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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Is the gaffe-prone Owen Smith leaving Labour members with a hobson's choice for leader?

Considering Labour MPs chose Owen Smith as the best chance they have of unseating Jeremy Corbyn the Pontypridd MP's perfomance so far has been less than inspiring.

Smith's anointment as the favoured 'pretender to the crown' makes one wonder whether the Parliamentary Labour Party were either punishing him for some hidden misdemeanor or just having a laugh at the electorate's expense.

More likely is the possibility that many in the Parliamentary Labour Party had made the judgement that whoever they chose as challenger would not be able to beat Corbyn. Their reasoning may have been that it was better to pitch an untried newcomer with a high, but misplaced regard for his own competence against the Labour leader, rather than spoil the chances of a genuine leadership contender such as Angela Eagle in the future.

Whatever the motive, those MPs who had placed their trust in Smith to put up a good show must be disappointed at his performance so far.

Instead of pitching his challenge as that of a moderate centre left politician with a real chance of winning over Middle England, Smith has chosen instead to paint himself as a slightly more competent mirror image of Corbyn. In doing so he has denied Labour members a real choiice.

Even then he has been weighed down by his own past baggage, his previous pronouncements for the use of the private sector in the health service for example. This has seen him having to square some very difficult circles so as not to undermine his current positions, when it might have been better to have embraced them as a sign that he is the sort of pragmatic and realistic politician who could actually run the country.

These reinventions of his past have in turn led many Labour members and ordinary voters to conclude that Smith is just another politician in the Blairite mould, a stark contrast to the refreshing candour and consistency of Jeremy Corbyn. They have also prevented him from effectively capitalising on Jeremy Corbyn's own gaffes such as the recent traingate (do trains have gates?).

And then there are Owen Smith's gaffes. The Independent reports that at a campaign rally Smith seemingly branded Jeremy Corbyn “some lunatic”:

“What you won’t get from me is some, you know, lunatic at the top of the Labour Party, you’ll have someone who tries to form a coherent narrative about what’s wrong with Britain,” were his exact words – and, as you might imagine, it didn’t go down famously (he has since acknowledged that he “should be less colourful with [his] language.”)

As the Labour Campaign for Mental Health has noted, “lunatic” is an unhelpful, derogatory term that infers some level of mental illness. Such a stigmatising and unnecessary taunt could have been avoided if “unity” candidate Owen Smith had bit his tongue.

If you think that is a bit too politically correct then it is worth noting, as the Independent has done, that it was only a few days ago that Owen Smith criticised Jeremy Corbyn for “abolishing” the Shadow Minister for Mental Health role, despite the fact that it was the refusal from many in the Parliamentary Labour Party to serve under the elected leader that resulted in the vacancy. In the same breath he spoke of how mental health would be a priority under his leadership, and that he would be a “champion for disabled people”.

This is not the first clanger Smith has dropped or his first apology. He accused Jeremy Corbyn of being partially responsible for misogyny in the Labour Party and attacked him for not cracking down on it, but then talked about the need to “smash Theresa May back on her heels”. These remarks echoed his sentiments when he told Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood that she was invited onto Question Time because of her “gender”.

He also undermined the main criticism of Corbyn’s foreign policy and the Labour leader's attitude towards national security when he put forward the absurd proposal that we should be getting “round the table” with Isis.

If Owen Smith is the answer to Labour's problems then they need to rephrase the question.
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