Owen Smith is entirely alien to me. I like to pride myself on analysis. It is not always popular, but I aim for objectivity. I have previously written about Smith in a measured tone. I was advocating accepting him back into the fold.
My stance has now shifted, but for rather strange reasons. I am not entirely sure Smith exists. No, I have not lost my mind. And yes, I do understand that a man we call Smith exists. But when actually attempting to appraise him, something worrying strikes me.
Smith is a political black hole. You cannot find any rhyme or reason to his career, politics or behaviour. While I can see the effects of his actions, I cannot see what motivates them. I can see the things orbiting him, but nothing of his nature. He somehow drains all vibrancy out of ‘soft left’ politics. Sure, he says a few socialist things. But his uttering of them leaves them distorted and suspicious.
He falls into the mold of the ‘classic’ politician, lacking credibility. The MPs supporting him become infinitely harder to see as individuals. Instead they appear to be slowly pulled towards the homogenous, ill-defined bloc. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).
I once made allowances, but I am now disturbed. I am disturbed because I know these traits, I have seen them before. There was a man who came to reinvigorate Labour in the past. He came to save the working class, despite not being of them. He promised to increase social mobility and improve lives of workers.
His name was Tony Blair.
The true legacy of Tony Blair
Smith has achieved one thing. He shall be remembered as a Blairite. Not only himself, but the majority of the PLP. Not because they share a unifying ideology, they don’t. The term Blairite in a sense is both too harsh on them, and too charitable towards Blair. Blairism cannot be reduced to neoliberalism. His crimes are too grave for that to be his epitaph.
The true legacy of Blair is that of a charlatan. A snake oil salesman who will say what is required to seize power. The rise of a new generation of politician who seem different to their predecessors, is the flourishing of Blairite youth.
This new political cadre all share two qualities. They ‘feel’ different for no discernible reason, and they represent a top down democracy. They will determine truth, morality, and what ideologies mean in ‘modern Britain’.
There is a roadblock for those that would claim the Labour Party or socialism. The incumbent leader is not of this new generation; he has traditional Labour values. Corbyn does not speak the language of the new generation, nor appear to understand it. He is a democratic socialist.
The aim for Jeremy Corbyn is not victory, it is democratic socialism. Anything short of that should be considered a loss. Not for him personally, but for society and the Labour Party.
Smith: the ‘New Politician’?
I have long been troubled by platitudes in left wing politics. They admit meaningless and empty ‘positions’. Social mobility sounds positive. It sounds as if we should endorse it. But it should be the aspiration of no socialist. It’s a sound bite, and not a socialist one at that.
The term ‘social mobility’ admits one thing that no socialist should allow. Class structure. And moreover an enduring one. One that shall not be destroyed, but movement between rungs on the ladder eased. It does not necessitate direction or intensity. Making it easier for the rich to become poor is social mobility. Asking Eton to open up five new scholarships for the poorest also qualifies.
Meaningless positions that assert nothing. Smith says he wishes to negotiate with Daesh. Smith talks about increasing democracy within the party. The problem is these views are heavily caveated. Daesh negotiations can only begin if they renounce violence. And democracy? He’ll see what he can do when he’s elected.
Blair was similar. He did not need to sell a real vision to the country; nor did he need to sell an ideology. Blair needed to convince the electorate that Conservative rule was failing. He had to sell the idea of change. For those raised in an epoch when social mobility was championed, victory the sole aim – there is no refuge.
The greater good
Chuka Umunna believes that this is his party. He joined 20 years ago, but that says far more about him than it does new entrants. It tells us that he joined New Labour. It tells us that the leader that inspired him was Blair. His confusion then is understandable. He thought New Labour was here to stay.
Umunna is not unique. There is another man who better exemplifies this. Nick Clegg. The debates during the 2010 general election propelled Clegg into the spotlight. He stood on a platform that many of Labour’s new members may have voted for. When the energy behind the Liberal Democrats bid for political relevance faded, Clegg was left with a dilemma.
He decided to change the way politics operates in a very fundamental way. Rather than forming a coalition based upon ideology, he opted for power. Rather than standing by principles he held days earlier, he opted to sit at the ‘big boys’ table. The ‘unity’ between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is endemic amongst the ‘new’ politician.
Smith’s CV, funding and his Conservative fishing pals do not look good. It is a relationship of power, not a meeting of minds. ‘Unity’ no longer feels positive, it feels like betrayal. It feels like abandoning your beliefs for ‘the greater good’. Voting for Smith seems closer to accepting Clegg’s rationale than endorsing any position.
Power over principles
There is another way in which this clique shows their hands. Their movement within Labour. Umunna originally ran for Streatham on a fairly left wing platform. He was a member of the Shadow Cabinet under ‘Red Ed’ Miliband. Yet upon Corbyn’s election, he immediately ruled himself out of a role.
