A few weeks ago, following the Brexit vote, the right of the Labour Party made a series of ultimately futile attempts to force Jeremy Corbyn to resign as Leader. These included orchestrating staged resignations from his shadow cabinet, submitting a vote of no confidence in Corbyn and even attempting to keep him off the ballot in the event of a Labour leadership election. For a few weeks, it looked as if Angela Eagle would be stood as the candidate to replace Corbyn as Labour Leader. However, as a result of Jeremy Corbyn refusing to step down, the position of the ‘Anyone but Corbyn’ candidate has now been conceded to Owen Smith. Aside from the apparent redundancy of standing someone no one has ever heard of against a politician who has gained a massive following because of his progressive agenda, there are a number of reasons why Owen smith is by no means the soft left ‘reasonable’ candidate that he likes to portray himself as. Also, the chances of Smith actually beating Corbyn when it comes time for the Labour membership to vote in September, are very slim indeed. In fact, it is not too unfair to describe Smith as a last desperate attempt by the Blairite faction of Labour, to prevent it going in a left wing ideological direction. Despite this, it is still worth making a critical analysis of him and his campaign.
Pilfering Corbyns Policies
It is undeniable that Owen Smith has been imitating Jeremy Corbyns policies on a number of issues. These include ending ideological austerity, investing in infrastructure and even the highly specific policy of introducing a ministry of Labour. His policies are pretty much indistinguishable from Corbyns. Given that Smith is the candidate being tipped to replace Corbyn by the Blairite faction of Labour, this approach seems more than a little strange. In 2015, the Blairite former Interim shadow minister Chris Leslie savagely attacked Corbyns policy of using quantative easing cash to directly invest in infrastructure and services, instead of handing it to banks and naively hoping they will invest it in useful things, (rather than the inflation of asset and housing bubbles). Leslie wasn’t the only one either. Yvette cooper who stood against Corbyn in the original leadership election, also bitterly criticised the Corbyn/McDonnell plan to boost the economy by directly investing in infrastructure and services. Despite this, Owen Smith has been promising to invest an extra £2 billion in infrastructure as one of his flagship policies. Are Leslie and Cooper angry that their ‘Anyone but Corbyn’ candidate does not support their vision? Of course not, they’re supporting Owen Smith.
So why is Smith supporting policies which so blatantly imitate Jeremy Corbyns? Why do the right of the Labour Party seem to be supporting the anti-austerity policies which they were only a few months earlier flinging abuse at? The answers to these questions should seem obvious. As can be seen through the surge of support that Jeremy Corbyn has received from the general public, the ‘let’s cut our way to growth’ narrative is rapidly falling out of fashion. Acknowledging this however, would force the Blairite faction of the Labour Party to actually admit that Jeremy Corbyn is a good communicator, who has manged to convince people of his position. Instead, they have chosen to stand a candidate who portrays himself as a sensible leftist, in order to win over the overwhelming majority of the Labour Party membership who support Corbyn. Of course, I am sure that in the event that the Labour right get Smith elected, he will ditch his investment plans and go back to promoting the kind of right wing style economic policies that lost them the last general election.
So Owen Smith is trying to present himself as the ‘soft left’ unity candidate. Notice I use the term ‘present himself’. Despite his left wing rhetoric, investigations into Smiths history and voting record tell quite a different story. This is because, for Smith, political stance is nothing to do with personal belief, it is to do with brand positioning. Indeed, one of the complaints that Smith has against Corbyn is that he is somehow not ideologically flexible enough. What he appears to mean from this that unless you are unprincipled and opportunistic like himself, you are not fit to be leader of the Labour Party. So, let’s look at some of Smiths ‘ideological flexibility’ on the important issues.
NHS: Before being parachuted into one of the safest Labour seats in wales (Pontypridd) during the New Labour era, Smith worked as a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer where he promoted a report calling for greater private sector involvement in the NHS. He was also working for them when they made a big donation to the right wing Blairite pressure group Progress. He has conveniently backtracked on privatisation since being selected as the ‘anyone but Corbyn’ candidate.
Iraq War: Back In 2006 when he tried and failed to win the seat of Blaenau Gwent in a by election, Smith made some very odd excuses for the Invasion of Iraq. Even after the WMD’s had not been found, the deaths of ill equipped British soldiers and the increase in sectarian violence, he still claimed that he thought that the illegal concept of regime change was part of a ‘noble valuable tradition’ and could not bring himself to say that the invasion was a mistake or that he would have voted against it, had he been an MP at the time. Smith now claims that he actively opposed the war in 2003.
Privatisation: Another example of Smiths wonderful tendency towards ideological flexibility, is the way he has gone from promoting New Labour Policies like PFI and private schools to admitting that, like their pro - privatisation ‘choice’ agenda in the NHS, they were mistakes. Unless upon standing in this leadership race, Smith has suddenly converted away from right wing Blairite policies, it seems highly likely that his ‘I made a mistake’ rhetoric, is nothing more than another desperate attempt to garner votes from the left.
Nuclear Weapons: In this case, rather than flip flopping from supporting a Blairite policy to supporting a Corbyn policy, Smith seems to have done the opposite. He has gone from being a staunch opponent of nuclear weapons, even admitting himself that he used to be a member of CND, to actively voting in favour of Tory legislation to write the biggest blank cheque in parliamentary history to corporations that make billions from Trident renewal. Perhaps the reason Smith keeps bringing up that he used to be a CND supporter, is because he does not want to sound too much like a warmonger in the face of the labour membership, that he is trying to win over.
Resignations: Perhaps the most telling example of Owen Smith being ideological flexible on an issue is his attitude just a few days after the EU referendum result came in. On June 24th he rightly slammed David Cameron for resigning calling it ‘Petulant, Rash and Selfish’ before complaining that the national interest was being ‘sacrificed on the altar of Tory Party Politics and individual Tory’s self-interest’. Despite these powerful words, just three days later Owen Smith Joined in the mass resignation event, that was pre planned to bully Jeremy Corbyn into resigning. Participation in an internal coup at a time of uncertainty, would have been bad enough on its own, but doing it three days after lambasting David Cameron for resigning, is an absolutely stunning example of hypocrisy.
The problem with Smiths ideological flexibility is that it makes it hard to ever trust what he is saying. Some of the things he is saying at the moment actually make a fair bit of sense, but how is it possible to believe what he says is the truth, rather than a cynical attempt to win over the labour leadership, by posing as an Anti-austerity candidate? It is my guess that if Owen Smith ever becomes leader of the Labour Party, then we will see a recapitulation to neoliberal policies, which landed labour in the mess they are in.
My overall point here is that Owen Smith is a political shape shifter who will do and say anything in order to serve his political interests. Today he is pretending to be a radical socialist, because he knows that this is what he has got to do if he is to have the slightest chance of winning over the Labour membership. However, before he was playing this character, he was a full blown Blairite who supported policies like PFI and the Iraq war. If Smith can flip flop on important issues this easily, what is to stop him enforcing a right wing agenda on Labour, if he becomes leader, especially given that his bid is backed by every Blairite in the party?