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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

So who is Owen Smith?

With the departure of Angela Eagle from the Labour leadership contest, members are now faced with a choice between two straight white men. We are of course in Liberal Democrat territory there but it could have been very different.

Labour members outside Wales will now be asking themselves who exactly Owen Smith is? In fact some members in Wales may need educating on that point if the conversation I had with a Labour Councillor on Monday is typical.

Owen Smith is crachach, a lifetime member of the Welsh establishment. The crachach are usually said to be Welsh-speaking and are said to be found in influential positions in the arts, politics, academia and the media.

His father is Professor Dai Smith, a former Chair of Arts Council Wales. Professor Smith was born in the Rhondda and grew up in Barry, where he was taught at the local grammar school by the acclaimed writer Gwyn Thomas.

Owen Smith is a former BBC producer, who worked on the 'Today' programme, 'Good Morning Wales' and 'Dragon's Eye', he left journalism in 2002 to go to the Wales Office as special adviser to the Welsh Secretary, Paul Murphy. He then moved with Murphy to the Northern Ireland Office. He went on to become a lobbyist for the drugs company, Pfizer.

In 2006, he was the Labour candidate in Blaenau Gwent for the Westminster by-election. It had once been one of Labour's safest seats but the majority had evaporated when the local AM, Peter Law, broke with the party and won the parliamentary seat the year before. He lost to Law's former agent, Dai Davies, on the same day as Law's widow took the Assembly seat. polling just 37% of the vote.

During the by-election campaign, Smith spoke with Wales Online and expressed his support for the private sector playing a supportive role in the NHS, private finance initiative schemes, and removing foreign dictators, though he also told The Daily Telegraph the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. He has since spoken out against the 2003 invasion of Iraq and distanced himself from his NHS comments,stating that PFI was a failure.

After the by-election he was attacked by the Labour MP for Newport West, Paul Flynn, who described him as a "drug pusher":

Mr Flynn said, "The lobbyists are a curse, a cancer in the system. It's insidious. One of my main interests in politics is areas in which lobbyists used their wicked wiles to get access to government. One example is the pharmaceutical industry, who are the most greedy and deceitful organisations we have to deal with."

Interviewer Patrick McGuinness then said, "Some of their lobbyists end up as candidates in Welsh Labour. Blaenau Gwent for instance."

Mr Flynn responded, "Indeed - I wasn't too pleased by the fact that we had a drug pusher as a candidate."

Paul Flynn is the current shadow Secretary of State for Wales and shadow Leader of the House of Commons.

Owen Smith was chosen for his home town of Pontypridd when Kim Howells stood down just months before the 2010 General Election. He had impressed the Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, during the Blaenau Gwent campaign and within months he was Hain's deputy in opposition.

Hain was responsible for the Labour party's internal review, and this provide Smith with the opportunity to make his mark at Westminster. He was promoted in 2011 to the shadow Treasury team. He was the obvious choice to succeed Peter Hain as Shadow Secretary of State for Wales when the MP for Neath left the front bench.

There is no doubt Owen Smith is a clever, talented and ambitious MP. Whether he will be able to command the sort of popular support needed to unseat Jeremy Corbyn is yet to be seen.
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