It’s fair to say that the leadership debates haven’t exactly defined the contest so far. Corbyn and Smith have largely said that what we expected them to say, and even as a confirmed Corbyn supporter it’s obvious that he (and to be clear definitely not Owen Smith either) has failed to land a killer blow so far. Of course Smith might land a killer blow on himself at some stage but he gets a relatively easy ride from the media and his gaffes don’t become national news in the way that Corbyn’s would.
You could call the whole thing shadow boxing I suppose. But I think there’s something else going on here.
Paul Mason’s piece about the Labour right is essential reading, and if you haven’t yet make sure you do. I don’t agree with every word of it, simply because I don’t believe that the Labour right will split away willingly, but it captures most of the relevant points about Smith’s campaign brilliantly: that he is a prisoner of the Blairite wing and his policy platform is simply a tactic to try and win the election. He is saying whatever he thinks will work. And it very frequently shows.
During the debates and media appearances Smith doesn’t ever articulate the views of the Labour right: his actual support base and the people who will be running the party if he wins. He and his advisers know that the narrative has changed utterly in the Labour Party in the last 12 months and policies that would have been dismissed as electoral suicide just a year ago now have to form part of the programme of anyone with ambitions to hold the leadership.
Apart from Smith’s Atlanticist foreign policy, there is, on the surface, actually very little to distinguish between him and Corbyn at the moment.
But even the meanest intelligence can see that Smith’s words mean nothing. The vast majority of his commitments would barely last a few months if he wins, sacrificed at altar of “electability” and trying (and failing) to secure the votes of Tory voters in marginal constituencies.
And that lack of honesty means the “debate” isn’t really a debate. Corbyn, whatever you think of him, says what he means and means what he says. Who knows what Smith really thinks?
So a contest of views between the right and the left of the party, the one we need and the one we should be having, doesn’t happen. Progress and Labour First are keeping their heads down, deliberately.
So let me pose the choice we have to make in simple terms. On the one hand we have an imperfect but decent, principled and committed socialist, who wants the Labour Party to be a member-controlled, bottom-up organisation promising and delivering real change, socialist change, for the British people. A party that has tripled its membership on his watch and led to wave of political engagement with party politics the likes of which none of us have ever seen in our lifetimes. And a leader who looks at world that Margaret Thatcher built and says ‘no’.
Owen Smith says ‘no’ too, and he may even mean ‘no’. But a victory for him will be a victory for ‘yes’. Dupe, willingly or not, he is the candidate of a Labour right who know they cannot win a leadership election by articulating their actual vision of what the Labour Party should look like: top down, completely controlled by the PLP, with members only role being to stuff envelopes and knock on people’s doors at election time with a vision they have no say in determining. And a party that fundamentally accepts the Thatcherite consensus and will at times perpetuate it.
It’s a clear choice.