Love him or loathe him, Jeremy Corbyn was necessary – that’s my view. I say this because Labour’s 2015 result didn’t feel like the narrow defeat it should have done. It felt like an existential crisis. The party didn’t know what it stood for anymore. Even Yvette Cooper, who could have been a formidable leader in different circumstances, came across as bland and insubstantial in last year’s leadership election. Having hollowed out the party’s soul, the PR-driven politics of the New Labour era had decisively run out of road.
When I voted for Corbyn in 2015, I knew that Labour – whoever led it – was a long way from power. But I believed that more of the same wouldn’t address the underlying issues of the 2010 and 2015 defeats. What we needed was someone who’d rebuild the party’s grass roots, to lead a debate about what the Labour Party is for. I didn’t see Corbyn as a natural leader, but that seemed academic in the context.
My assumption (shared by Owen Jones, amongst others) was that, once he’d got this soul-searching process underway, he’d step aside in 2018 or so, to make way for someone who shared his left-wing principals, but was younger and more ambitious – more leader-material, basically. Someone who’d then fight the 2020 General Election and win. Clearly, Brexit and Labour’s own infighting have rendered that hope irrelevant.
We’re faced once again with a ballot paper, and the threat of a snap election remains prescient. My disdain for the way Corbyn has been plotted against, and for those on the right of the party who refused to work with him from the start, should be taken as read – because of this, my instinctive position is to vote for Corbyn again. But I also feel that Owen Smith, despite some of the daft name calling (which, in fairness, is very much a two-way street at the moment), isn’t the real enemy. He’s no Blairite, and deserves a fair hearing.
On the ‘Blairite’ point, it seems fair to point out that, whilst plenty of actual Blairites support Smith, they’re doing so by default – the ‘anyone but Corbyn’ candidate. I’m less interested in their views than I am of the increasing number of non-Blairites who are backing him, or at least doubting whether Corbyn remaining in charge is the best course of action. Tom Watson and Sadiq Kahn, for example, may not be perfect, but they cannot fairly be described as on the right of the party. In the blogosphere, writer Owen Jones recently wrote a piece outlining his worries about Corbyn’s performance – and was promptly accused of being a Blairite stooge. The reality is that plenty of decent left-of-centre people are seriously agonising over the way forward, and I’m one of them.
The case for voting Owen Smith centres on his claim that he’ll be as radical as Corbyn, but actually deliver by winning elections. The first part of this claim doesn’t sound far off the mark: Smith is talking about reversing austerity and investing for prosperity. He’s doing so in a way that would have been unthinkable a year ago, when Burnham and Cooper were banging on about ‘aspiration’ and so on. Corbyn seems to have shifted the conversation to the left, which I’m grateful for. But now that he has done, Smith argues he’d be a surer pair of hands at the wheel.
The claim that he’s more electable is debateable. As stated above, Labour’s problems started way before Corbyn’s leadership. But he is certainly much more skilled in handling the media. He seems to know how to marshal it in a way Corbyn just doesn’t seem to attempt, performing well on Radio 4’s combative Today programme. Even his minor gaffes (Theresa May’s heels and all that) arguably lend him human relatability; no-one wants media-savviness to lapse into Blair-era slickly choreographed insincerity.
In contrast, one of my primary frustrations with Corbyn is that he doesn’t seem to have a media strategy it all. He and his team should have focussed strongly on deflecting and anticipating the inevitably-thrown muck, and countering it with a strong, consistent, and most importantly, relentlessly repeated message. That’s all Farage really did – the ever-available rent-a-gob – and it largely worked.
Unfortunately, there’s still a significant case against voting for Smith. It has nothing to do with fanclub-like adoration of Corbyn (a phenomenon which is overstated amyway). Smith’s refusal to work with Corbyn, if he wins, is childish. If there’s any hope of making Labour vaguely functional after this contest, it’s incumbent on all factions, left and right, to start building bridges. Owen Smith ought to be leading by example on this.
Policy-wise, I can overlook his pro-Trident stance, even though I disagree with it. The decision’s already been made. But his position on Brexit is frankly odd. Whilst I voted Remain, it’s clear to me that the result must be honoured. Smith’s second referendum would look too much like the political establishment sneering at the majority who voted Leave, insisting on re-running the contest until the ‘correct’ decision is reached. That’s not a good image for a ‘man of the people’.
But for me, the main reason against voting for Smith is that I’m not convinced he really gets it. Why so many members voted Corbyn in 2015. We’ve heard a lot about SWP entryists, anti-semitism, death-threat sending thugs and so on. But whilst these things are real and condemnable (although the bad behaviour cuts both ways), most Labour members have nothing to do with any of it.
Smith isn’t doing enough to talk to people like me: pragmatic socialists who, contrary to some accusations, really do want Labour to win elections whilst retaining its core values. People who don’t want Labour to be some kind of left-wing cult, but are tired of twenty-plus years of comprehensive marginalisation. He needs to acknowledge these people and prove he understands why we voted Corbyn last time.
I also don’t like the feeling that a vote for Smith would be playing into the hands of those who’ve spent the year plotting a coup. But we are where we are, and I won’t let that alone influence my decision. My ballot paper still lies, unopened, on my desk. My vote is essentially there for the taking – but Owen Smith doesn’t seem bothered to do so.