Owen Smith is the worst person in British politics
I have been struggling to put my finger on exactly why it is that I loathe Owen Smith with such a visceral, burning, contemptuous rage. It’s neither healthy nor seemly – to the extent that I have nearly hit “send” on a few truly nasty social media comments which I would never normally make before finally regaining my composure and putting the iPhone safely out of reach.
It’s as though someone carefully and methodically packaged absolutely everything that I hate about modern politics into the greasy, grinning form of one man and paraded him on the television news every day to raise my blood pressure.
There’s the oleaginous, media trained (but not sufficiently that it looks convincingly natural and authentic) television persona.
There’s the craven cowardice of pretending he is every bit as old-school socialist as Jeremy Corbyn in a pitiful attempt to peel off Corbyn’s voters when we all know that he is the Parliamentary Labour Party’s centrist mole.
There’s the sanctimonious waffle about Saving Our Blessed NHS (genuflect) from privatisation, admittedly hardly unique to Owen Smith but particularly eyebrow-raising coming from the mouth of somebody with his past career and political track record.
There’s the deliberately old-school typeface and stylistic theme employed by his campaign (see picture at the end, or his pitiful website), designed to evoke thoughts of 1970s and 1980s Labour when his campaign is the living embodiment of the PLP’s mission to suppress Corbyn’s throwback movement.
And then there’s Brexit. Oh yes, and then there is Owen Smith’s incessant, petulant whining about Britain’s decision to leave the EU, his channelling of the metro-left’s howl of anguish at the thought of being separated from their beloved European Union and his declared intention to nullify the public’s vote using any means at his disposal.
But on this occasion, Dan Hodges actually says it best, excoriating Owen Smith for his lacklustre campaign, broken political radar and sheer amateurish incompetence:
It took precisely 24 hours for Smith’s clean skin to be scarred by the stigmata of Blairism. He had worked as a consultant for ‘Big Pharma’. He had welcomed private sector involvement in the NHS. He had guardedly backed the Iraq War.
His skill as a media performer was demonstrated on Wednesday, when he tried to boast of his pivotal role in the Northern Ireland peace process. When this John Terry-style glory-hunting fell flat, he tried to further embellish his credentials in international conflict resolution by announcing he would happily sit down for talks with Islamic State.
Whereas most Labour politicians content themselves with waving the red flag, Smith opted to wave a black one. An hour later Corbyn’s camp issued a statement distancing themselves from his stance, leaving Smith the only person in British political history to be outflanked by Jeremy Corbyn on the issue of national security.
Questioned about the ongoing bullying and intimidation of Labour members who do not support Corbyn, Smith the dogged street-fighter pleaded: ‘I am not a Blairite, I am a socialist just the same as you. I have never been a Blairite.’
That last exchange perfectly encapsulates Smith’s strategy. His message has essentially been: ‘I am just like Jeremy Corbyn. I believe in the same things as Jeremy Corbyn. Ditch Jeremy Corbyn.’
Amazingly, this ‘Dump Corbyn, Get Corbyn’ line isn’t resonating with the Corbynite true believers. For the simple reason that while many of them are stark-staring mad, they aren’t stupid. This is how Smith thought he could secure the Labour leadership. ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters are very Left-wing,’ he told himself, ‘and I need them to vote for me. So I’ll pretend to be very Left-wing too. That’ll fool them. Then I can start dragging Labour back to the centre-ground, which is where it has to be if I’m going to get to be Prime Minister.’
As a master-plan for wooing Corbyn’s supporters into his warm and pragmatic arms, it was utterly brilliant. Except it had one fatal flaw: It was so childishly transparent and craven, every Corbyn supporter in the land knew it was his master-plan.
A weak plan from a weak and utterly forgettable man. In a decade’s time, nobody will remember who Owen Smith is. He will have returned to some anonymous career as a lobbyist or PR man, and will have a footnote in history as somebody who once caused minor irritation to Jeremy Corbyn for a few months.
The Parliamentary Labour Party could of course have put forward someone with more gravitas and prime ministerial potential, but they didn’t. To a man and woman, they prized their own political careers over the opportunity to lead Labour to likely defeat in 2020. In many ways, Owen Smith is the collective cowardice of Labour’s remaining big beasts, given human form and a uniquely irritating grin.
