Yesterday, I went to Owen Smith’s event (I can’t really call it a rally as I’m not sure 100 people sitting in a room constitutes that…). As I’m sure you’re aware, I am a big Corbyn supporter. So why did I go? Well, there are a few reasons. First of all, I think its important to hear both sides of an argument. I was pretty certain that Smith wouldn’t change my mind, but I felt it was important to hear what he had to say. Also, all I’d heard from Smith supporters, were reasons not to vote for Jeremy, rather than why I should vote for Owen in particular. I thought going to his rally would change that, and maybe I’d hear some genuine reasons to vote for him (I thought wrong, as it turns out, but we’ll go into that later on). Thirdly, although I am a relatively new member, I have always been a Labour supporter, and who runs our party is an important thing. If Jeremy loses the contest, Smith will be the new leader. I felt it’d be good to know what that leader is about.
So, my friend and I decided to go along. We’d spent the morning on a Momentum stall in a nearby ward of our constituency, handing out Jeremy leaflets. We headed over, and out of respect, removed our Corbyn badges. There were, as we counted, about 100 people present. I was struck by the difference in atmosphere to the room where Smith was about to talk, to the rally held by Corbyn in Leeds a few weeks prior. Now, this may be because I am a Corbyn supporter or it may just be how it is, but I felt a sort of electricity in the air at the rally in Leeds. People were talking to the people next to them, asking where they’d come from, discussing how they’d become a Corbyn supporter etc. However at Owen’s rally, I didn’t feel anything in the air. No excitement. No hope. No excited talking and sharing stories.
Owen finally came on stage. A couple of people stood up and cheered. Again, I was struck at the difference in reaction to Owen entering the room at his event, compared to Jeremy entering the room at his. The room took 5 minutes to quieten down after Jeremy’s arrival, which shows the optimism and hope that Jeremy brings with him into politics.
Owen spoke of his upbringing in Wales, how he came to be involved in politics. He spoke about how he didn’t vote for Jeremy last year but took on the role as Shadow Secretary for the DWP as he felt they should ‘make a go of it’. He spoke about how it was him, not Jeremy, who secured the U turns on welfare policies over the past 10 months. However, under Jeremy’s leadership we have become a party that vote against things, not just abstain on them. Would we have fought as hard against these welfare bills if the leadership had asked the PLP to abstain? If any of the other candidates had won last year, we would still be fighting for an austerity lite agenda. He said that Jeremy had left taking on IDS and Stephen Crabb down to him, and how he’d had no help from Jeremy at all. Well, with all due respect Owen, that was what your job was. You were supposed to take on the DWP, that is the brief of Shadow Secretary for DWP. He said that Jeremy spoke with slogans but took no actions- but then continued to speak in slogans himself (“British New Deal”, and “Anti Austerity, pro- Prosperity” to name but a few). He said that Jeremy wasn’t a leader, and that its all well and good having principles, but if you aren’t in power you can’t do anything about them. He said he was ‘fed up’ of Corbyn supporters claiming moral superiority over the rest of the Labour Party, and that we aren’t morally pure as we think we are, seemingly feeding into the “us and them” rhetoric.
When we were allowed to ask questions, a man at the front said that he wasn’t voting for Owen, because Owen was calling for a second referendum, and how would he create a story that would win over Leave voters who traditionally vote Labour. Owen’s response was a list of reasons why we should vote Remain. Owen also said that his principles tell him that we have to fight for the EU- but surely he’d just said that principles don’t lead to power?
Owen said that Jeremy and his supporters are talking inwardly, and that they are talking to themselves. However, I would like to compare the demographics of a Jeremy rally compared to Owen’s event. Out of the 100 people there in Halifax, there were maybe 5 young people, and a one or two people from ethnic minorites. People I know who want Jeremy as leader span a huge range of races, socio-economic backgrounds, genders, ages, previous voting habits…I have friends who have never voted, friends who have voted Tory, friends who have voted Lib Dem, friends who have voted Green- all of whom want to join the Labour Party or have joined the Party to become part of the movement created by Jeremy. The only people I know who are voting for Owen are people who would vote for Labour regardless.
At the end of the event, I went over to speak to Owen.I introduced myself and said I was a recently elected Town Councillor, and although I was voting for Jeremy, I would really appreciate it if he could denounce the names Corbyn supporters are called, such as Nazi Stormtroopers.
Owen: I already have.
Me: I haven’t heard you doing so
Owen: I have, on national TV.
Me: Well I’m sorry but I haven’t heard you say that
Owen: well I’ve been called a Red Tory
(in hindsight, I wish I’d said at this point that being called a Red Tory and a Nazi are by no means comparable).
Me: yes abuse from anyone is wrong, however I’m asking you to publicly denounce the Nazi slurs. You don’t need to be defensive, I’m not attacking you, but that it would mean a lot to a lot of people.
Owen: Well it was only one man calling you Nazis!
Me: Yes one man but in a national newspaper!
Owen: (sarcastically) What would you like me to do- write everyone a letter?
Me: Well you could write an email, or put a statement on Facebook or Twitter.
All I had wanted him to say was that he was sorry we’d been subject to that and he had tried to denounce it but if we hadn’t heard his statement, he would try and make one more publicly. That would have sufficed. But instead he got defensive and angry like a child. That, to me, is not a leader. It was at this point that my friend cut in and said we had only come to make sure we saw two sides of the argument. He asked her if she was still voting for Jeremy. She said yes.
I left the event feeling incredibly disheartened and angry. Owen had done exactly as his supporters have done so far- give a list of ‘reasons’ not to vote for Jeremy but as far as I saw, no concrete reasons to vote for him. He lazily repeated criticisms of Jeremy such as ‘he’s a bad leader’ and ‘he hasn’t gone far enough’ with no way to back up those broad statements. And the way he handled my comment about denouncing Nazi Stormtrooper slurs was incredibly childish and petty. He got defensive very quickly- a trait which I don’t think would play out very well with the public or at PMQs. He had some good policies, but they were all policies Jeremy has already said himself.
I compared this to how I felt leaving the rally in Leeds a few weeks back. Heart full of hope, feeling optimistic about the future. Everyone you walked past when leaving was talking about how enthused and emotional they felt.
I commend Smith on his apparent switch to socialism and ‘radical’ policies, of which most are identical to Jeremy. I also hope that whoever wins, the other agrees to work alongside him. We are all supposed to be the same party, after all.
Jeremy is often criticised by his opponents for not being a leader, however what a leader actually is is never quantified. What is this miraculous leadership quality they are all looking for? Did Ed Miliband have it, in their eyes? Did Tony Blair? Owen claims that Jeremy speaks in slogans and not with actions, but I could not disagree with him more. For the first time in a long time, with Jeremy as leader, the Labour Party has a clear direction and is a distinct opposition party. That, for me, sounds like pretty good leadership.