Perhaps the most telling indicator of the divisions in the Labour Party were the automated suggestions offered by Google in the wake of the Parliamentary Labour Party’s attempted coup, trying to bully Jeremy Corbyn into resigning. “Who is Owen Smith?” was the question so many commentators were desperately trying to answer, while giving the impression that they had known of his existence for more than a week.
A brief word or two may be helpful concerning Owen Smith’s pre-parliamentary career, and the way it has been portrayed. Certainly the negative emphasis on his career at Pfizer does not mean that socialists are hostile to anyone who has ever worked in the private sector. This claim, from the notoriously venomous Jess Phillips MP, should be treated with the contempt it deserves.
However, working as head of policy for a private pharmaceutical company, lobbying on their behalf for greater private sector involvement in the NHS, and arguing against provision of cheaper generic drugs to patients, are certainly things that should give any socialist (or other person of principle) pause for thought. It’s interesting in my view that Owen Smith failed to win back the Blaenau Gwent constituency in 2006 (which had been lost to an independent revolt against Blairism), but that he sought election with the full support of his boss at Pfizer. At the very least, it requires an explanation, a narrative of what Smith’s opinions were ten years ago and how they came to change, which so far has not been forthcoming.
I don’t agree, in principle, that we should have a “leader” of the Labour Party in the form that it currently exists. It accords too much power and influence to one person, tending to subvert and encroach on areas which properly belong to the party’s democratic structures (such as policy making). These are problems which will not be automatically solved even by electing a leader with thoroughly democratic instincts. But if we’re going to have a leader – and that is the situation we’re faced with – then I want it to be someone with a record which is distinguished and admirable, which displays dedication and principle, rather than making me feel vaguely unclean after reading it.
In short – I can only submit that the logical choice in this election for anyone with socialist beliefs is the candidate who tirelessly attended demonstrations against apartheid and against the Iraq War, who always recognised the need for a movement of extra-parliamentary activity, who defends protests and strikes unapologetically, and who in any case arrived at the position of leader late in life through a sense of obligation to others rather than for personal advancement.
The coup candidate
Rather than focusing on Owen Smith’s character or his policies (because as set out above, neither are particularly credible), what merits closer attention is what – and who – he represents. His candidacy did not emerge out of the blue, even if his hitherto less-than-substantial profile may give that impression. It is what we might describe as the third phase in a series of anti-democratic manoeuvres to depose Corbyn (the first two, broadly speaking, were the campaign of smears in collaboration with right-wing journalists, and the organised mass resignations of frontbenchers designed to intimidate Corbyn into resignation).
Unprincipled and unstable alliance
It is correct to say that not all of the PLP (let alone the membership) who oppose Corbyn are “Blairites”. There is a difference between the politics of Ed Miliband and Simon Danczuk; only a fool could fail to recognise it.
It is the frequency with which this is currently repeated that rather misses the point. First, especially when coming from Labour MPs, it is often more than a little disingenuous, because they clearly have an interest in presenting themselves as acting on principle rather than self-interest, with the threat of deselection looming as boundary changes redraw Britain’s electoral map.
More seriously though, it fails to see the wood for the trees. There is a great cleft running down the middle of the party at this moment, between two great trends which can only be characterised as a “left” and a “right”. Within the “right” (i.e. those who could not be persuaded to support Corbyn’s leadership), the nuances are narrow by comparison. Angela Eagle made much on Andrew Marr’s sofa of her background in the party’s “soft left” in exactly this vein. But of course the point was that – her subscription to Tribune magazine notwithstanding – she had over several years voted for most of the Blair-era policy disasters which were anathema to any genuine socialist. The designation “Blairite” may be lacking in precision – but it’s not like she hasn’t earned it.
Looking to the prospects for a Smith leadership, it would seem clear that expecting him to unite the party is pure folly. Indeed, he would scarcely even be allowed to lead it.
He has relied on the support of the whole anti-Corbyn PLP (yes, including actual Blairites) to be anointed the sole ‘unity’ candidate. (What a strange programme of ‘unity’ it is that plunges one’s party into a state of civil war regardless of whether it is accepted or rejected!)
But of course he is being set up to fail, even if he is not a preliminary stalking horse and should somehow beat Corbyn. Are we honestly expected to believe that an MP of such short tenure and slender experience is the most capable person who could be found to do the job? This, from among all the many vaunted “talents” of the PLP? Clearly, Owen Smith is not only (as set out above) the candidate of the coup, but his emergence is also a reflection of the exhaustion and demoralisation of Labour’s grandees. But it is to these grandees and their would-be successors that he must, as a weak and inexperienced party leader, genuflect.
Bluntly, there is no way on earth that those unprincipled creatures in the PLP would allow him to fight a general election on a manifesto which even remotely resembled his current 20-point programme. These, after all, are the same MPs who briefed incessantly against Ed Miliband as the placeman of “Red” Len McCluskey, despite the two Eds’ wholesale acceptance of Osborne’s cuts.
