Owen: Lay off Jeremy. Challenge Theresa May

Owen: Lay off Jeremy. Challenge Theresa May


Donald Brind with his advice for the LAB challenger

He may have used some dodgy language – “smashing” a woman back on her heels is beyond ugly at a time when misogyny is rife in politics – but I was cheered by Owen Smith’s desire to take on Theresa May. Ousting the Tory Prime Minister is – or at least ought to be – the key test for a Labour leader.

So far Smith has been defining himself against Jeremy Corbyn with a raft of policies designed to show he is at least as Left as his rival. But policies are pointless unless there is the prospect of legislating to implement them.

What Smith needs to do, above all, is the counter the defeatism that is Corbyn’s secret weapon.

For those of us who want a new leader the latest ICM and YouGov polls are proof positive that Corbyn’s past his sell-by date. They show Labour lagging the Tories by an eye-watering 16% and 12%. The smaller YouGov gap still means, says the Times that “more than two and a half million 2015 Labour voters now think that May would make a better prime minister than Corbyn.

To his fan club the message of the polls is stick with Jeremy. Defeat is inevitable so there’s no point in making a change.

That defeatism is mixed with piles of paranoia, as Martin Robbins describes in minute detail for New Statesman readers. He says Corbyn’s team inhabit a bunker which accommodates tens of thousands of their followers. “Within that bubble, every failure becomes a victory. Negative media coverage simply reinforces their sense of being under attack, and every bad poll or election disappointment becomes an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of their faith. Shadow cabinet resignations and condemnations reveal new ‘traitors’, justifying further paranoia and increasing the feeling of being under siege.”

It falls to Owen Smith to defeat the defeatists and isolate the paranoid. And, in my view the best way to do that is to ignore Corbyn and make his campaign a challenge to the Tory Prime Minister.

Smith needs to show that May as beatable.

There are many persuasive parallels between John Major and Gordon Brown set out in Atul Hamwal’s piece in Labour Uncut. . May is the product of a coronation not an election — just like Brown. That ended well for Gordon, didn’t it? Major had a massive personal mandate in 1992, says Hamwal, but “rebellions on anything and everything, battering a decent if inadequate leader. Theresa May is about to walk in John Major’s shoes. If anything, her task is even more difficult.”

Smith needs a policy makeover with May in mind. Take a couple of examples. Smith is on the same page as Corbyn in wanting a stronger trade union movement. I agree 100% with Corbyn’s proposals set out in his Observer.  But the Corbynite fixation with Tony Blair shone through in the headline “Corbyn pledges to scrap Blair union laws”. We can be pretty sure that came from briefings by the Leader’s spokesman.

Smith should make it a challenge to May: For instance: “Theresa May should make the trade unions her allies is she is sincere about getting tough on ‘irresponsible business’ and tackling what she calls the ‘irrational, unhealthy and growing gap between what these companies pay their workers and what they pay their bosses’”

Smith should also ask himself how he would defend his keynote policy — the £200 billion development fund ‘to rebuild physical and social infrastructure’ — at Prime Ministers Questions when May made the inevitable jibe that this was the latest example of Labour addiction to “borrowing forever”.

Smith’s policy makes perfect economic sense but he needs to be able to defend it not to Labour members but to a sceptical public.

And those sceptical voters should be at the centre Smith campaign. After all, his selling point is that he is electable and Jeremy Corbyn isn’t. He should, therefore, avoid Corbyn’s preference for “preaching to the choir”. The futility of the Corbyn approach is well captured by Jennifer Williams’ Manchester Evening News report  on his Salford rally. http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/jeremy-corbyn-launches-labour-leadership-11656041. There were 1,700 at the rally. Impressive – until you check that there are more than half a million voters in Salford and Greater Manchester and seven million across the North West.

One way Smith can put himself in front of ordinary voters is by making himself available to any media who want to organise interviews in front of live audiences, along the lines of the party conference interviews Steve Richards has long done for the Independent.

And in the face of Jeremy Corbyn’s reluctance to take part in TV hustings he should challenge the broadcasters to empty chair the incumbent, as they threatened to do to David Cameron at the General Election.

For sure, Smith is the underdog but his cause is not hopeless

Donald Brind

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