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Wed, 15 July 2020

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By Hft

John Mann MP: Owen Smith is the wrong man at the wrong time with the wrong policies

John Mann MP: Owen Smith is the wrong man at the wrong time with the wrong policies
6 min read

Labour MP John Mann blasts Owen Smith's 'predictable' leadership campaign as a 'shambles'.


Wrong man, wrong time, wrong policies. Owen Smith's leadership campaigned boiled down to one key message: I am not him. Never has a Labour leadership candidate hit so many bum notes in one campaign. Yet it was so predictable.

To coincide with the result, The New Statesman laments the end of the Golden Generation, without a sense of irony in that every member they identify served as a special advisor to government. Nothing wrong with being a special advisor, indeed important work, but the Labour Spads became the princelings, presuming leadership and obsessed with their own inheritance of power. With Owen Smith this generation has just died.

Owen started early. I was approached at the beginning of 2016 by a senior figure promoting his candidature. I literally laughed. Why on earth would anyone support Owen Smith, other than he is not Jeremy Corbyn - and so it proved. Six months of planning ought to have teased out some policy alternatives and created a credible platform. Instead it fell into the princelings’ logic: Owen was ready, Jeremy can't win, therefore vote for Owen

A bit like Ed Miliband's mantra 18 months ago that 'I am ready', but he was ready for what? A pizza and a movie?

So how did this shambles unfold? Mass hysteria broke out across Westminster after the referendum, and the mantra quickly became 'do something, anything'.

A little known secret is that few constituencies actually knock on doors round the whole year. Very few MPs actually knocked on doors in the referendum. Hence the shock at the result.

Jeremy's people have always known that they can count on the predictability of would-be Labour leaders. A challenge was therefore predictable. Less so the extraordinary boost that Jeremy got by the over-cleverness of those wanting to take over.

Jeremy likes to claim the mantel of who got the most votes of any Labour leader, but of course Tony Blair got double Jeremy's tally as over three million trade unionists were given votes. The fundamental error of Tom Watson and his mates and the biggest weakness for Jeremy was their failure to challenge this. Four million voters is a lot healthier than half a million. More fundamentally, any Labour leader has to win that audience and Jeremy remains untested by them. Who could be opposed to this?

Already we have seen John Healey hand over his NEC seat to Dennis Skinner, for a place in Jeremy's shadow cabinet. Jeremy's organisers sniggered. Then we had Lucy Powell and John Spellar falling out over candidates for the National Executive, so it was 7 v 6 on the two slates for six places. Pete Willsman and Jon Lansman still cannot believe their luck.

This fundamental unwillingness to combine forces is the same political morass that led to the post referendum hysteria and the opening that Jeremy took in 2015. It is more about who does things that what is achieved.

Despite the wailing and gnashing, politics in the Labour Party has become all too comfortable. Far too many people in the Labour Party are personally economically comfortable with a Tory government in power. This disconnect with the working class is the biggest challenge by far, yet twice, in 2015 and now this summer, we have been rushed into opportunist beauty contests rather than have serious discussions about how we have got it so wrong.

When Jeremy, citing one poll by Lord Ashcroft, wrongly claims that two thirds of Labour voters supported Remain, his supporters and opponents gleefully nod in harmony. Nothing unites Labour more than false comfort about the electorate.

Any mathematician can quickly work out that in fact Labour areas were the strongest to vote Leave and any well organised party, sampling ballot boxes, will know that in Labour areas it was the Tory voters who tended to vote Remain and it was large blocks of Labour trade unionists who voted Leave.

In return, Owen's big policy was to call for their mandate to be ignored by Labour. On reflection, three million trade unionists not voting this time may have been a good thing for him.

The real weakness of Jeremy's politics is its statism. Jeremy is for the state, preferably run by people like him, doing good things for people. The antidote to this is for a party that embraces the enabling state, where people are empowered to take responsibility themselves and markets are free and open. The mirror opposite of Venezuela in other words.

Those whose experience of life is that of the special adviser have never, in their own bubble, succeeded in comprehending this and it lends further credence to Jeremy who can pose as the outsider. However, it’s also Jeremy's big dilemma, for he knows that he is the ultimate Westminster insider and has been as uncomfortable embracing a real diversity of views and experiences as his opponents have been.

Labour loves staying inside its comfort zone, battling for irrelevant positions, talking to itself, sympathising with those living in poverty, articulating outrage.  But it is terrified of the working class because it might say things they don't want to hear.

'Why?' This was my puzzled response to the proposal last January that I back Owen Smith. It about time that Jeremy's opponents get as real as they keep asking him to get.  Fundamentally, the princelings share the same statism that surrounds Jeremy. Give us the power and we can do better. But how and for whom? Ah, of course for the poor, for the dispossessed, for the young, the old, hard workers, non-workers in fact for everyone other than white, middle aged men who don't work too hard.

And this fits the profile of most Labour Party members. Owner occupiers. Occupational pensions. Bigger houses. People who do not personally experience poverty. I fear an increasingly inward looking party, obsessed with its petty positions and its policy discussions. Revolutionary Socialism chasing the tale of its own accountability. Or perhaps the unions will wake up and realise that the menus on offer do not appeal to the palate of their members, making them the big potential losers. Labour was set up as a political party for trade unionists and there were good reasons for this. There still are.

The next contest will probably be after the next election. Whatever he says now, Jeremy will not stay on if he loses. Only three current MPs have the potential to embrace this wider world. Chuka Umunna, if he can tame his Euro fanaticism; Dan Jarvis, if he can stop acting as a traditional politician; and Lisa Nandy, if she can stay in touch with her constituents. Put a small bet on each of them, but not too much.

John Mann is a Labour MP for Bassetlaw ​

Read the most recent article written by Lord Mann - Lords Diary: Lord Mann

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