Owen Smith is being painted as a unity candidate. Chris Nineham argues he is in fact spearheading a war on the majority of the Labour Party
Owen Smith is now what is laughingly called the unity candidate in the war the Labour right is waging against the left, the membership and Labour party democracy. Out goes the - always cynical - talk about the need for a woman leader, or a more working-class one, or for more diversity. This is a ruthless campaign to destroy an attempt to keep a genuinely left-wing leader at the helm, by any means necessary and whatever the damage caused to the party.
Angela Eagle's big problem was that, given the inexplicably radical mood in the party, any effective challenger has got to be able to pretend to be a bit left-wing and that was frankly impossible for someone who voted for the Iraq War, against setting up Chilcot and abstained on the Tory Welfare Rights Bill.
So bring on Owen Smith. He has the great advantage of not having been in parliament when the Iraq War happened, although he did vote for bombing Iraq in 2014, for bombing Libya in 2011 and for replacing Trident last week – despite previously being a CND member – saying that he thinks it is essential to have a prime minister who is prepared to press the nuclear button. Like almost all the Labour rebels, too, he abstained on the Welfare Rights Bill that provided the framework for billions of pounds of Tory cuts. But never mind, he has salvaged his left-wing credentials by apologising and saying it was a mistake.
Smith’s campaign is going to centre on two main themes. One, Corbyn is unelectable despite being a nice chap. Two, a vote for Corbyn is a vote for more division. Both arguments are achingly false, not to say dishonest. The bland, uncontroversial centrism that Smith represents is a proven electoral failure. It is not radical politics that are unacceptable in Britain right now, but the business as usual that Smith embodies.
The idea that a Smith victory would spell an end to division and disharmony in the party is equally risable. Smith has been at the centre of an unprovoked but concerted campaign of disinformation and demonisation of the Corbyn camp aimed at forcing him out of office. A democratic contest has been the plotters’ last resort, and in reluctantly pursuing it, they have done their best to fix the outcome in advance by gerrymandering. If Smith wins there will be a pitiless clear-out of the left and a mass exodus of many of the members so inspired by the Corbyn experiment. The right will call it peace but it will be a wasteland.
Clear red water
How to respond to the attempt to pitch Smith as a ‘left but sensible’, unity candidate? Not by steering to the centre, or playing down the radical policies that have built all the enthusiasm for Corbyn, as some are suggesting. The recent, encouraging, YouGov poll suggests that Corbyn’s recent intransigence in the face of attacks has won him increased support in the party. It is his left-wing politics of conviction that have carried him this far. Celebrating these radical policies is the best way of showing up the fake left Owen Smith.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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