The Labour party is having an election. You might have missed it.
The current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is being challenged by Owen Smith for leadership of one of the UK’s most historic parties.
Either Jeremy or Owen are on track to capture the leadership of the Labour in the UK, and the question is - who cares?
Well, many people do and it’s important. Why? Because the Labour Party at this time are not an effective opposition, and that is bad for our democracy.
Britain, like any democracy, needs an effective opposition. Not only in order to hold the Government to account in Parliament, but also to keep the intellectual life of politics going by producing new ideas. A good opposition can result in a better government – to the benefit of everyone.
Jeremy and Owen enter this leadership from the left side of politics with polar-opposite coalitions of groups who support them: Owen with the PLP parliamentary Labour Party supporting him, and Jeremy with a significant proportion of the membership of the party. Their ability to carry separate corners of their party is so different and conflicting, and their groups who are all Labour Party members are at loggerheads with each other.
A recent Labour Leadership poll on Twitter saw some 3,859 voters have their say on who they would vote for. In interestingly revealed a strong favouritism for Jeremy Corbyn who received 54% of the votes compared with 38% for Owen Smith, and 8% voting for neither. Whether this is indicative of the voters overall remains to be seen, however.
The Jezza phenomenon - “Jez we can” programme - is the opposite of Owen Smith’s in practically every way, both from a demographic and stylistic point of view.
Jeremy is strongest amongst the ordinary members of his party. His fellow parliamentarians are derided as traitors for challenging their current leader, even though their current leader spent the last 30 years challenging his own party and its own leader on multiple occasions.
To his supporters, he represents the modern face of an anti-establishment uprising. With his focus on those forgotten by globalisation, he is drawing on the resentment of so many, and his campaign purports to offer hope, not anti-immigrant hatred, as a response.
His most dependable demographic is young people who feel disadvantaged. Neither incremental nor optimistic about the current status quo, his style is more like charismatic doomsdayism—“Knock down the establishment”, “share the wealth”—which invites supporters to see Corbyn not as an important actor in a larger play, but rather like a one-man show.
His challenger Owen Smith, is the champion of the moderates in Britain’s Labour Party. He started his campaign by being asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain whether he had ever tried Viagra. “No I haven’t, actually,” he responded, with a fixed grin.
Smith was asked about Viagra because of his past job working as a lobbyist for Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company that produces it. The fact that a fairly nondescript public affairs job is a central issue, exposes the dividing line at the heart of this election: support an aging socialist who represents the modern face of an anti-establishment uprising, or support another socialist who has had the temerity to work for a commercial global organisation that is seen to be capitalist with a large C.
It also challenges Labour members and supporters whether they want to return to being an elections-focused opposition party run by more conventionally minded politicians like Smith, or the party-cum-protest group envisioned by Corbyn and his supporters.
So who is Owen Smith? His supporters hope he is the great unifier. A political miracle worker who can unite Labour's warring factions to win a general election. He says he wants to "save the party" and prevent it from what he fears would be a catastrophic split. And we know how he would like to be seen by voters and members of the Labour Party – a softer and safer version of Jeremy Corbyn, with similar "radical" left-wing values but with a dynamic air and a fresh, modern face.
His past as a PR person is very evident, and best shown by his campaign launch – informal with no tie, perfectly groomed, flanked by his family and a youthful band of supporters. It was a scene which could have come straight from the Cameron/Blair playbook on presentation. Smith has built a coalition of MPs by a wide margin. His message is one of optimistic incrementalism, who believes that change comes from within the system.
Style will be the most visible difference between Corbyn and Smith. Speaking on policy, Corbyn and Smith, who come from the left of the Labour Party, are not significantly different. But one should expect this election to feel like a referendum on anything but policy—race, culture, military intervention, business and feelings. Corbyn and Smith might be part of a Labour Party, but they represent competing binaries. Voters will have a clear choice.
So here’s the challenge to Labour’s leadership candidates: Prove that you are an effective leader. Show how you can build a competent leadership that is also a radical challenge to the status quo.
Jeremy Corbyn stands as the socialist anti-establishment candidate. Owen Smith stands as the socialist establishment candidate.
Corbyn is the voice that howls in protest and wants to create a movement for change. Smith is the voice that wants to be elected to government to effect change.
There is no point electing anyone who can only represent the 500,000 members of the Labour party. Those voting for the next leader of the Labour must ask which of them can’t, as future leader, communicate in a way that resonates beyond those joining the Labour Party? Which of them can, as leaders, build a broad coalition of middle-income and low-income people, of self-employed and public-sector workers, of young and old in an ageing society? Which of them can rebuild support from people who so far have made up their mind, and not in a good way? Which of them can unify a party that is bitter about the past, unsure of the present, with no vision for the future, which is competing with a ruthless party of government that is always prepared to do whatever is necessary to stay in power? This is not just a fact-based election, but one where whoever wins must capture the minds and hearts of this magnificent party. Why?
Unless these questions are answered, and the right leader elected, Labour is reduced to an ineffective pressure group. Socialism without power is slogans: a mild irritation at worst, a source of bemusement at best to a ruthless party of government that is always prepared to do whatever is necessary to stay in power.
Principle and power are not mutually exclusive. Corbyn or Smith have to demonstrate the vision, the strategy, the policy the leadership and the emotional engagement to say they are the better bet.
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