What Owen Smith got wrong

by Ben D-T


Thumbnail from Owen Smith Full Campaign Launch Speech by Owen Smith Labour Leadership Campaign / CC BY 3.0

Jeremy Corbyn has been re-elected leader of the Labour Party. In the process he beat Owen Smith, MP for Pontypridd. Many have said this was inevitable, regardless of what Smith did he would always come out the loser. I disagree. I still think, just about, possible for Smith to win.

I wrote back in July that the one thing Smith shouldn’t do is make the leadership election a personality contest. Instead he should have shown his ability to unite the party in Parliament by forming his own alternative shadow cabinet out of the 172 Labour MPs who voted no confidence in their leader. This would have exploited Corbyn’s greatest weakness, his lack of support in Parliament. Instead, Smith went after Corbyn’s greatest strength: his personal popularity among members.

Over the nine months of his leadership up to that point Jeremy Corbyn had developed a cult-like following within many of Labour’s new members. I’ve called this the ‘Cult of Jez’, because that’s essentially what it is: a cult. Smith’s pitch to these members was more or less ‘I’ll share the same views as your current cult leader but I’ll be more competent at it.’

He reiterated over and over again how similar Corbyn and he were on policy and made the only dividing line their personalities and leadership qualities. Owen Smith clearly overestimated how likable a personality he had when he made the decision to follow this path. He thought he could develop a similarly devoted following simply by positioning himself close to Corbyn on key political issues.

This was already a dreadful strategy, but it was made worse by the way Smith executed it. His personality didn’t come close to being like the seemingly warm, kind and well meaning Corbyn. Instead he, on more than one occasion, made totally unprovoked sexist comments. With comments about smashing Theresa May back on her heelssuggesting Nicola Sturgeon needs a gobstopper, and being painted as soft on defence by Jeremy Corbyn of all people by suggesting the West would one day ave to negotiate with ISIS, he killed off the faintest possibility of winning the personality contest he’d started.

In a hypothetical world where Smith didn’t suffer from the self inflicted wounds, he was already facing almost insurmountable odds. He wasn’t a veteran left winger who’d spent decades standing up for his principles and fighting the good fight. He was a rather dull looking man who used to be a lobbyist for Pfizer. If you’re going to make it a battle of personalities, have a likable personality.

I still believe Owen Smith could have won this leadership election, instead he squandered his chance with a strategy destined to fail. He made it about personalities when he should have made it about unity. I said in July it couldn’t be ‘Owen Smith vs. Jeremy Corbyn’. It had to be ‘Owen Smith’s full alternative shadow cabinet from across the PLP’ vs. ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s partial shadow cabinet with some people doing two jobs’.

Owen Smith was always the underdog, but he gifted this leadership election to Jeremy Corbyn. He barely even put up a fight. As a result, Labour will gift the Conservatives a victory at the next election and years, possibly decades, in power.