by W Stephen Gilbert
How about a game of let’s pretend. Say that Owen Smith gets to make the Leader’s Speech at the Conference on the 28th. I know, but just say. What nobody but me says aloud (but everyone thinks) will start to be said out loud: “Owen Smith is unelectable”.
If Smith thinks he can lead Labour to victory in the 2020 general election, he is, to use the word he threw at Jeremy Corbyn, “delusional”. Smith doesn’t have the repertoire to enthuse the electorate. He’s erratic, earnest, voluble without saying anything arresting, malleable and lightweight. Theresa May would eat him for breakfast.
And here’s something else that nobody mentions but everybody knows: he’s Welsh. The fact is that, to make a sweeping generalisation, the English hate The Welsh. In just the same way, equally crudely but with a germ of truth, the Scots hate the English. (The Welsh appear not to hate anybody, though they’re understandably suspicious of the English). But I suspect that it would be very hard for a Welsh leader of any party to become Prime Minister. Oh, I know about Lloyd George, but that was before the 24-hour news cycle. Most people wouldn’t have known him if he passed them in the street. (Nobody would know Owen Smith if he passed them in the street, come to that).
Smith has no particular policy programme so he’s tried to position himself on the left, imagining that he can attract the hundreds of thousands of Corbyn supporters who, in his imaginary world, don’t think Corbyn is up to the job. The crucial difference, though, is that when Corbyn proposes policies like that people believe him. When Smith proposes them, people just think he’s a chancer.
In any case, if he were elected leader, Smith wouldn’t be able to firm up those policies because most of the parliamentary party don’t support them. If the malcontents all came streaming back to the front bench, boosted by the makeup of the shadow cabinet being elected by the PLP, Smith would have his hands tied just as much as those who proposed the return of an elected shadow cabinet intended to tie Corbyn’s hands. So either he would have to retreat, which would scupper whatever credibility he had left, or – the more likely eventuality – he would be dumped in favour of Dan Jarvis next Spring.
Meanwhile, the 300,000 who have joined Labour since Corbyn was first elected leader would leave. They would know that Socialism has no future in the present Labour party. They also wouldn’t vote for Labour under Smith or Jarvis. Despite their subscription fees, their door-knocking skills, their crowd-swelling numbers, their extraordinary enthusiasm and their votes that gave Labour healthy results in local elections and national and local by-elections over the last 18 months, they would have discovered that they were not wanted by the Labour party. So the next Labour leader would have a much smaller demographic to try to call on in order to get into Downing Street: basically, disillusioned centrists. Good luck with that.
When Corbyn is confirmed as leader, the malcontents will find that they have painted themselves into an impossible position. They will have failed dismally in an initiative designed to force Corbyn from office. They will have demonstrated in the most unmistakable manner that they are profoundly out of touch with the membership of the party. They will have to accept or reject the calls for unity that Corbyn will be entirely justified in making and neither option offers them any comfort. If they prevail in their attempt to reinstate shadow cabinet elections, they will face the embarrassment that many of them have already committed to refusing to serve under Corbyn, thus rendering those elections meaningless.
What’s more, Corbyn will have a mandate to impose discipline. Many of his supporters will be up in arms if he does not begin a programme of deselection. He will have every reason to implement it. What’s more, I believe that he should make it a deselecting offence for any MP to argue that Labour cannot win the next election. It’s hard to imagine a claim that is more subversive of the party’s chances. Corbyn’s enemies like to point to the opinion poll findings as if somehow those only reflect the standing of Corbyn himself, as if their own daily decrying of Labour’s chance has absolutely no effect on the electorate’s view of the party as a winning team. Corbyn, they must accept, is very electable.
Which is where we came in.