And Hodges is absolutely right – the bait and switch move that Owen Smith is trying to pull would be obvious to a ten-year-old. The 1970s font and protestations that he agrees with Corbyn on policy isn’t fooling anyone. He is treating Labour Party members with open contempt by even asking them to swallow his ruse, and I have no doubt that he will catastrophically underperform even the rock-bottom expectations of the Westminster political class when the results of the Labour leadership contest are announced.
Ultimately, my problem with Owen Smith is this: now that Corbynism has been unleashed within the Labour Party, it can only be comprehensively tackled and beaten back through defeat at the ballot box in a general election. Anything else – whether it is forcing Corbyn to resign, shenanigans to set up a shadow “party within a party”, disenfranchising his supporters within the party or changing the rules to thwart him – will be insufficient. It may succeed in removing Corbyn, but Corbynism will live – his supporters will be enraged and his successor will have almost zero scope to change direction without seeing the bottom fall out of the Labour Party at the grassroots level, effectively destroying the party.
By contrast, if Jeremy Corbyn is permitted to unapologetically lead Labour to a landslide defeat in 2020, then the centrists have a much fairer shot at regaining control of the party. Corbynism will be discredited and rejected by the British people, and the opening for an alternative will again exist.
Owen Smith represents the Parliamentary Labour Party’s craven, ill-considered plan to try to circumvent that process. For reasons that this blog has previously explained – primarily impatience to return to power for the sake of their own political careers – a 2020 defeat and potential 2025 victory is simply too long to wait for a bunch of oily careerists who didn’t lead blandly forgettable lives and forego careers in the banking sector only to rot away, as they see it, on the backbenches. And so unwilling to even give Corbynism a chance to fail on its own, the restive PLP has decided to try to reassert their control now.
But it won’t work. No political party can long endure when its elected representatives are so markedly at odds with the grassroots membership, the ordinary people who knock on doors and hand out leaflets to get their MPs elected in the first place. And Owen Smith’s candidacy represents a giant two-finger salute, fifty feet high and covered in glitter, directed at Labour Party members who strongly support Jeremy Corbyn.
There’s a great episode of The West Wing where two of President Bartlet’s aides, Communications Director Toby Ziegler and Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman, are left behind by the presidential motorcade during an election campaign stop and have to hitchhike their way back to Washington D.C. The two men begin to get on one another’s nerves as the ideological Toby Ziegler demands to know why the politically calculating Josh Lyman isn’t more enthusiastic about the president’s barnstorming stump speech, in which Bartlet aggressively criticises his Republican opponent.
After Toby’s rant, Josh finally snaps and tells Toby:
“Which is one of the reasons that I work full-time for his opponent. I don’t know what gave you the impression that I had to be convinced, but I want to win. You want to beat him, and that’s a problem for me, because I want to win.”
I’ve always thought that this is an important distinction, one which I try to apply in my own political thinking. Far nobler it is to want to win, to convince others of the rightness of one’s cause, than to want to beat the other side and take enjoyment as they suffer the bitter pangs of defeat.
During the EU referendum, I genuinely wanted the Leave campaign to win more than I wanted to defeat the Remain campaign. Despite immense provocation from the political establishment and many on the Remain side, I was generally motivated more by a desire to secure a better and more democratic future for my country than to make Remainers sad or to wipe the smug smile off George Osborne’s face (though that has certainly been a wonderful bonus).
Not so with this Labour leadership election though. I want Owen Smith to lose. I want him to lose big, and lose hard. I want him to suffer such a humiliating, lopsided, landslide defeat that he bursts into tears on live television and has to run from the conference hall in shame and ignominy. And I want the Parliamentary Labour Party, who cynically used the shocked aftermath of the EU referendum as a pretext to launch an antidemocratic coup against their elected leader and their own members, to behold this gruesome scene and take their lesson from it.
I’m not proud of it, but that’s what this despicable, oleaginous, ideologically rootless C-list politician does to me. The sooner British political life is rid of him, the better.
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