With Angela Eagle’s withdrawal from the Labour leadership race, Antony Tucker explains why Owen Smith is the best choice facing the party.
It’s on: with Angela Eagle’s withdrawal, Owen Smith has become the sole challenger to Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership of the Labour Party. Whilst Eagle would have made a strong, convincing and principled leader – and a first for an LGBT+ woman into the bargain – now that Smith is the PLP’s chosen candidate, we all must get behind him in order to save Labour from the monstrous regime of Corbyn and his cronies. We could be doing so much better than we are, and must do so to return to government.
A brief recap of the dire state in which we as the chief opposition party find ourselves: we are lagging far behind the Conservatives, when we need to be leading strongly at this point in the parliament to be sure of victory in 2020. Compounding this issue is Theresa May’s ascension as Prime Minister. She is far more popular than Corbyn, even amongst the young, and even with 2015 Labour voters. As we saw last year, an unpopular leader drives away the very swing votes we must pick up in order to regain power; we cannot make the error of 2010-5, sticking with a weak figure at the helm out of misplaced loyalty. Brexit gives Labour a perfect opportunity to exploit Conservative divisions – a new leader now increases the chance that the public will listen.
Now onto Smith and his qualifications, starting with his policies. His voting record is exceptionally admirable, having stood up for the vulnerable as a backbencher and as Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary. His strong support for individual rights and a progressive taxation system show clear commitment to our values, whilst his defence of public health care and state schools would serve the nation well in office. By promising to restore the wrongly abolished Department for Energy and Climate Change and pledging a second referendum on the terms of any EU exit deal, he has shown himself to be forward thinking, considering the battles to be won and not simply arguing over the lost arguments of the past.
He also represents a step away from both the gung-ho Blair/Brown era and the smug pacifism of Corbyn et al., hopefully allowing us to develop a new approach to foreign relations. By supporting Trident’s renewal, Smith has shown a commitment to the security of our country versus the existential threat from Russia, whilst also protecting thousands of industrial jobs. But at the same time his focus remains on a humanitarian attitude to interventionism, having voted against even tighter regulation of our already unfit asylum system and backing a stronger covenant to govern the military. Contrast this to the hypocrisy of the Conservatives in government, who will willingly bomb other nations but then take so much convincing to accept the resultant flow of refugees.
Presentation too is a key advantage which Smith can exploit. In his mid-40s, Smith is a far younger and more active figure than either May or Corbyn, in their late fifties and sixties respectively. Equally, to hear a state schooled voice from North Wales holding the government to account could help us escape the privilege and snobbery so often exhibited by privately educated London insiders like May and Corbyn. So far his profile has been low but with ten weeks and the summer recess before the ballot closes, Smith has plenty of time to build up public recognition of his qualities. Media trained from his days in journalism, his easy confidence in front of the camera is the polar opposite to Corbyn’s angry mistrust and hostility to the lens that is transmitted straight to the public. With an entirely shambolic communications team currently failing to get the Labour line out (such as the four hour wait it took for any statement on May’s appointment), a Smith victory would undoubtedly lead to a sea-change in how we in Labour present ourselves, from the current chaos to the rapid and convincing performance the voters expect of the next government of Britain.
Equally important is the question of personalities. The public seems to have little or no faith in the Corbyn-McDonnell team and their economic competence – a new leader would allow us to make a clear and positive break with the past and introduce a new shadow cabinet. In this, Smith’s standing as a figure in the centre of the party is enormously valuable, being able to work with indivduals such as Heidi Alexander and Lisa Nandy (both rising stars on the left) with more centrist appointments like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper. In stark contrast to the male, pale and stale foursome of Corbyn, McDonnell, Benn and Burnham or the mixture of the elderly and the inexperienced who currently form the cobbled together shadow cabinet, Smith has the potential both to unite the PLP and bring in the best people for the job. Most crucially of all, the likeliness of a 1981 style party split would be greatly diminished by a Smith victory: without their beloved figurehead, many of the entryists and fossils who comprise Momentum would simply drift away without any chance to sack long-standing MPs for their years of loyal service to their constiuents, if not always following the whims of the CLPs.
Much of this is an educated guess, of course; but some things are stark and certain. We in Labour are faced with annihilation if we let Corbyn lead us into the next election, or allow the far-left to tighten its grip on our party. This is more than an abstract choice; we as members are handed the responsibility to provide our country with the strong opposition and future government it so desperately needs. There is a hunger in this land, real and figurative as well, a demand for a more united nation led by a competent and convincing party. We cannot gnaw the edge of that hunger by the bare imagination of a feast, a dream of unattainable ideals as offered by Corbyn and his cabal. We can only end Tory misrule by building the most electable, the most popular and the most attractive Labour Party possible: then, in government, we can put our principles into action. Corbyn offers us nothing but failure; Smith can bring hope to us all, the chance to begin the fightback after ten years of decay in our party and the opportunity to start saving Labour.