Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Meeting Citizen Smith

I was a bit naughty talking about Owen Smith a couple of days ago. I kinda implied he was almost entirely anonymous and were it not for the public scrapping at the top of the Labour Party, I don't think he'd have gone down in history as one of our most able parliamentarians. That is not to be the case. Having been picked as the 'unity' candidate to run against Jeremy by the PLP majority, there is an opportunity now for him to seize the limelight and make a real name for himself. It's therefore time to give his candidacy the once over.

Owen's back story. Well, it's not the most compelling, is it? He followed the PR-lobbyist-MP route into Westminster which, to be blunt, is unlikely to endear him to many people. As there's an over-preponderance of such people already on our benches it's not going to help him stand out any (and yes, in case rabid Owen fans are already in existence and reading this, I'm fully aware that Jeremy is no horny handed son of toil either). Where policies go, there wasn't much to write home about until his launch a couple of days ago, of which more in a moment. Appearing on Newsnight semi-regularly, he didn't really strike me as much of an ideas man. Someone who can play the Westminster game, certainly. A politician competent in his brief and knows what to do in front of a camera (mostly), yes. But again, nothing stands out. Say what you like about last year's contenders, they each had something distinctive to offer and, yes, some substance too. I'm afraid to say that prior to his launch, all I knew about Owen was that he thought Jeremy should go and that he wants to be leader.

All that said, I think he enjoyed a very good leadership launch. It was more competent than Angela's late and unlamented affair and did what I think a challenger to Jeremy needs to do: he talked about policy from the get go. He scooped up Ed Miliband's baton (seeing as the PM relinquished all claim to it a short 24 hours later) and pledged to put equality at the heart of his policy agenda, including a totemic rewriting of Clause IV. He endorsed anti-austerity politics, a huge infrastructure fund, serious action on climate change, changing the law so Parliament decides on war, not Prime Ministers, and renationalising the rail. Who seriously can argue with such a policy line up? Perhaps the gruel I've imbibed for years is too thin, but I think it's quite a compelling platform. To win over those who fell in and out of love with Jeremy and the floating members, it needed to be. And were it on offer from the anyone-but-Jez camp last year, we might not be where we are now. However, a symptomatic reading of the launch reveals two significant silences. Trident was one, and his hankering for "progressive" immigration controls the other - positions I don't think disillusioned Jez supporters would find seductive, and by their omission Owen is aware of that too.

His big eye catcher though, which didn't get floated on the day, was his Europhilia. Calling for a second referendum on completion of May's slow Brexit (whenever that will be) is smart politics now because, firstly, the leader's support was and is mostly pro-EU, and secondly there are still millions of people politicised by, though not necessarily in a radical direction, by the referendum result. Remember, three million signed a petition calling for a re-run, and greater numbers (16 million) voted remain than has ever for a winning party of government in a general election (yes, yes, not proportionally, but the point is a substantial pool of voters are there).

Owen has problems though. While I liked his Citizen Smith pitch, his past will come up and bite him just as it has done Jeremy. Others have made hay out of Owen's involvement in PFI lobbying, on being more Blairite-than-Blair, of clapping through the academisation of schooling, and accusations of fibbing from noted Jez ally, John Mann. To me, at best this paints Owen as a politician who goes with the flow and says what he thinks has to be said to get on, much like how Labour unilateralists of the 1980s became Trident's biggest fans in the 90s. At worst, it suggests he is disingenuous. When anti-politics, some of which is informing Jeremy's support, is sick of less-than-straight politicians this is a significant disadvantage that could dog Owen over the next couple of months. Owen's second problem is his tendency to walk into rakes. The daft comment about Leanne Wood and the "being normal" silliness are quite petty in the scheme of things, but with the future of the party at stake it won't be the jibes online that do for him - it will be himself unless he gets a handle on this unfortunate habit.

