STEVE SWEENEY went to one of the Labour challenger’s meetings – and was not impressed
ON SUNDAY I attended an Owen Smith event in east London not far from Liverpool Street Station.
I went with an open mind and low expectations, yet still left disappointed.
The meeting, which took place in an Indian restaurant, was held in Tower Hamlets, one of the most deprived areas of the city, boasting a number of Labour MPs and councillors. East London has a strong Labour tradition — it was here that Keir Hardie was first elected as an MP for West Ham South in 1892 and the precursor to the GMB was founded by Will Thorne in 1899.
Holding your east London rally on the same date and at the same time that West Ham United were entertaining 60,000 people at the official opening of their new home at the Stratford stadium was either bravery or — as is most likely — incompetence from Smith’s team.
Given that many of east London’s MPs, councillors and the Mayor of Newham Sir Robin Wales would have been invited to the match, it is perhaps not surprising that the numbers were low. I counted fewer than 100 in attendance. To be honest, I’ve hosted bigger barbeques.
There is clearly a problem with Smith’s campaign organisers and in particular his PR team. The now infamous “ice-cream van” meeting in Liverpool is one of the enduring images of Smith’s lacklustre leadership challenge.
The east London event itself was amateurish and poorly organised. People struggled to find the venue, the only sign that anything was happening was a single “Owen Smith: Labour’s Future” placard on the floor outside the restaurant.
As we waited, I discussed Smith’s prospects with one of his supporters on my table.
I asked how he thought Smith was going to claw himself back from a seemingly impossible position — the unions’ support for Corbyn, the CLPs overwhelmingly backing Corbyn to the point that at the time of writing Smith is in third place behind “neutral” and the polls pointing to a convincing win for Jeremy.
This was before the court ruled that the NEC decision denying members who joined after January a vote in the leadership contest had been unlawful.
When I asked if Smith really ought to concede defeat now so Labour can get on with the task of fighting the Tories, I was met with a telling response.
It was suggested to me that the only reason for Smith to remain was to drag things out and create such disunity that Theresa May would see the opportunity for a snap general election, condemning Labour to crushing defeat and forcing Corbyn to resign.
The removal of Corbyn as leader seems to be the priority for some at any cost. It is clear that the challenge to Corbyn is at its core one of ideology, not electability.
Tony Blair has stated that he “wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”
This would also appear to be the view of the PLP plotters.
Smith himself arrived over an hour late. When attending a live event, if the main act arrives late on stage you expect and are usually rewarded with a memorable performance. Unfortunately on this occasion it was not to be the case. If I could choose one word to describe it, it would be magnolia. Safe, dull and unimaginative.
When he finally arrived many in the room didn’t notice. A ripple of applause from the front indicated something was happening and Smith was then seen crossing the floor to the platform. No standing ovation, no big announcement of his arrival, nothing other than an almost apologetic shuffle to the stage.
There was then difficulty with the microphone, which failed to work, leaving local MP Rushanara Ali largely inaudible from the back of the room, floundering as she tried a number of times to introduce Smith.
A light on the platform set to shine on the speaker was far too bright, with Smith making a joke about the sun and looking uncomfortable throughout his presentation.
His campaign has proved to be a car crash. Calling it a “damp squib” would be an understatement.
As he boasted that he has “spoken to rooms like this across the country,” it must be apparent even to Smith that he has no chance of winning. By contrast Corbyn has electrified thousands, with meetings filled to overspill even in areas where Labour has traditionally been weak.
The atmosphere in east London was certainly not one of confidence and Smith’s inability to connect with the membership of his own party does not bode well for someone who wants to appeal to the wider electorate.
One of the councillors near me was so inspired that he slept through through most of Smith’s speech.
Looking around the room, I saw people fiddling with their phones or staring into space. His inability to command a room of people who were, on the whole, there to support him speaks volumes.
What did I learn about Owen Smith? Not much.
A lacklustre speech which lacked coherence or detail delivered with all the charisma of a regional bank manager giving a presentation to an uninterested workforce was combined with the honesty and integrity of an estate agent.
Smith offered nothing of substance beyond tired soundbites and sounded like the David Brent of politics.
As one Young Labour member said: “Watching Smith is like watching sex scenes on TV with your parents. Embarrassing and cringeworthy.”
Smith opened by lambasting Theresa May’s Downing Street speech on becoming prime minister.
He was angry that she was able to steal Labour’s clothes by speaking about social justice and a fairer society. He blamed this on Labour being weak in opposition under Corbyn.
In fact the opposite is the case. It is a testament to Corbyn and the movement that even the Tories have had to adopt our language.
Smith himself has been forced to sound more left-wing to try to capitalise on the shift in the Labour Party with an anti-austerity leadership.
“Jeremy had some great ideas at the beginning and has some great ideas now there is a leadership contest but where has he been in the middle?” Smith asked rhetorically. Presumably, just as he did with John McDonnell’s announcements over a ministry of labour, Smith must have missed the Tory U-turns over PIP, welfare and academies. He must have missed the Tory defeat on tax credits as well.
Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner’s response to May’s announcement over the possible reintroduction of grammar schools also seems to have passed Smith by.
She said that “selection belongs in the dustbin of history and has no place in modern society.”
Smith claimed during his speech that the Tories’ announcement was a further sign of Labour weakness and failure to challenge.
Either Smith doesn’t have his finger on the pulse or he is being deliberately manipulative and deceitful. Neither is a recipe for good leadership.
The awful Blairite buzzword “aspiration” reared its head again as Smith said: “We want aspiration for all our communities.”
This is typical New Labour bluster and underlines the emptiness of Smith’s message. As was Smith’s complaint that “Jeremy is not speaking to Middle England. He is not credible beyond the Labour Party” — which is ironic from someone who has no credibility even within the Labour Party.
He repeated his position on the EU stating that he “wanted us to stay” and, although he said he doesn’t blame Corbyn, he went on to say that his heart wasn’t in it and that he should “not just have spoken about workers’ rights.”
Smith favours a second referendum, seemingly indifferent to or unaware of the potential damage this would do and the possibility of entrenching support for Ukip or even worse.
Talk of uniting the party seemed nothing more than empty rhetoric given Smith’s role in undermining that.
Claims he was not part of the coup are easily dismissed given John Mann’s tweet claiming he was asked to support Smith’s leadership bid six months ago and Smith’s own resignation as part of the pre-planned process designed to damage Corbyn and force him to stand down as leader.
Smith went on to condemn racism, particularly anti-semitism, which he says is on the rise and he railed against Tory privatisation of the NHS — a change from his previous pro-PFI position and his previous work in senior positions for companies that undermine it.
This is “not about left or right — it’s about what’s right for the country,” he boldly claimed.
“It is not about principles over power. That is a false choice.” Whatever that means.
Smith was beginning to sound more and more like an app that had been programmed by the PLP to say things they think that left-wing people want to hear.
“Don’t tell me that Jeremy is more radical than me. He isn’t. Don’t tell me that Jeremy has more socialist ideas than me.
He doesn’t,” he opined at the end.
Nobody appeared to be convinced, even Smith himself.
There were a few stage-managed questions from the floor, none of them challenging. One on the honours system allowed Smith to expand on his earlier statement claiming that he would “boycott the system” that “Cameron and his cronies have abused.”
He also used it to have a dig at Corbyn for nominating Shami Chakrabarti, ignoring the fact that this process had started a while back, although he did acknowledge the role she had played over the years “as a great fighter for rights.”
The others ranged from the sycophantic “what can we do to help you win?” to asking how to win back support from Ukip and the SNP.
“Invest” was the response, as Smith said that his plans for a £200 billion investment programme would be funded by borrowing at a time “when UK interest rates are at an all-time low that we should be taking advantage of.”
Nobody mentioned that Corbyn’s plans for a national investment bank would raise £300bn more and was built on a solid and detailed plan.
When asked about support for the nationalisation of the steel industry, Smith went round the houses to avoid giving a concrete answer.
He spoke about investment in renewable energy and then told an unlikely tale about how he was on the picket line blocking lorries from entering the steelworks at Port Talbot during the miners’ strike.
Realistically, Smith is as likely to support nationalisation of the steel industry as he is to support the nationalisation of the big pharmaceutical companies he has lobbied for over the years.
Interestingly, Smith claims that he has written to Momentum, inviting them to debate with him. Given his performance in east London, this is a brave move as the evidence suggests that it would be a “no-contest” challenge for anybody that was to take up the offer.
There were many issues that were not mentioned. Smith’s work as a lobbyist for Pfizer was not put under scrutiny.
His statement that he would “press the button” to launch a nuclear attack and his support for Trident was not questioned.
Nor was his promotion of “one-hour contracts.” His support for a “living wage” of £8.25 — considerably less than that proposed by the Tories and out of step with his own union’s claim for a £10 per hour minimum wage — was not commented on.
No matter. Smith had the air of someone resigned to defeat who was merely going through the motions.
One Corbyn supporter politely thanked him and said she had come to listen to what he had to say.
She concluded that she would still be voting for Jeremy. Some of those who were there seemed more “anti-Corbyn” than “pro-Smith.”
The PLP challenge is all but over. They have thrown everything at it. They know they can’t win on ideas but have relied instead on their control of the party bureaucracy.
Even that is now slipping out of their hands. From attempts to keep Corbyn off the ballot to shutting down party democracy and excluding supporters from voting, they have failed.
That Corbyn has faced down the whole of the party machinery and has come out of the other side strengthened shows courage and leadership.
It’s time to end this farce. The Labour Party need to start fighting the Tories, not Corbyn. We’ve not been fooled by Owen’s Myth but now enough is enough. Stand down Owen.