The attempted coup against Jeremy Corbyn was designed to set into motion a process which would see a candidate who represents a clear alternative take over as the party’s leader.
If you take a look at the Saving Labour pamphlets being handed out up and down the country, they say “Labour needs a fresh start and new leadership” — language which implies a new direction for the party.
Yet, it has been nearly two weeks since Owen Smith was confirmed as the “unity candidate” to challenge Corbyn for the leadership, and it is still not clear what the MP for Pontypridd is offering that is really that different.
Smith — who has criticised Corbyn for offering “slogans but not solutions” — announced 20 policies he would put to parliament if elected prime minister earlier this week. They wouldn’t have looked at all out of place on a manifesto written by Corbyn himself.
Speaking in Yorkshire on Wednesday, Smith pledged, for example, to reintroduce the 50p top rate of income tax, bring in a wealth tax for the richest 1%, and end the public sector pay freeze. They are the kind of promises which would have Corbyn’s supporters applauding.
(You can see Smith’s policy list in full here).
The New Statesman’s George Eaton tweeted shortly after Smith’s press conference saying the policy list was proof that Corbyn had “shifted Labour’s internal party debate dramatically leftwards” — and this is probably true. After all, if Smith wants a realistic shot of receiving more votes than Corbyn on September 24, one would assume he needs to win over at least some members of the party’s left.
However, if the basis of the Save Labour movement is just a watered-down version of Corbyn-ism, then what is the point? Labour rebels keep reminding Corbyn supporters that their hero’s politics doesn’t resonate with the general public — and with recent polling data in mind it is pretty hard to argue with this. But, if they really do believe this, then it is really odd that they have chosen to back a candidate who appears to be much closer to the party’s dreaded left than the centre.
It is not just in policy where Smith has failed to offer a clear alternative, though.
During an interview on BBC Radio 2 earlier this week, Smith didn’t exactly sound like a man who is convinced that Labour under Corbyn is headed down the wrong path. Take a look at what he said:
“I’ve got mates who joined the particular group [Momentum], I’ve got mates who joined in order to vote for Jeremy, I’ve got members of my own party in Pontypridd who have joined because they think the party is heading in the right direction, and I agree with them.”
If Corbyn is leading Labour in the right direction then challenging his leadership feels like an awfully strange move on Smith’s behalf. Granted, the former shadow work and pensions secretary has relatively little media experience and it possible he just didn’t articulate his point particularly well in that instance. But, the point still stands: Smith neither sounds nor looks like a clear alternative to Corbyn.
Smith is awkwardly trying to perform a very difficult juggling act. On one hand, he is attempting to present himself as someone who can make Labour a viable electoral force again, while at the same time trying to persuade Corbyn supporters that there isn’t a huge gulf between their politics and his.
Smith needs to contrast with Corbyn — not compliment him. By flirting with Corbynistas, he risks losing credibility as the alternative candidate. Especially considering centrist MP Angela Eagle dropped out of the race to pave the way for him despite being more popular with the membership. But, even more importantly, in a choice between Corbyn and a Corbyn tribute act, the Labour left is going to go with the former.
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