The more worrying aspect of Umunna’s behaviour would be movement between interest groups. Umunna originally joined Compass, a group established to assert left wing values. The group was set up to try to redirect Labour from Blairism. It defies belief that Umunna is active in Progress.
Blair still speaks at Progress events. speaking before the 2015 leadership election, he warned against Corbyn and Old Labour values. This is the Blairite faction, not one he was born of, one born of him.
Smith has not been prominent within any faction; he is widely considered of the soft left. But his voting record and past do not indicate that. They do not represent the “radical” socialist he claims to be.
I try to avoid discussing Smith’s past employment. I like to remain open to the idea he may have seen the light. But when he is riddled with contradictions, I find it hard to take him at his word politically.
Smith’s ‘power’ plays
“Education, education, education” were the words of Blair when asked his priorities for government. He pledged to be “Tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime”. You will forgive me while I retch. It is these soundbites like ‘social mobility’ I am always alert to.
Smith has his own. His position on a second EU referendum is not only political suicide, it is nonsensical. As David Lammy pointed out, the referendum was “advisory”. There is a case scheduled for October to determine whether Article 50 must pass through parliament.
The fact we have not yet begun the process speaks louder than any argument or court case. While the Tories insist the Royal Prerogative applies, there is scant evidence for this. Why then is Smith calling for a second referendum? He either is so politically naive as to not realise the above facts, or he is playing a game. A meaningless game, because ultimately the first referendum is meaningless. Until we invoke Article 50.
He is courting female voters with the promise of higher representation. But in doing this he conveniently forgets the diversity of Corbyn’s cabinet. He forgets that he became the ‘unity’ candidate at the expense of Angela Eagle. ‘Women for top jobs’ Smith implies, but not the top job. That is his.
Ignore previous attitudes towards all women shortlists. Ignore his sexist insult to Leanne Wood. Smith is a feminist. A “radical” socialist. He has shown you with his policies. Why don’t you believe him?
Immigration, immigration, immigration
To appear more in touch with the electorate he strayed into dangerous territory. Immigration. Perhaps sensing it as a weak spot of Corbyn, Smith has tackled the issue head on. He spoke of how “in certain areas” immigration “could” be a problem. I do not think anybody would disagree, the solution for most socialists however is investment.
He claimed that South Wales was suffering from problems in this area. I was amused to see the statistics. Wales has accepted 78 refugees total. Once a victim of Smith’s gender attitudes, Woods, delivered a coup de grace to this narrative. It has left Smith looking extremely foolish.
Smith is yet to learn the art of saying something while saying nothing. He accidentally makes claims which can be checked. Blair would have been proud of his original, qualified statement. But by turning it into a policy area, Smith went off script.
He lost what was the real message: nothing. A position that is more vacuum than ideology. One which can be filled with a policy of his choosing later.
There seems to be a collective failure to understand the appeal of Corbyn, by the PLP. Having found nothing that they can comprehend, it must be a cult. This mentality was made explicit by Janan Ganesh. He tweeted that Corbyn supporters were immune to analysis. Concluding they are “just thick as pigshit”.
Nigel Farage is a failure in most regards, but UKIP supporters seem to like him. He was a ‘real character’. The same can be said of most ‘post-truth’ politicians. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson enjoy the same rights. They are free to say what they wish and there isn’t much that diminishes their core support.
The ‘Corbynista’ cult is the most palatable answer to the PLP. It fits their worldview. Corbyn is much like these other ‘characters’, his light will fade. The truth would worry them too much. It would mean that their positions were under threat.
The correct characterisation of Corbynism is not ‘post-truth’, but rather ‘post-politics’.“Kinder, gentler politics” is not a platitude. It does not attempt to give policy position. More it attempts to change the tone of discussion. To remove politics from the gutter that it has devolved into.
It is not a pledge, although Corbyn does have those too. They just aren’t soundbites. They are serious positions on which a manifesto could be formed. The same is hard to believe of Smith. Even taken at his word, he does not say much.
What can we conclude?
You will understand I can no longer justify taking Smith at his word. It is just not the black hole that is Smith, but rather what surrounds it. The banal media statements and contradictory positions on policy. But most importantly, it is the presence of MPs such as Umunna. It is the backing of virtually every faction, regardless of aims. The lingering stench of Peter Mandelson, David Blunkett, et al.
It is that when you look directly at Smith. You see nothing. Recycled Corbyn policies with extra bigotry at no extra cost. A political black hole that absorbs all popular policy, while allowing the politically suspect to linger in proximity. But we should not define him by these things. He does not want a split, but he stands with a PLP that is preparing it.
On this examination, Smith is a ‘new’ Blairite; an ineffective, untrustworthy Blairite that lacks any convictions of his own. The epitome of the ‘new’ politician. And as relevant as Clegg.