On the day that Owen Smith was sacked from the Shadow Cabinet for publishing an article that called for the question of whether Britain should leave the EU to be re-opened, I couldn’t help on the two occasions that I saw Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn on the same platform.
The first was the launch of Labour’s EU referendum campaign, in Cardiff City Hall, in May 2016. Jeremy Corbyn rattled through his prepared speech, disengaged and uninterested, while a small gaggle of his supporters sniggered at the back. Owen Smith – standing in for John McDonnell, who had cried off at the last minute – gave a passionate, powerful speech that reminded the audience what the EU was for, and how it had been the guarantor of peace in Europe for more than half a century; that it was an internationalist enterprise that was absolutely in tune with Labour values.
Later that summer, I heard Corbyn and Smith battle it out in the first of their leadership hustings. As I wrote at the time, it was fascinating to see how Smith both had a greater command of detail but was more passionate too – not least in his decisive rejection of austerity economics, contrasting significantly with some of Corbyn’s opponents in 2015. It was significant, too, to hear Owen Smith’s unequivocal restatement that the only honest debate about immigration was one that recognised that it had been good for the economy and society: miles away from Corbyn’s borderline racism at the recent Scottish Labour Party conference.
The contrast between the two men could not have been greater. Jeremy Corbyn remained the candidate of protest; Owen Smith, the passionate internationalist and democrat with both a hunger for power and an intellectual grasp of its implications.
That is relevant today when one reads what Owen Smith wrote in his Guardian article – because his argument is based firmly on democracy and internationalism. Democracy, because he understands that the Brexiteers’ Referendum promises were completely bogus, and that the position that has been adopted by both Government and Official Opposition since then – that people voted to leave the Single Market and Customs Union – is simply dishonest. Internationalism, because he knows that the Brexit favoured both by Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn will, beyond any doubt, destroy the Good Friday agreement and the twenty years of sometimes fragile peace that has followed it. His is a view that has the humility to realise that the Good Friday agreement belongs to the whole island of Ireland, and when English politicians talk insouciantly of throwing it away they are repeating the worst excesses of post-imperialist English nationalism.
But, most crucially given that the rationale for his sacking is breaching collective responsibility, Owen Smith’s article is wholly consistent with Labour Party policy as agreed at the 2016 Party Conference, which states that:
“Unless the final settlement proves to be acceptable, then the option of retaining EU membership should be retained. The final settlement should therefore be subject to approval, through Parliament and potentially through a general election or referendum”
Owen Smith wrote:
Given that it is increasingly obvious that the promises the Brexiters made to the voters – especially, but not only, their pledge of an additional £350m a week for the NHS – are never going to be honoured, we have the right to keep asking if Brexit remains the right choice for the country. And to ask, too, that the country has a vote on whether to accept the terms, and true costs of that choice, once they are clear. That is how Labour can properly serve our democracy and the interests of our people.
In other words, it is Owen Smith, not Jeremy Corbyn, who is upholding Labour policy.
I recently attended what was billed as a Brexit Summit, organised by Cardiff North Labour Party, at which Keir Starmer emphasised the importance of a meaningful vote in Parliament on the final deal, not just a vote on accepting or rejecting what the Government serves up to Parliament. And it is logically obvious that for such a vote to be meaningful it must include the option to withdraw the Article 50 notification, or at the very least to suspend it. Again, what Owen Smith wrote in the Guardian today is absolutely consistent with that.
But, more importantly, Owen Smith’s position upholds socialist and democratic values in a very particular way. In that same speech, Starmer said that the result of the referendum must be respected – there was no going back. A few sentences later, he said that the terms of Brexit had been set, not by the referendum, but by Theresa May.
Owen Smith’s position seems to me to be completely respectful of that decision: he is saying that the position has changed, and we are now far clearer about the Brexit proposition that the Government wants to enact next year.
And, as far as respect is concerned, it’s worth remembering that Owen Smith represents, not wealthy Islington or Camden, as Corbyn and Starmer do respectively, but Pontypridd – one of the most deprived areas of the UK, and, moreover, one that voted to leave the EU. And one is bound to ask which is more respectful – to engage your electors honestly and openly in debate, in defence of your judgement that Brexit will be disastrous for them, and will destroy jobs and entrench austerity in communities that have never recovered from what Thatcher did to them in the 1980s; or to fail to challenge an advisory referendum result that was based on wholly bogus promises, on no more than an outline proposition? Which approach, in all honesty, can seriously be described as “straight talking, honest politics”?
The sacking of Owen Smith reinforces the worst failings of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. It shows a contempt for Labour Party policy; a contempt for the Party membership who overwhelmingly oppose Brexit; a contempt for any concept of democracy that does not involve the parroting of simplistic mandates, and that understands – as Corbyn and his acolytes do not – that democracy is about so much more than people being bound by a single vote. And above all it represents a contempt for Labour values, a contempt for the view that you stand up for an unpopular cause if you believe it to be right even in the face of an apparent mandate, a contempt for the view that the jobs and living standards of our people – especially in our poorest communities – matter more than the ideological reifications of the metropolitan privileged.
And it is a reminder that at heart, Owen Smith’s offence is not a breach of collective responsibility or the undermining of Labour policy; it is rooted in the fact that Owen Smith is prepared to stand up for his electors, for the people of Pontypridd and for Wales, and above all for Labour values, rather than to back a Labour leadership that, on Brexit, appears completely to lack any intellectual or political grip.