by Atul Hatwal
Owen Smith is in trouble. Day to day, he’s conducting his campaign, pitching his message but he has a strategic problem that is getting worse with each passing hour: definition.
Owen Smith’s PLP backers have made much of Smith being a “clean skin,” lacking the baggage of past votes on issues such as Iraq or the compromises of office.
There is something to this but his lack of prior profile also brings risk. He’s a blank page on which a story will be written, either by himself or the Corbynistas.
The hard left attack on him is very clear: Owen Smith is an ex-lobbyist for Big Pharma and a former Special Adviser, who will return Labour to the days of Brown and Miliband.
The discussion on CLP Facebook groups from across the country is testament to how this attack has already permeated through the party.
Here’s one exchange from a northwest CLP,
“Smith worked for private health companies and was a Blairite adviser. We need to be different to the Tories.”
“I heard he did work for those companies. Not sure about him but I don’t think he’s like Blair. Doesn’t Ed Miliband rate him?”
I’ve seen double digits of groups where this same pattern is being repeated. An accusation is made by a Corbyn backer with little substantive rebuttal. Owen Smith is being framed by his opponent and the few who would speak up for him have little to offer in terms of an alternative, positive definition.
For his part, Owen Smith has emphasised that he is from a new generation and has a conventional family background.
This simply won’t cut it.
At his campaign launch last week, Jeremy Corbyn fell over himself trying to link Owen Smith with private healthcare research, ludicrously calling for medical research by pharmaceutical businesses to be penalised and for Smith to agree with him.
Corbyn’s team pressed the point on Saturday by doubling down on this madness with John McDonnell talking up the removal of tax breaks from companies like Pfizer for research, despite the damage that would be done to British science and impact on patients.
Corbyn’s doing this for a reason: it is working. He doesn’t have to worry about what swing voters in marginal seats will think because he doesn’t care. Controlling the Labour party, not winning power is his objective.
Last year, hundreds of thousands of Labour electors chose Jeremy Corbyn because of how he made them feel about themselves.
Voting Corbyn was an expression of their own identity, a way to stick two fingers up at the political status quo.
He was the alternative, the protest.
Owen Smith needs to work out what he symbolizes for Labour members and supporters and communicate it. Quickly.
In this respect, Angela Eagle or another high profile woman might have had an advantage. To vote for Labour’s first female leader would have carried an inherent significance.
Owen Smith has spent most of the past few weeks campaigning among his colleagues in the PLP.
The attraction of a fresh start is evident to his parliamentary colleagues who have had to deal with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership on a daily basis.
For the PLP, the world is a different place to last September. The depth of Jeremy Corbyn’s incompetence has turned days to months and months to years. Many cannot conceive of how Labour can go on with such an utterly incapable leader.
But for Labour members and supporters, months have remained months.
Away from Westminster, in the real world where members of political parties only occasionally tune into the detail of what is happening at the House of Commons, the world remains similar, if not exactly the same, as last year.
Owen Smith needs to pivot to his new audience. To understand their mindset and speak to their priorities. Time is running out.
He has some options.
The referendum defeat was where this challenge to Corbyn started, Europe could offer Owen Smith the wedge issue he needs with Labour’s pro-EU membership.
Equally, he could take Corbyn on over health. The personal testimony of Cancer or HIV survivors who are alive because of advances in medication by pharmaceutical companies could crystallise the difference between Corbyn’s dogma and a more human alternative.
Whatever Owen Smith’s choice on how he fights back, emotional morality rather than policy rationality must be at its core.
One month from today, ballot papers will be sent out and voting will start. Within 1-2 weeks, most will have voted and the race will effectively be over.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut