Three Labour politicians are heading for a showdown. A fresh leadership election, officially launched yesterday, Thursday, will see incumbent Jeremy Corbyn face off against challengers Angela Eagle and Owen Smith. The result will be announced on 24 September.
Angela Eagle was one of the MPs who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet at the end of last month in a bid to force him to resign.
It was a difficult decision, as she explained in at least two tearful BBC interviews that day. “I feel I’ve served in the best way I can,” she said. “And today I’ve had to go.”
Eagle refused to say on that day if she wanted to run for leader. But two days earlier PR executive and former special adviser to Tony Blair Joe McCrea registered a number of websites with names such as angela4leader.org.
And her resignation letter carries a section that can only be read as a leadership pitch.
“In such turbulent times, we need a Leader who can unite rather than divide the Labour Party,” she wrote.
“We need a Leader who can hold the Tories to account, provide a genuine alternative, and who can convince the country that we understand their concerns and aspirations.”
Eagle had made sure to position herself on the soft left of the party and as a supporter of Corbyn before her resignation.
She’s voted in favour of things you would hope any Labour MP would support—and against things you’d hope Labour MPs would oppose.
She is also closely linked with many trade unions, which have come to be seen as on the left of the party. The Unite, GMB, CWU and TSSA unions all donated to her deputy leadership campaign last year.
Yet Eagle’s previous job at the bosses’ CBI organisation throws her left wing credentials into doubt—as does her support for the Iraq war.
Eagle said she regretted voting for the war in 2003 in an interview with the Guardian newspaper yesterday, Thursday. She claimed “flawed information” had been given to MPs—although that didn’t stop some MPs, such as Jeremy Corbyn, voting against the invasion.
Neither does this explain why she consistently voted against an investigation into the war. Nor her backing for bombing Syria and Iraq again in 2014 and 2015.
Eagle supports Trident nuclear weapons and voted in favour of increasing university tuition fees. And she has generally voted in favour of bills that make it harder for refugees to claim asylum in Britain.
Perhaps this is what Eagle means when she talks about her ability to “reach out” to other parts of the party. Although previous experience suggests this might be wishful thinking.
When Eagle ran for deputy leader in 2015 she came second last—fourth out of five candidates.
If you weren’t sure that one centre-left challenger was enough, along came Owen Smith.
Eagle’s pitch is that she is a soft left MP who can reach out to the right. Smith differs from her in that he claims to be an MP from the soft left who the right can get behind.
Eagle has described herself as “socialist” and “practical” while Smith wants us to know he’ll be “radical and credible”, which is entirely different.
When Eagle launched her campaign she claimed that Corbyn was “unable to provide the leadership” that the Labour Party needs. Smith, in contrast, said he wants to run because Corbyn is “not a leader who can lead us into an election and win for Labour”.
Where Smith really hoped to differ from Eagle was on Iraq. Unlike Eagle, Smith didn’t vote for invasion in 2003. Not being an MP at the time certainly helped.
When asked on Radio 4 how he would have voted he replied, “I would have voted against. I was opposed to it at the time.”
Unfortunately for Smith a 2006 interview he did for the Wales Online website—which they’ve helpfully republished—casts some doubt on this.
He told the website that he “didn’t know” if he would have voted for the war or not. But he did comment, “I thought at the time the tradition of the Labour Party and the tradition of left-wing engagement to remove dictators was a noble, valuable tradition”.
And all of this came out before Smith had even managed to officially launch his campaign.
In 2014 Smith also voted in favour of airstrikes in Iraq—but has twice opposed bombing Syria.
As for the rest of his voting record, it’s almost identical to Eagle’s. Smith has consistently voted against measures that could lead to more privatisation in the NHS.
Yet before becoming an MP Smith earned £80,000 a year as a lobbyist for pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which has pushed for more NHS privatisation.
Smith has consistently voted against academisation under a Tory government.
But he was an enthusiastic supporter when they were being pushed by Tony Blair’s Labour. Smith told the same 2006 interview, “City academies in certain parts of inner city Britain, where schools were failing, where children were not being well served, have made great inroads.”
He added, “I'm not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances that get read into some of these things”. Which just about sums him up.