These MPs lending their support do not agree with most – or perhaps any – of Owen Smith’s “socialist” policies. So to a significant extent – much as we may wish that political debate focused on ideas rather than personalities – it is irrelevant at this juncture whether Owen Smith says he will nationalise the railways, or what percentage he favours for top-rate income tax, or any other position he might advocate. It simply doesn’t matter – because the representatives of the ruling class in the media and within the Parliamentary Labour Party would quickly move to either neuter or destroy any leadership which pays even lip-service to socialism.
Of Smith himself, we can surmise either of two possibilities. First, he may simply be lying, and not believe in the policies he is putting forward. Sadly, this is far from an outlandish suggestion. But if he is honest, and his platform genuinely reflects his convictions, that hardly reflects any better on him and his campaign; for this would mean that despite his nominally left-wing programme, he has entered into a wholly unprincipled alliance with MPs who consistently distance themselves from such “outdated” terminology as “socialism” or “class”, and spend their time attacking the left rather than the Tories.
Take Trident, a thorny issue of policy especially at the present time, now that we have a unilateralist as leader. Owen Smith may be obliged to begin his debate answers with a vague wish for a world free of nuclear weapons, but materially his policy of Trident renewal is exactly the same as Blairite Atlanticist MP Ben Bradshaw, who has pointed to Ukraine as an example of why owning nuclear weapons is a desirable deterrent.
So it is clear that Smith’s coalition of support is unprincipled on both sides. But it is also inherently transient and unstable. The Labour right may have rallied behind a “unity” candidate in their current straitened circumstances. However, if he were to win, are we to suppose that this comradely pragmatism will endure? This from the same PLP which in 2015 tore itself apart between two candidates (Cooper and Burnham) with indistinguishable policies, not to mention Kendall’s rather more hard-boiled Blairism (that term again!). Of course such a state of affairs could not endure for long. We’d have a new leadership challenge by Christmas, regardless of how the left responds.
Carnival of reaction
A few words are necessary at this point concerning the fate of the Labour Party’s membership – that great majority who Corbyn’s opponents have lately taken to deriding as “the selectorate”.
If the party were divided on a more permanent and static basis between its left and right wings, with accepted terms of engagement and a clear conception of how the party could (when necessary) act as a coherent unit despite its internal differences, then the substitution of a radical-left leader for a centre-left replacement might not be such a momentous issue – although, as a Marxist, I would obviously throw my support in most such scenarios behind the candidate of the radical left.
Such circumstances clearly do not exist at present. Instead, we have open persecution of left-wing members by right-wing officials in the party’s bureaucracy, local executives, and from among its elected representatives. Individual activists (many of whom I know personally) have been suspended, expelled, or “auto-excluded” on spurious grounds; often, without even being informed what these grounds are. When Brighton & Hove District Labour Party held its recent AGM, with attendance inflated to over 800 by the influx of new members, and its outgoing executive was replaced by members representing Momentum – the party’s right wing simply invented false allegations of intimidation by Corbyn supporters, and used its remaining influence at party HQ to have the election results annulled and the entire local party suspended.
Shameful as this is, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. This past week we were presented with the far-beyond-satire spectacle of Labour’s General Secretary Iain McNicol using the hard-won subs and donations of party members in order to pay a lawyer to block those same members from having a say in the leadership contest. This, of course, was backed by the same forces working to install Owen Smith, not least deputy leader Tom Watson.
I cannot emphasise this point enough: if Jeremy Corbyn is removed as leader of the Labour Party, whether he be replaced by Owen Smith, or Hilary Benn, or Noggin the Nog for that matter: the policy of the right will be to intensify, to sharpen, and to increase these attacks on the membership. If Owen Smith wins – which appears unlikely, but not outside the realms of possibility – then his victory would be both narrow and of dubious legitimacy (given the aforementioned purges and undemocratic gerrymandering). A campaign of suppression and persecution would be the only way the party establishment could hope to restore some sort of oppressive bureaucratic top-down internal regime which would be the necessary prerequisite for Smith to be able to lead the party and face down the majority of its members.
Whatever Owen Smith may have to say on the matter (and I have not seen him leaping to the defence of members’ democratic rights, it must be said) – in practice, a vote for Smith is a vote for the irrevocable dissolution and dispersal of the great mass movement that came into being around Jeremy Corbyn last summer. Implicitly, this means also ruining and abandoning the great social potential of that movement, which has a once-in-a-lifetime significance.
For the right to consolidate control over the party would necessitate such a carnival of reaction. The disillusionment of quarter of a million hopeful people, disenfranchised, maligned, embittered, concluding they probably shouldn’t have bothered with politics after all – that would surely seal the deal.
A vote for Corbyn is essential not because we like him (though he does at least have honesty, integrity and modesty to his credit in that regard), nor because we think he is the most talented leader that the socialist movement is ever likely to produce (were we not constrained by the undemocratic system of (E)PLP nominations, John McDonnell would in my opinion be better equipped for the role).
We must support Corbyn because despite any personal failings, and despite the fact that we want a more fundamental transformation of society than he can currently propose – in this contest it is only a resounding Corbyn victory which can ensure the further development of the mass movement that coalesced around him, which has the greatest potential for socialist change in Britain such as we have never seen in our lifetimes.