My challenge to Owen Smith
Danny Phillips says Jeremy Corbyn has achieved a great deal to which his opponents seem to have no answer, and sets out ten key challenges to Owen Smith and his supporters.
I realise this is self indulgent and too long. So let me say 3 things, so I can cut to the chase.
First, I did not vote for Corbyn. I always thought he was not up to it, he would not get the discipline of the PLP, and he would get mauled by the media. There were other reasons, but let’s leave it there.
Second, I voted for Yvette Cooper. I like her politics and economics, she understands child poverty, she is principled, and it’s time for a woman. I was, though, very disappointed in all the candidates last time round, especially Yvette. My point is just to say I do not blame people for voting elsewhere.
Third, I read two articles recently. First was a letter Tony Blair sent to Michael Foot in 1982, recently reprinted in the Telegraph. It was fascinating. He was discussing many issues we are grappling with now. What struck me was the civility, the deep intellectualism, and the humour. It was also a cracking good read. The other was an article by Owen Jones on medium.com. He set out challenges to his Corbynistas. I now want to concentrate on this.
I like Owen Jones. I disagree with him on much but it’s within the frame of agreeing with him on almost everything. Like me he wants a Labour government, and on the left, if possible.
When I read Owen’s piece, I was half-way through writing a very similar article about Corbyn. Pompously, mine was a letter like Tony Blair sent to Michael Foot. But it was not going well. Probably because I am neither Tony Blair nor Michael Foot, obviously. Reading Owen’s Jones’ piece it struck me that I should stop writing to Jeremy, and write to Owen Smith.
I realised my difficulty is that if we vote Smith the PLP might take it as a cue to retreat back to New Labour, the PLP running things, and the party machinery getting back in control. If we go back to ‘politics as usual’ it will be an utter disaster.
I therefore want to set some challenges for Owen Smith, and PLP and ABCs:
- How will you engage membership? It’s lazy to assume that we have been infiltrated by ‘entryists’. Look, the biggest of the small left parties, the Green Party, has 61,000 members. That’s nothing. 60,000 people joined Labour in one week! Six times the entire SNP membership at its post indyref heights has joined us in the last few weeks. Even the ultimate entryists, Militant, had a maximum 8,000 members. Our new members cannot all come from the irrelevant Socialist Workers Party.
The truth is, many ordinary Labour folk voted Corbyn. My guess is, like people across the world, they want something different. They are fed up with Labour leaders pitching themselves against the membership, arrogantly telling us how to behave. We are obliterated in huge areas of the UK, out of government and imploding. Times have changed, young people are educated like never before and people think for themselves. I can’t remember the last time Labour members had a meaningful debate. We get asked to vote, to campaign, to knock doors, to pick up the phone in an election. But never asked about how our country should be run.
- And on this, how will you increase our membership like Corbyn has? Look at our membership. Just look at it. It is extraordinary. Not since Blair’s early years have we seen membership rise like this. There are many reasons why this has happened. But you have to accept that many joined us because they are inspired by Corbyn. What is your strategy for building a membership like that? Apart from saying ‘join us’ in a passionate voice. Ed Miliband had the whole £3 idea. It caused problems, mostly for the PLP. But at least it was an idea. What’s yours?
- How will you inspire young people? Owen Jones challenged Corbyn on winning back older people. My challenge to you is that young people love Corbyn. Many have joined because of him. How are you going to keep them in the party, and get more of them and keep them enthused? Having and displaying principles clearly has high value in post-crash politics.
- What is your radical offer? People are insecure, they are fed up with ‘them’ and elites, it makes them angry. But it’s not an irrational anger. They want control. It is about identity and security. People want to associate with a cause. Corbyn offers them that. Look at what is happening around the world: Sanders, Trump, Sturgeon. I repeat: this is post crash politics. If you just copy the Tories we are doomed.
I vote Labour. I always have and will. I voted Blair at 3 general elections. I would vote for him again, tomorrow. But even he says New Labour is over. So I am asking you, what now? We can’t just talk about equal opportunities, we need equal outcomes. How are we going to do that? Are you really going to stand tall on this one? Corbyn has and people love him for it.
- How will you win back Scotland? Let me put it this way: the Tories and Liberals were roughly 20+ seats for many Scottish parliaments. How are you going to make sure we go the way of the Tories who now have 30+ seats; and not the Liberals, who have five?
- On industrial policy, I get you will do an industrial strategy with a manufacturing base, less reliance on finance sector, and repeal the Trade Union Act, and promise more skilled jobs. But industrial democracy is so much more. We need to cement industrial democracy in a social democracy. How do we do that?
- How open are you to new ideas? Corbyn seems to agree with every policy ever raised at a fringe meeting of the Green Party vegan poetry festival. I don’t agree with a Citizen’s Income or women only trains and don’t start me on homeopathy. But his openness to ideas is what people like, it gives him an excitement; it’s back to members being in control. An alternative is possible, social justice and equality are possible. My question to you is: are they possible?
- What’s your foreign policy? It’s too easy to trash Corbyn on this one. He clearly never thought he was going to be one election away from being a PM. But marching against Iraq is not enough. For 2 reasons. First, we all did. (And I actually did.) But second, we need to intervene across the world to make it more democratic, less dictatorial and cruel. Yes we need to stand up for the interests of UK, but ethically. How in the present real politic are you going to do that?
- What is your media strategy? I get that you will be a good media performer, and that press releases will go out in good time. But we can’t go on with a UK media like the one we have. Its poison. Corbyn has been treated appallingly. My beef with him is that he should have been ready -we all knew it would happen. But it cannot go on. At least Corbyn was not compromising. What will you do about them?
- How will you build a social movement ? Stacking a large hall is not going to win you an election. But come on, it is impressive. Blair, Miliband, Thatcher, Brown can (or could) stack halls. Sturgeon can fill the O2. It show’s you can inspire people to follow you, believe in you, listen to you. It’s almost biblical. Where Corbyn has failed is getting people to be active in the party. Ironically, they have no momentum, they just admire and go home. But that means you have to build them into an organised political force. How are you going to do that?
For all his failures, you cannot ignore Corbyn’s achievements. Some are deeply impressive and, Owen Smith, you needs to answer them. In short, you must understand why so many back Corbyn, even though they know he is not up to it. It was the leadership contender’s failure to face these challenges last time that got us to this crisis.