Owen Smith Is Useless, But Labour’s Whole Center Is to Blame

Jeremy Corbyn’s challenger is running a shambolic campaign, but where is the rest of the Labour Party?

Labour's Owen Smith speaks with students at the University of Salford in  North West England, August 15
Labour’s Owen Smith speaks with students at the University of Salford in North West England, August 15 (AFP/Getty Images/Paul Ellis)

I don’t disagree with a word in Dan Hodges’ latest column about the Labour leadership contest. Owen Smith, the Welshman who has challenged Jeremy Corbyn, is running a shambolic campaign, veering to the far left on issues of health care and security when his record suggests he is more of a centrist.

But what about the rest of the party? Why didn’t any of the genuine social democrats, who could lead a serious, pro-European opposition to a right-wing government that is committed to taking Britain out of the European Union, enter the contest?

I argued here a few weeks ago that the likes of Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper, Dan Jarvis, Harriet Harman and Chuka Umunna all know that Labour’s problems go deeper than Corbyn; that it needs to purge itself of his fanatical supporters, who don’t care if Labour wins the next election or loses; that it needs to reverse the economic policies of Ed Miliband, not double down of them, and make itself a credible government-in-waiting again.

The reason they’re not moving against Corbyn is that they realize the chances of defeating him are slim. The former backbencher, who unexpectedly won the leadership last year, still has the support of most trade unions and a majority of (new) party members. Hence the unimpressive Smith’s candidacy.

“Almost impossible”

Hodges, too, knows that beating Corbyn was always going to be tough.

“It became an almost impossible task when his disciples managed to circumvent the restriction on non-members voting in the contest,” he writes, “and signed up tens of thousands of ‘supporters’ at £25 a pop.”

But Corbyn could have at least been forced to put up a fight.

Smith can’t even manage that.

Pin-up for mendacity

“Ask any Corbyn supporter why they back their hero and they will cite the same thing,” writes Hodges: “his personal integrity and political consistency.”

Ask them what they hate about his opponents and they will again speak in unison — their say-anything-do-anything-to-win mendacity.

Smith has made himself the pin-up for that mendacity.

He says he shares most of Corbyn’s far-left policies, which must make members wonder what is the point of him.

He warns against “secret” (non-existent) Tory plans to “privatize” the National Health Service. But in 2006, Smith, a former pharmaceutical consultant himself, said he welcomed private-sector involvement in the NHS. “If private finance initiative works, then let’s do it,” he said.

Outflanked on national security

Smith voted in 2011 to authorize airstrikes in Libya and expressed lukewarm support for the Iraq War at the time. But this week he proposed to negotiate with the self-proclaimed Islamic State, an Islamist militant group that has claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks in the West.

“Whereas most Labour politicians content themselves with waving the red flag, Smith opted to wave a black one,” writes Hodges.

Corbyn has voted against every use of military force since he was first elected to Parliament in 1983. He voted for unilateral nuclear disarmament, said there ought to be an “accommodation” with Argentina over the Falkland Islands and only this week threw doubt on Britain’s NATO obligations by refusing to say he would defend an ally that is attacked by Russia (for which he retains an unhealthy admiration).

Yet even Corbyn, who notoriously called members of Hamas and Hezbollah his “friends”, wouldn’t sit down for talks with the Islamic State — “leaving Smith the only person in British political history to be outflanked by Jeremy Corbyn on the issue of national security,” according to Hodges.

With friends like these, who needs the militant left?

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