His other big disadvantages, is - talking with comrades last night, both of whom are supporting Owen - that by standing as the unity candidate he is de facto the establishment candidate. His platform is a break from last year's hopefuls, but uniting party elites to beat a populist figure is what the anti-Jeremy team desperately needed to avoid. After all, pitting elites against 'the people' has worked well this year so far. The second big problem is there is little to no recognition of why Jeremy won in the first place, nor that politics and the party itself is undergoing a process of recomposition. If you cannot acknowledge that fact and think about what needs to be done, your insurgency is over before you've made the first phone call. Like the hapless coup plotters in Turkey, you cannot win if you plan for yesterday's realities. And lastly what applied to Angela's leadership bid now becomes his problem. There are forces supporting him now like a rope supports a hanging man. If Owen wins, and I think there is an outside possibility he could, he and the whole party knows he's on borrowed time. The so-called A-listers still have their designs on that office. What Owen will find hard to rebut is his being a foil for other people who'll push him aside when the opportunity arises.

And there, dear readers, is Owen Smith. Support him, reject him, praise him, condemn him. He does deserve some credit though, and this applies equally to Angela. Putting up against a popular party leader (at least among the members) is potential political suicide. He could well be feeding his career into the shredder. But in so doing he's shown more courage and leadership than all of the "big names" hiding behind his campaign, and for that I commend him.


Phil said...

This was posted by regular commentator Igor Belanov when a draft post earlier appeared by accident. So as not to lose it, here's what he had to say:

He appears to be an opportunist of the first order, but a bit sharper at least than the likes of Angela Eagle. In contrast to last year's leadership campaign, we will hear very little about 'aspirational voters' and a lot about how Nye Bevan is his hero, he is every bit as radical as Corbyn, etc. On the bright side, he will find it very difficult to fight a dirty campaign, as he has quite a few skeletons in his closet *cough* Pfizer *cough* fan of PFI *cough* lobbyist *cough*.

Igor Belanov said...

I thought that it was a bit odd, but decided to treat it as an invitation to an 'open thread'!!!!

Paul Canning said...

Pfizer? Jez shilled for Iranian state TV. Got £20k for it. But that's not 'Western' so he walks on water? He went on air despite knowing they show tortured people on air. This *happened*. All the bubble memes cannot deflect the fact it did. Much of his support would block you if you told them this. Your anonymous guy probably would. This is post-fact politiking, driven by socmed bubbles, in a way I don't think left analysts have yet grasped.

Matt Wardman said...


Who can seriously argue for renationalising the rail, given its performance when nationalised / not nationalised?

David Parry said...

Paul Canning

Corbyn certainly does deserve to be criticised for taking money to appear on Press TV. I'm not sure whether agreeing to give interviews, necessarily counts as 'shilling', but it is associating oneself with and acting as fodder for the propagandistic arm of a murderous, theocratic dictatorship and is indubitably a disreputable thing to do. That having been said, a few paid appearances on Press TV are hardly equivalent to lobbying continuously on behalf of a corporate parasite that wants to milk the NHS for profit at the expense of people's healthcare standards.

David Parry said...

Matt Wardman

British Rail undoubtedly had its failings, due mainly to the fact that successive governments prioritised roads over rail* (though in the case of Thatcher and Major, there was also an ideological drive to purposely starve BR of cash in order to soften it up for privatisation), but do you seriously think that privatisation has turned out to be much better, what with inflation-busting fare hikes, lack of investment in additional capacity resulting in overcrowding, shoddy punctuality, fragmentation of service such that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing and there's endless buck-passing when things go wrong etc etc etc?

*A mistake that won't be repeated by any government in the 21st century, or at least not one with any modicum of sense, given the imperative to incentivise the use of public over private transport in order to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate anthropogenic global warming.

Chris said...

The thing about Smith is that we all know that when normal front benchers talk about how radical they are and how committed to equality or whatever, it doesn't make a difference. They'll still go along with the Thatcherite consensus, by and large and when the chips are down they will sell us out.

Corbyn won't sell us out. That's the thing. Maybe Smith is more electable, maybe not. I don't care. I care about the long game, about rebuilding socialism, not beating the Tories in 2020 or 2025.

BCFG said...

