Owen Smith appears to many to have risen from relative obscurity within the party to challenge one of the most controversial party leaders of recent memory at a time of extreme contention in British politics. This begs the question, who the hell is Owen Smith?
Smith grew up in Barry, Wales against a backdrop of political turmoil and economic hardship on account of Thatcher’s Conservatives running roughshod over the very industries that were the foundations of many Welsh communities, Smith cites this as having a profound effect on his politics. Though, his career choices tell a different story.
Smith has worked for corporate giant Pfizer and was a special adviser to the Secretary of State for Wales during the New Labour Years. In fact, he has partaken in a number of seminal New Labour projects such as the introduction of the National Minimum Wage and the Northern Irish peace process. Many would conclude therefore from his background in New Labour that he represents the ‘establishment’ that the party membership stuck a proverbial middle finger to in last year’s Labour leadership election in the form of Corbyn. However, Smith’s purported policies tell a story of the traditional Labour politician – pro-trade union, anti-privatisation, and pro borrowing to spend.
Smith makes clear that he wishes to return to core Labour values and doing this by putting ‘meat on the bones’ in his words on the promises made by Corbyn. He makes clear he wished to undo the years of incremental privatisation of the National Health Service labelling it a “mistake” and recognising the damaging effects of PFI, he wants to rebuild the trade unions and talks of a ‘British New Deal’ in which we borrow millions of pounds to pump back into infrastructure and speaks of the current ‘immoral’ level of corporation tax which he plans to bump up to 20% under his premiership. Critics of his ties to New Labour will be quelled by the nature of policies as well as his explicit recognition that mistakes were made under New Labour and he has learned from them, labelling their economic policy a failure and separating himself from his New Labour colleagues as unable to admit the mistakes.
One could say that he appears to be in some ways a über Corbyn. He dresses better, speaks better, better liked within the party and whilst appearing to stick the traditional Labour values and principles but it can’t be all sunshine and roses, can it?
Jeremy Corbyn has been hailed by many on the left as a sort of Socialist Messiah, a backbencher for 33 years, consistently resisting the party whip, not a part of the ‘establishment’. Corbyn’s politics has a candour that appears to be unpolluted by internal political backscratching and career aspirations. Many praise Corbynmania for mobilising and enthusing the party membership in ways we have not seen in years with people attending his rallies in the hundreds attending his rallies. It is because of this that the coup against him leaves such a bitter taste in the mouth of many – Corbyn has a mandate that we have not seen in a long time, he has mobilised the youth and the politically disenchanted, the coup was politicking of a sort that many have come to abhor and that was the catalyst for Corbynmania in the first place. Corbyn should not be underestimated and is a formidable incumbent for Smith.
So who is Owen Smith? Über Corbyn or a political opportunist? It remains to be seen.