I originally wrote this as a companion piece to a post on how Smith could win, but put it to one side as I thought I was writing too much on Labour’s election. However as similar points are now emerging elsewhere, perhaps publishing this will help convince some that this is not just another MSM smear.
When the vote of no confidence happened immediately after Brexit, I suspect the thoughts of most Labour Party members were similar to those of MP Liz McInnes: what a stupid and inappropriate time to have another election (as indeed it was). It seemed to fit into the narrative about a PLP obsessed with removing the membership’s democratic choice of leader. Surely we should give ‘the project’ some more time, and allow Jeremy Corbyn more time to see if he could grow into his role. And who was Owen Smith anyway? Journalists saw the support Corbyn has, and started assuming this was no contest.
On the face of it Owen Smith appears on many issues to be quite close to Jeremy Corbyn. A big difference is Trident, which many Labour party members think is a waste of money (and I agree). In addition there is the issue of trust. Owen Smith talks the talk now, but can members trust him not to backslide as Blairite MPs and a hostile media tell him he has to modify his radical programme? Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, seems to be integrity through and through.
But there is another key difference between Smith and Corbyn beside Trident, and that is over Europe. On the face of it the difference is about something that may never be allowed to happen anyway: a second referendum. Smith wants one, Corbyn does not. But for those party members who feel strongly about retaining as strong a link with Europe as we can, not just because of the economics but because Europe represents opportunity and is part of their identity, this difference may be the way they begin to unpick the issue of trust.
The vote of no confidence was the result of Brexit. You can tell yourself that was because the ‘plotters’ thought it would be to their advantage, but why would that be? Forget issues about effort and holidays. The crucial question is whether Corbyn’s heart was ever in the Remain campaign, and whether (perhaps as a result) his campaign was flawed, or perhaps even counterproductive. I do not know the answer to the heart question, except to say that a lot of the points Corbyn supporters make about Smith’s past could be used to suggest Corbyn was in truth more ambivalent than he says he was.
Of course if you are a true Corbyn believer you have to take him at his word. But the flawed campaign I have said something concrete about (quoting from here):
I have written right from the early stages of the Brexit campaign that I saw this as about the benefits that many people saw in being able to control EU migration, and weighing this against the economic cost in doing so by losing access to the single market. It was vital therefore to take seriously the warnings of economists that these costs could well be large. Jeremy Corbyn however seemed to suggest that when these warnings were repeated by the Chancellor they should not be believed because he could not be trusted. I doubt that was critical to the result, but it was nevertheless a serious economic, tactical and political error.
To put it bluntly: Corbyn appeared to be undermining the central part of the Remain campaign.
The context in which this was written is also important. I have recently said that I think John McDonnell’s Economic Advisory Council was an important innovation that he should be congratulated for both introducing and utilising it in formulating policy. Just because I think Owen Smith should win does not mean I do not give credit where it is due. But in our last meeting Brexit was discussed, and I think it was fairly clear what the general feeling was, reflecting the overall consensus among economists. I was not alone in being unhappy that this advice appeared to have been ignored, as the carefully worded statement from all five of us makes clear.
Of course this mistake could conceivably just reflect a speechwriter getting carried away at wanting to have a go at Cameron or Osborne. Speeches on economics should normally be checked by someone from the shadow Chancellor’s team, but then we know about the competence thing. But perhaps we should take Corbyn at his word, and that he did not agree with the almost unanimous view of economists. And then there was this unfortunate howler about triggering Article 50 straight away - again an obvious mistake quickly retracted.
But I know if roles were reversed, and Owen Smith had done these things, Corbyn supporters would be declaring that they just KNEW that Corbyn really wanted us to Leave. Which suggests to me that if we are skeptical about Smith’s radicalism, we should also be at least as skeptical about Corbyn’s attitude to the future Brexit negotiations.
In fact it goes further than this. The 48% of people who voted to Remain, plus any more who voted Leave but are now beginning to wonder that maybe all those economists were not exaggerating about its impact, plus the majority of companies that want to Remain, plus all the overseas governments that want the UK to remain, will be looking to someone or some party to be their political representative over the next few years. Labour under Owen Smith could play that role for sure, but Labour under Jeremy Corbyn? A leader whose heart may not be in it and who has said the costs of Brexit are exaggerated and who only has 20% of MPs who have confidence in him and who isn’t very good at doing the parliamentary thing or the details about Brexit policy thing is hardly a good choice to champion this cause. And if Labour members feel that way, voters will feel the same, and can UK politics persist with the two major parties accepting Brexit and leaving the 48%+ unrepresented?
Just as the coup itself followed Brexit, it may be that members (like Alex Andreou) begin to realise that this event has changed the political landscape in a crucial way. 2016 is not like 2015. Yes there are plotters, but there are also MPs desperate for Labour to become an effective opposition again for whom Brexit was the last straw. For some members the project is everything, even if the project does not include Europe or winning elections anytime soon. I have debated with plenty of party members like that. But if there are others who do care about both winning elections and minimising the harm done by Brexit, we may see support for Smith growing. He will get his own momentum.