Socialist Worker

Owen Smith puts on left face to launch his Labour leadership challenge

by Charlie Kimber and Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue No. 2514

A 200-strong crowd filled only a small section of the Emmanuel Centre in London—capacity 1,000—at Smiths London rally

A 200-strong crowd filled only a small section of the Emmanuel Centre in London—capacity 1,000—at Smith's London rally (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Owen Smith, who is challenging Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership, officially launched his campaign today, Wednesday. He made a concerted effort to present himself as a left winger.

He knows Corbyn has shifted the debate within Labour away from Blairism. So to grab some Labour members’ support, and try to secure some union backing, Smith has been forced to put on a left face.

Smith’s speech involved a 20-point plan for the next Labour government. It included banning zero hours contracts, reinstating the 50p top rate of income tax, building 300,000 homes annually and repealing the Trade Union Act.

He pledged that Labour spend more on schools and libraries, bring in a wealth tax for the top 1 percent and reverse inheritance and corporation tax cuts.

Under questioning some of this fell apart. He said, for example, that a one-hour contract would be acceptable for workers.

These pledges fit poorly with his record.

Smith has voted to spend up to £205 billion on Trident nuclear weapons rather spending the money on the NHS and education.

He supported academy schools—when a Labour government was pushing them—backed a cap on benefits and reductions in overall welfare spending.

Even if he was sincere, it doesn’t explain why Smith wants to eject Corbyn. Corbyn has already proposed most of the policy proposals that Smith unveiled.

But Smith’s real agenda came through strongly on Monday when he was interviewed on Newsnight.

Asked whether there are too many migrants living in Britain, he replied, “I think it depends where you are is the truth.

"In some places the way in which we saw a rapid influx in particular of eastern European migrants, definitely caused downward pressure on wages. It definitely caused changes to local terms and conditions for some workers in some sectors.”

Smith said the European Union (EU) referendum result proved the public want tougher controls on immigration. He has previously made what he calls the “progressive case against freedom of movement”.

Nobody should believe Smith’s commitment to taking on the bosses. But there is no doubt that as leader he would speedily shift Labour’s policy to be much harsher on migrants and refugees.

He would not fight for freedom of movement.

Everyone should back Corbyn and build the movement in the workplaces and the streets that can win reforms—and much more.


An evening with the 'Owenistas'

Socialist Worker popped along to Owen’s campaign launch in London on Tuesday.

Owen stepped onto the stage armed with a firm belief that hes from the South Wales Valleys

Owen stepped onto the stage armed with a firm belief that he's from the South Wales Valleys (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Heidi Alexander, Labour MP, tried hard to gee the room up. “They said only Jeremy Corbyn could draw a crowd, we've proved them wrong tonight,” she said.

But the 200-strong crowd filled only a small section of the Emmanuel Centre in London—capacity 1,000.

Owen stepped onto the stage armed with a firm belief that he's from the South Wales Valleys and that his “great hero” is Nye Bevan.

Pausing to brush the imaginary coal dust from his open-necked shirt, Owen warned of the “present danger" facing the labour movement. If Labour splits “the forces of darkness will flood into the gap”, he said.

He tried to fall back on Labour Party mythology.

So we heard how his "politics were forged" during the Great Miners' Strike of 1984-5. “I saw what a radical right wing Tory government does to communities and saw that a Labour Party can stand up for them if it's united and strong,” he said.

In fact party leader Neil Kinnock refused to back the miners' struggle against Margaret Thatcher.

Smith said he’s against bad things and for good things—and agrees with Jeremy Corbyn on austerity. The former Pfizer pharmaceuticals giant lackey promised big-time to protect the NHS.

He’s a “proud European”, but just thinks “some areas” have “too many” Europeans in them. He also believes in democracy, but pledged to take Britain back into the European Union even after the referendum result.

The audience was largely made up of longer-standing Labour Party members, it was heavily white and male.

Scrabbling

Scrabbling around for potential young "Owenistas" a campaign staffer asked Socialist Worker's reporter if they'd like to stand on the stage. Not wishing to infiltrate the Labour Party, we politely declined.

Josh, a sixth form student from Bromley in south east London, had joined Labour last September “but not particularly because of Corbyn.”

He told Socialist Worker, “Owen Smith sees what the membership wants, but recognises the things you’ve got to do to get that Labour government”.

The Smith leadership campaign is based on that one principle alone—electing a Labour government. As he emphasised, “We are a Parliamentary Labour Party … not just shouting through railings at those in power.

“After we won the franchise we took a decision to take power.”

As well as a snide jibe at Corbyn supporters who go on protests, that’s what the Labour Party’s strategy has been since it was founded.

That’s why Smith was not wholly hypocritical to cite Labour’s founder Keir Hardie or even Aneurin Bevan as heroes. And the pull of wanting to win an election is a pressure on the Labour left as well.

Certainly many union leaders will want to be assured that Labour is going to win—and some may come to believe that Smith is a better choice.

But why compromise with half empty rooms when there’s a growing movement outside that can be part of winning real change?


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