A year ago, I cast my vote in the Labour Party leadership election for Jeremy Corbyn. I felt strongly at the time that this was the only vote that would wean Labour’s leadership off its taste for austerity economics, with all his opponents implicitly accepting the framing behind it. I’d been appalled when Labour failed to oppose George Osborne’s welfare proposals, and when Labour’s right hailed this as a victory for adult politics. My view then, as it is now, was that Labour needed to be a clear opponent of austerity politics, in the name of electability. In both the short and long term, Labour needed to move on; only Corbyn’s campaign was even asking the right questions, let alone providing answers.
A year on, the development of economic policy, through John McDonnell’s New Economics Project, remains the lone success of Corbyn’s leadership. I’ve already written of the need to preserve those gains, but also set out clearly my view that Corbyn must go, for the sake of the left.
As Labour gears up for its election, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the left view of this election – and how, by presenting it as a coup by out-of-touch Parliamentarians, that view diminishes its fundamental importance. Corbyn’s supporters have said repeatedly that it is the members that matter; but, as Neil Kinnock pointed out in what was reported to have been a barnstorming speech to the Parliamentary Labour Party, the Party was founded to give a Parliamentary voice to the Labour movement; and a Labour leader who cannot command the support of more than a quarter of his Parliamentary colleagues, or is faced with mass resignations from his Shadow Cabinet, has a serious problem. The fact is that this is a battle between two fundamentally different conceptions of what the Labour Party is for – whether it should be a party based around achieving a Parliamentary majority to deliver a programme, or whether it should be a member-led campaigning organisation in which the Parliamentary party is mandated to implement majority decisions – and to call the current crisis a “coup” is wholly to understate the seriousness of what is at stake.
My own position is clear – the situation we face is far too important for gesture politics and we have to get a serious, anti-austerity Labour party in office that looks beyond its own membership to the people who need Labour and who Labour needs to speak for – the poorest, the most vulnerable in society, those facing falling real wages, falling benefits, insecurity in the workplace; people who have walked away from Labour in the last decade and who we are sometimes guilty of having forgotten – and who are likely to be in the front line, yet again, when the economic effects of Brexit begin to bite. I want a Labour Party that is prepared to put those people first in Government, not one passing resolutions and offering gestures of solitdarity in the purity of opposition. I also want a Labour Party that is credible, intellectually serious and willing to listen – and for all those reasons, as I blogged a while ago, Corbyn must go.
So Labour needs a leader who will project a clearly anti-austerity position; who is engaged in the wider world outside the Leader’s office and understands the issues Labour faces; and who is willing and able to communicate. Of Corbyn’s declared opponents, it seems clear to me that Owen Smith fits the bill. He’s very much on the centre-left of the Party; it’s notable that after years of prevarication by his predecessors, as Work and Pensions Shadow he’s really taken the fight to the Tories (compare Rachel Reeves’ infamous comment that Labour would be “tougher on welfare than the Tories”). He has condemned going to war in Iraq. During the EU referendum campaign, I heard him share a platform with Jeremy Corbyn at a rally in Cardiff; his passion but also his sense of history and context put a lacklustre and disengaged Corbyn in the shade. As someone who has worked in the media, he’s unlikely to mistake turning up at rallies for effective leadership.
Most of all, as MP for Pontypridd he is best placed to understand some of the biggest issues facing the Party. Not just because he’s seen Welsh Labour deliver policies in Government that are far more radical than those embraced by pre-Corbyn Labour in Westminster, but because he represents one of the most deprived areas in Europe. He represents a community that was eviscerated by Thatcher in the 1980s; where people voted against EU membership despite the fact that they benefit enormously from it; where people have walked away from Labour and are being seduced by UKIP. At a recent Constituency GC meeting in my less deprived area of Cardiff, I heard a pro-Corbyn speaker describe people in the “Valleys” as “bigoted and uneducated”. Leaving aside the offence caused to my partner from the Rhondda, with a BSc, MSC, MBA and thirty years of campaigning Labour membership, that’s the kind of mentality Labour just can’t afford. Labour should be about listening, understanding, empowering and empathising; all too often the Corbynista mindset derives from an ideological sense of entitlement that is a precise mirror-image of the Bullingdon Tories. Those “bigoted and uneducated” people are the people who need Labour, and whom Labour needs and and has to win back.
This is not a coup; it’s a fundamental battle about what kind of a party Labour is – a party of Government or protest, a party that is open and welcoming or closed, ideological and democratic centralist; a party that speaks for the millions who need an alternative to austerity in Government, or for the handful who are more interested in passing resolutions; a party that is confident or paranoid. And I believe that Owen Smith is the candidate who is best placed to ensure that Labour remains true to its founding purpose, of working through Parliament to govern in the interests of the many.