"Who can seriously argue for renationalising the rail, given its performance when nationalised / not nationalised"

Well many surveys and polls say most people though the railways were better when nationalised. Most of the best railway systems, France, Germany are nationalised, of sorts. Britains rail problems are one of lack of investment not nationalised v provatised.

As for Smith, he is a complete fraud, pretending to be Blair lite in the hope that he can persuade some deluded impressionable people to support him. But no one will believe anything that comes out of his mouth. Support for him will kill progressive politics and ensure the Balirites have complete control of the party

Gary Elsby said...

Was he behind the 53,000 funding of progress.

Paul Canning said...


Corbyn has been a shill for the fascist, theocratic Iranian state for years https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2016/7/19/corbyn-and-the-lefts-misguided-foreign-policy

He appeared on Iran's Press TV after Ofcom banned it for filming a torture victim http://uk.businessinsider.com/jeremy-corbyn-paid-iran-press-tv-tortured-journalist-2016-6

Phizer doesn't hang gay people from cranes.

Carry on making excuses or deploying whataboutery. He is not a 'nice man'.

Matt Wardman said...


Thanks for your reply.

IMO in the debate about rail "it was Thatcher" is not relevant. It wasn't Thatcher.

Rail travel was in decline throughout the BR period from 1948 to 1995, with a brief blip in 1955-60, and another around 1990.

The most significant postwar decline happened in the 1960s and 1970s, not under Thatcher.

Since privatisation rail travel has increased to nearly 2.5 times what it was then.

I'm not saying that privatisation it was done in the best possible way, but the results speak for themselves.

And the subsidy per passenger has fallen to less than it was at privatisation. The story is more complex here with safety improveemnts after Hatfield etc.

I don't see how an evidence (as oppposed to ideology) based case for renationalisation can be made, since passenger numbers are up, subsidy per head is down, and safety is the best in Europe - all under privatisation.

Passengers travelling

Subsidy per passenger

Safety Euro Comparisons:


Alex Ross said...

David Parry,

But, is it not possible to both make strong arguments for defending our health services **AND** not support the propaganda arm of a murderous (near) theocracy. My brother in law is Iranian btw - and doesn't really understand what Corbyn is attempting to do by making such appearances??

It really makes my brain hurt trying to understand why so many people who have valid concerns about social justice are either supportive of, or indifferent to authoritarian regimes. Why does everything need to be weighed up - strategically balanced - can't we just refuse both? It might actually prove effective in changing some (often deserved) stereotypes about the left. And open arguments up to a wider audience.

BCFG said...

Britain has one of the most expensive transport systems in Europe and one of the worst when it comes to service provided. Regarding rail, the workers of this nation spend as a proportion of their income more on travel costs compared to the rest of Europe. Effectively we are working more just to pay for the transport to our jobs and back home again!

So highly expensive and delivering a sub standard service. These are 2 pretty good arguments against privatisation! Oh and the rail networks receive huge sums of taxpayer subsidies!!!! The other thing to note is that often our railway system is being operated by other EU nations nationalised systems!

The increase in passenger numbers is not necessarily down to demand increasing as a result of a better service but is in part due to policy in other areas, such as more expensive charges and fines for car users in some major cities.

In fact the evidence suggests passengers are not satisfied with the service on offer.

So there are very good arguments for nationalising the railways. Any honest person would say there are pros and cons to each. Personally I come down on the side of re-nationalising the system.

David Parry said...

'But, is it not possible to both make strong arguments for defending our health services **AND** not support the propaganda arm of a murderous (near) theocracy.'

Sure, it is. I'm not aware that I've indicated otherwise. On the contrary, I specifically said that Corbyn was behaving in a disreputable fashion by associating himself with the propaganda arm of the Iranian regime and deserves criticism for it.

Chris said...

Corbyn's record on Iran is exemplary. Those who say otherwise are neocon fascists.

Lidl_Janus said...

"Corbyn's record on Iran is exemplary. Those who say otherwise are neocon fascists."

Well, ATIS now has Poes abounding. This must be the 'interesting times' that alleged Chinese proverb blathers on about.