Why Aren’t Serious Labour Candidates Standing Up?

There are more able politicians than Owen Smith to challenge Jeremy Corbyn, but they are sitting this out.

Chuka Umunna, the British Labour Party's shadow business secretary, makes a speech, March 30, 2015
Chuka Umunna, the British Labour Party’s shadow business secretary, makes a speech, March 30, 2015 (Labour)

Now that Angela Eagle has dropped out of the Labour leadership contest, it is up to little-known Owen Smith to topple Jeremy Corbyn and rehabilitate Britain’s second party in the eyes of centrist voters.

Both — defeating Corbyn, restoring Labour’s electability — are daunting tasks. Smith has the support of most of his parliamentary colleagues, but Corbyn commands the loyalty of left-wing activists and most trade unions. There is a good chance the leftwinger will prevail even if the whole of moderate Labour throws its support behind Smith.

It’s perhaps little wonder then that ambitious Labourites are sitting this one out. To challenge Corbyn and lose might be career-ending.

But if the stakes really are as high as they say — there have been warnings that Corbyn’s far-left policies and divisive leadership style could “destroy” Labour — how brave is it of them to put this fight for the soul of the party entirely on the shoulders of Owen Smith?

It’s about more than personality

Smith seems like a normal politician. We’re bound to learn more about him in the weeks and months to come. Most ordinary Labour Party members probably know about as much about him as I do, which is very little.

What we do know is that Smith would not radically change Labour’s policies if he is elected to replace Corbyn. He said so this week. So if he wins and keeps his word, Labour would not only have elevated an unknown to its leadership; the program that makes Corbyn’s Labour Party so unelectable would stay in place.

The problem is not just Corbyn himself, although he has personally failed as a leader. When his lawmakers were plotting to oust him, Corbyn reportedly locked himself up in his office and refused to speak to anyone but his confidantes, convincing many doubters to join the rebel cause.

I won’t go into detail here about how he’s bungled the antisemitism problem in his party or the increasingly brazen rhetoric of his fanatical supporters in Momentum. Suffice it to say that removing Corbyn is a necessary first step to healing the Labour Party.

But it’s only a first step. The more structural problem is that Corbyn has doubled down on the very policies that cost Labour the last two elections. Rather than convince voters in the middle they can be trusted with the economy, he has brought back pro-union and nationalization policies that were retired after Margaret Thatcher.

Promising candidates

What Labour needs to regain its credibility is both a center-left program and a serious leader who can carry it out.

There are promising candidates, including Hilary Benn, the former shadow foreign secretary; Yvette Cooper, the former shadow home secretary; Dan Jarvis, a former parachuter whose views seem pretty mainstream; Harriet Harman, who led the partly ably been Ed Miliband’s resignation and Corbyn’s election in 2015; and Chuka Umunna, the centrist former shadow business secretary.

They all know Labour needs to move beyond Corbyn if it is to regain power, even if that means cutting off some of his most fanatical supporters and maybe the more militant trade unions. Yet they’re all waiting in the wings for Corbyn to self-destruct before making their move. That might be smart politics; it’s not very admirable.

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