Monday, 19 September 2016

Who Is Owen Smith?

Who is Owen Smith? After several weeks of the Labour leadership campaign, that is still a question, to which many people are still seeking the answer. In last week's scandalous Sky TV Leadership Debate Programme, they spent 40 minutes, in the hour before the debate, carrying out a hatchet job on Corbyn, with all of the usual unsubstantiated allegations against him and Momentum being repeated, as though they were gospel, but when it came to their coverage of Smith, it amounted to no more than five minutes, during which even they could find nothing of significance to say about him.

Smith is effectively an empty vessel. He fills it with whatever content he thinks will suit the conditions. His most common phrase during the campaign has been, “I agree with Jeremy”, because he knows that Corbyn's huge win last year, is a reflection of a change of sentiment within the party, which reflects a change of sentiment in a country (and indeed a continent) that is fed up of austerity, and fed up of the old machine politics, and careerist politicians that have ruled the roost for the last three decades. But, in essence, Smith is just the latest in the line of such politicians. He tries to make up for a lack of credible back story with his claims to agree with Corbyn, by the repeated throwing in of the sound bites and buzz words such as “Bevanism”.

However, a more appropriate question might be “What is Owen Smith?”, rather than “Who is Owen Smith?” The reason that Smith has had to position himself where he has, that he has to issue all of the statements about Corbyn having done a valuable job of moving the party on to the higher ground of anti-austerity etc., that he has to claim to agree with Corbyn on issue after issue, that he has to claim the mantle of Bevan, is that he knows that being positioned anywhere else would be pointless. Its only necessary to see how badly the other candidates did, in last year's leadership election, to recognise that.

Its why Smith had to assassinate the hopeless leadership bid of Angela Eagle, that never got out of the starting blocks. Eagle was too closely connected with the establishment, to tainted by the Blair government, and before that her use as a tool by the right-wing Kinnock regime, to have had any traction. The opponents of Corbyn hoped that their coup attempt, their repeated personal bullying and intimidation of him – even they admitted to the media that they were waiting to “kidnap” him, so as to pressure him into resigning – would cause him to resign. Were he an unprincipled career politician like them, that might have worked. But he isn't, and it didn't. So, they were forced into a leadership bid that even they knew they could not win.

After the arm's length attempts to keep Corbyn off the ballot failed, the strategy of Corbyn's opponents became to try to limit the size of his majority. Hence they used their control of the party machinery to close down the party itself; to overturn democratic decisions of the members, where they turfed out the old right-wing; to disenfranchise 130,000 party members who had joined after January; to try to ensure that Corbyn supporters were disenfranchised as registered supporters by raising the fee to £25, and restricting the time for signing up to just two days.

And, in order to minimise Corbyn's majority, they needed a candidate that could more plausibly claim to have the same kind of policies as Corbyn, and not to be tainted by the ancien regime. Step forward Owen Smith to perform that function. In terms of what Smith is, rather than who he is, he is merely a cipher. He is there as a placeholder for the right-wing. In the unlikely event that Smith might have defeated Corbyn, he would have been replaced, probably even before the next election, probably as the Prince Across the Water, David Miliband returned, as the saviour. But, Smith's real function is just to prepare the ground for further attacks on Corbyn and the party membership.

As Paul Mason has described we are already seeing the outline of that. The Sky News hatchet job on Corbyn last week followed a well worn path. Ironically, any such attacks by the Murdoch media on Corbyn are likely to win him an additional 10,000 votes in the election. The same is true about the hatchet job in the Sunday papers, and tonight we have two more hatchet jobs one from Panorama and one from Dispatches that despite using undercover cameras, and having put a lot of resources into trying to did up something substantial to say to undermine Corbyn and Momentum have apparently signally failed in that endeavour.

What we can expect is more of the same. It will give large amounts of time to snatches of conversations in meetings, which will be woven into a narrative dictated by Corbyn's opponents, whose accusations against Momentum, and claims about “Trotskyist” infiltration will be given full credence. Yet, anyone on the ground, and who has examined the background knows that the claims of Trotskyist infiltration are ignorant nonsense, and that the real intimidation has been of the Corbyn supporters by the right-wing party establishment.

