Tuesday, 19 July 2016

I said it was as easy as ABC - Anyone But Corbyn. So why am I finding it so hard to endorse Smith?

I'm on record as saying that I could stop a person randomly in the street and have a 50/50 chance of finding someone who'd be a better leader of the Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn.

Take them away for a couple of days, give them some advice on public speaking and get a little sartorial advice from David Cameron's mother. They'd be outperforming the veteran MP for Islington North in no time.

By this logic, I should be delighted at the elevation of Owen Smith - MP for Pontypridd - to the position of sole challenger in the forthcoming Labour leadership election. He sounds coherent, knows how to do up his tie and is well versed in the traditions of the Party.

So why do I feel very queasy?

First of all, I make no apology for thinking Angela Eagle would have been a better choice.

Labour seems very reluctant to embrace a female candidate and I wonder whether this culture will ever really change. YouGov polling suggests that Smith has no advantage over her in terms of votes. The evidence suggests that either of them would have an uphill battle to defeat Corbyn, who cemented his numerical advantage among the membership last autumn.

So I feel bad for Angela. She stuck her head above the parapet and has been subject to abuse and intimidation. She had the backing of significant figures such as Harriet Harman and Hilary Benn. Yet within days, she was forced to concede her role as challenger to Smith - the self-styled Mr Normal.

Angela is a tough cookie. She knows that politics is a rough game. She has got behind Smith now, as she is a Labour loyalist and knows that defeating Jeremy is essential to the survival of the Party. So it's up to me to do the same, isn't it? Just pull myself together and move on.

On paper, it should be easy, but when I look at Owen Smith's actual pronouncements, I find there's a problem.

I don't actually believe in them.

On television tonight: "I am just as radical as Jeremy Corbyn..."

Oh Christ.

I'm afraid that's a message which is unlikely to convince the Jezuits, who worship their leader with the same vehemence with which Catholic zealots embrace the Pope. They point to Smith's record as a former lobbyist and denounce him as a 'neo-liberal'.

Unfortunately, the statement will simultaneously frighten the general public. Opinion polls currently have the court Jezster on a popularity rating - or rather an unpopularity rating - of minus 41. So we can safely assume that pledges of radicalism are not top of their wish list right now.

During his launch speech at the weekend:  "Jeremy has been right about so many things..."

Err... no.  Jeremy has been right about precisely nothing.

He never understood public sentiment in his heyday 35 years ago and he still fails to understand it today.  None of his views have changed in that time, with the exception of his Damascene and utterly unconvincing conversion on membership of the EU. That ended well, didn't it?

Jeremy has been wrong about welfare, wrong about immigration, wrong about defence, wrong about economics and wrong about just about everything. From shoot-to-kill policy in nations terrified by terrorism to judgments over whether or not to sing the National Anthem. He just doesn't get it. So why on earth would we suggest that he is some worthy sage?

And then I go online to news reports, Smith's website and his Twitter feed.

He promises a £200bn 'British New Deal'. This eye-watering sum of money will scare the living daylights out of the electorate, as the suspicion will be that it can only be funded by extensive borrowing or higher taxes.

He wants to renationalise the railways. Perhaps the several billion needed for this will come out of his investment fund?

He claims to be 'anti-austerity' - a phrase which plays well in the ranks, but is utterly meaningless to most members of the public. (It's also an idea which will become fairly redundant if Theresa May's government abandons the ideological cuts favoured by Cameron and Osborne.)

He plans to raise the top rate of income tax - reminding us instantly of the mistake of his namesake John Smith in 1992, with the notorious vote-losing 'shadow budget'.

He talks about a 'War Powers Act', which would tie the hands of the executive in responding to fast-moving international events and threats. This panders to the left's obsession about a conflict which took place nearly a decade and a half ago.

And then he looks to re-open the debate about Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution, which was changed symbolically by Tony Blair in the mid-90s.

So I reflect on what Smith offers and I see introspection. A range of policies designed to appeal to the left-wing members of the Labour Party who have so far stuck with Corbyn.

These are people who instinctively believe in big spending, higher taxes and nationalisation. They dislike Tony Blair and the war in Iraq.

Smith's pitch seems to be as follows:

"I believe in the same principles as Corbyn and I am as radical as him, but I am more competent and telegenic. Where Jez talks in slogans, I come up with the concrete policy initiatives."

I see this platform as transparently tactical and deliberately designed to appeal to wavering left-wingers in the Party.  I think it may indeed attract some, but the chances are that numerically they will not be significant enough to outweigh the people who joined up in the aftermath of Corbyn's victory, specifically to support the old-school Islington leftist.

If Smith's tactic did actually work and he were elected, where exactly would this leave us?

On the plus side, we would have a leader who at least knows how to communicate through the mass media. I can't deny that this would be extremely welcome after the slow-motion car crash of the past year.

But no amount of polish can disguise a programme far to the left of that offered by Ed Miliband in the 2015 election. And in that election, remember, 50% of the public chose to vote for parties well to the right of Labour - the Conservatives and UKIP.

So if I'm going to stick with Labour and cast my vote for Smith, I need to have some confidence that he has a message for the Conservative and UKIP supporters we need to win over in marginal constituencies. At the moment, I see nothing but rhetoric designed to win him a narrow tactical victory within the Labour movement.

I am sorry to spoil the party, but I have to be honest.








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