the same about Ed Miliband? As Neal Lawson, head of Compass, put it: “However good Owen Smith is, he just does not address the depth of the crisis Labour is in. You could combine Clement Attlee, Barbara Castle, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair and you still wouldn’t stop the roof from falling in.”
The strategic charge against him is that he’ll split the anti-Corbyn vote. But sitting on Andrew Marr’s sofa on Sunday Eagle and Smith made conciliatory noises, ready to come to an accommodation depending on who gets the most parliamentary party support. In reality Eagle standing alone against Corbyn would affirm the view on the ground that the PLP is happy to defy the members to return to its Blairite idyll. Since the PLP has very little power over who is leader, the most it can do is get someone on the ballot who isn’t an open insult to the people who voted for Corbyn. Putting Eagle up as the only other candidate would be the binary opposite of a workable strategy.
Even if we think no leader could heal this party, Labour still needs a leader. It’s an effort to support someone on those terms. But, in the spirit of “Love like you’ve never been hurt, work like you’re not getting paid, dance like no one’s watching” – vote like you’ve never been catastrophically disappointed.
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