If we look at just this weekend we have had media attack after media attack on Corbyn, and his supporters, for even raising the possibility that some MP's might not be reselected by their CLP's. Such a basic element of democracy, we are told, is nothing more than abuse and intimidation. Yet, those same media outlets reported, without any sign of irony, the statement by Alan Johnson MP, that the PLP should work night and day, from now on, to undermine and remove Corbyn as leader. They also reported the comments of Lord Kinnock, who lost two general elections on the trot as leader, even against the most hated Tory governments in generations, that, if Corbyn remained leader, there would be no Labour government again in his lifetime. There again, given his age, that could still mean a Labour government in 2020!

Corbyn's opponents are trying to minimise the extent of his win, in order to continue their struggle. Along with the Tory media, as I said recently, they are engaged in a current version of The Zinoviev Letter, an application of the old Jewish-Communist communist conspiracy theory by which a handful of Trotskyists are able to hold sway over hundreds of thousands of intelligent party members. As Paul Mason says, this current red scare tactic, although totally ludicrous, can be given credibility because of the venality of the Tory media, in which we have to include, the BBC, which, in fact, is often the most scurrilous. It may be used to undermine Labour's standing in the polls, so as to further the narrative of Labour's electability, as the right are prepared to sacrifice short term electoral performance for their own personal and sectarian ends, or it may be used in any future split by the PLP, to try to seize ownership of the party name, machinery and funds.

But, it will fail. Firstly, such attacks are easily seen through by the actual party membership. They know who is to blame for the party's current standing in the polls, and it is not Corbyn. But, secondly, even if the right were able to split and seize control of assets etc., it would be a pyrrhic victory. Shed of the encumbrance of the right and soft left of the party, the half million members, along with the trades unions, and probably additional union affiliates, would quickly turn the party into a million plus membership organisation that would be better funded than it has every been. It would then be able to begin to turn that into a campaign to win votes on a solid socialist platform, capable of providing credible immediate solutions not just for the poor and disenfranchised, and certainly not by providing solutions for those sections that impose on better off workers, and the middle class, but which provide solutions for all sections of society, outside of the top 0.0001%, that leach off the rest of society, and have been responsible for causing the ills of the rest of society.

The old Labourist right-wing could only offer solutions for workers and the middle class based upon an impossible notion of redistribution of income, which not only could never work, but which is bureaucratic and leads to divisions between those in society who come to have to rely on benefits, and those workers who pay the taxes to fund them. But, the real solution comes from giving the majority of society control over its own conditions of labour, of its own communities, and thereby of increasing the wealth of society, and the incomes of all in society who must work for their living. 

As James Marshall of Labour Party Marxists says, its actually clear that any right-wing split from Labour would fail.

“However, a de facto split surely guarantees their expulsion and the selection of alternative, official candidates. Most traditional Labour voters are predicted to remain loyal, not opt for some SDP mark two. Premising such a split, a recent YouGov poll gave a Corbyn-led Labour Party 21% of the total vote and a “Labour right party” just 13% (and the Tories 40%, Ukip 11% and the Lib Dems 6%).2 Doubtless, such arithmetic explains why Ed Balls, former shadow chancellor, dismisses the idea of a breakaway as “crazy”.” 

But, its also clear for these reasons that the approach of Corbyn and McDonnell in trying to appease their opponents is pointless. In fact, when McDonnell appears on Question Time, and senselessly tries to disavow his Marxism, like St Peter, denying his Christianity three times before the cock crowed, it undermines their position, and makes them appear just as dissembling as the old establishment politicians. McDonnell would do well to remind his right-wing critics, particularly those like Smith who hark back to the Attlee Government, of the politics of Sir Stafford Cripps the Chancellor of the Exchequer in that Attlee government.

McDonnell should proclaim his Marxism proudly. And, if the right and soft left of the party can daily use their friends in the Tory media to attack the Labour party, to openly call for the PLP to “work day and night to remove Corbyn”, rather than to attack the Tories; if they can sit back, as Alistair Campbell did on Question Time, whilst a Tory MP makes comments about McDonnell being “a nasty piece of work”, then it is time that Corbyn and McDonnell stated openly that it is not they who are out of step with the party, but the PLP, and the obvious solution for the inability of the PLP to accept the will of the party membership, is not for Corbyn to go, but for the handful of recalcitrant MP's to go.

If it is okay, for the right-wing MP's to demand that Corbyn be re-elected only a year after his last resounding victory, they can hardly complain about having to be reselected themselves.

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