Handed A Softball Question On ISIS, A Miscalculating Owen Smith Self Destructs

Owen Smith, the supposedly mature and electable alternative to Jeremy Corbyn, is nothing but a pale, naive and cheap imitation

There could hardly have been an easier question asked of the two Labour leadership contenders, Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith, during the hustings/debate broadcast on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show this morning.

Moving the focus on to the Islamic State (sorry, so-called Islamic State – this being BBC world), Derbyshire asked both men whether or not they believed that any peace process in Syria should involve representatives from ISIS.

Immediately alarm bells should have been sounding in Owen Smith’s head, for this was the most primitive of political traps. Anything other than a robust “hell no!” would instantly be taken to mean woolly socialist accommodation with Islamist extremism, and so the correct thing to do was clearly to temporarily forget nuance, give the robust “hell no!”, and then move on.

Even Jeremy Corbyn managed to get it right. He was clearly lying through his teeth – given his public statements on Hamas and other violent organisations, everyone knows that a Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn would fawningly seek to include ISIS in any negotiations. That’s just who he is. But even Jeremy Corbyn, the man who supposedly lacks a political radar, recognised the trap and said “They’re not going to be around the table, no” when put on the spot by Derbyshire.

Meanwhile Owen Smith, desperate to out-socialist Corbyn at every turn while portraying what he mistakenly thinks is an air of grown up realism, charged headlong into the trap, saying:

My record is I’m somebody who has worked on the peace process in Northern Ireland for three years, I was part of the UK’s negotiating team that helped bring together the loyalist paramilitaries, the DUP in particular into the process, alongside Sinn Fein, and my view is that ultimately all solutions to these sorts of crises, these sorts of international crises, do come about through dialogue. So eventually, if we are to try and solve this, all of the actors do need to be involved but at the moment ISIL are clearly not interested in negotiating.

I’m sorry, which one is the waffling socialist dilettante with no understanding of political communications again? Because for all the world it looks as though Owen Smith is the prevaricating incompetent here, not Jeremy Corbyn.

Let us count the ways in which Owen Smith is wrong. Firstly, there is no comparability between the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the ideology-driven, pan-national phenomenon of the Islamic State.

While it sounds statesmanlike and mature (clearly what Owen Smith was striving for) to intone that serious compromises have to be made on both sides in the pursuit of peace, citing the Northern Ireland peace agreement as evidence, it is a very poor comparison. For the Troubles, for all their complex history, were characterised very much by the narcissism of small differences – the furious hatred  which built up between two very similar communities living side by side (Catholic vs Protestant, Nationalist vs Unionist).

When peace negotiations were underway, both sides were prevailed upon to accept a power-sharing agreement in a devolved assembly as well as weapons decommissioning and early prison release for convicted terrorists on both sides. The shared pain was ultimately acceptable to both sides because there was an attractive, shared goal to work towards in the form of a peaceful and more prosperous Northern Ireland.

The difference between the West and the Islamic State (or even between peace-loving Syrians and the Islamic State) does not fit this profile in the slightest. We are not talking the narcissism of small differences, but the belligerence of exceedingly large differences. Islamic State seeks to conquer and occupy territory, and impose its impossibly strict, fundamentalist Wahhabist dogma on all those with the misfortune to become its citizens. There is no compromise, no half-way terms of peace for which the subjugated people of Iraq or Syria could sue, let alone countries like Britain, France and America ,which are the Islamic State’s overseas targets.

The kind of negotiations fancifully suggested by Owen Smith in his failed bid to appear mature and statesmanlike are simply not possible with Islamic State. By their own words and actions, ISIS does not compromise or water down its demands or dogma. “Live and let live” is neither possible nor desirable. Nobody is realistically going to get the Iraqi government to agree to a power-sharing deal involving the surrendering or dilution of sovereignty over its cities. And in the case of Syria, the ongoing civil war means that there is no one authority to speak on behalf of Syrians anyway.

More than anything, this incident serves to underline the sheer superficiality of the Owen Smith candidacy. While this blog was previously encouraged that Smith had at least a few policy ideas of his own (one step better than the hapless Angela Eagle, whose pitch for the top job seemed to rest entirely on her winning personality) these have proven to be nothing but a restatement of Jeremy Corbyn’s own ideas, the kind of policies which a Corbyn manifesto would no doubt have outlined prior to the general election anyway.

With almost zero policy difference between the two candidates, Owen Smith’s only remaining advantage over Corbyn was his supposed electability. Unlike Corbyn, we were told, Owen Smith will avoid making the faux-pas, media missteps and party management howlers which have caused the parliamentary party such unease. And yet in his desperation to defend his left flank, Owen Smith walked into the kind of headline-generating trap that even Jeremy Corbyn managed to avoid.

Did the Parliamentary Labour Party really just squander any opportunity to take the fight to the Tories after the EU referendum and the ascension of Theresa May just to replace Jeremy Corbyn with a third-rate flop of a leadership candidate in the form of Owen Smith? Is this oily, vacuous dilettante really the best that they can do?

Where are the latter-day equivalents of Barbara Castle, Peter Shore, Hugh Gaitskell, Clement Attlee, Aneurin Bevan or Tony Benn?

How small are the creatures who now seek to bestride the shrunken Labour Party?

 

Owen Smith - Labour Party Leadership Coup

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