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by Andrew Whitaker
25 July 2016
Is Owen Smith a Neil Kinnock mark II?

Is Owen Smith a Neil Kinnock mark II?

credit - PA images

OWEN Smith has gone to great pains to praise Jeremy Corbyn as a man the Labour Party owes a “debt of gratitude” to despite his bid to oust him as leader after just a year in post.

Smith only became an MP in 2010, something that could either be pitched as him having no ministerial experience or being untarnished by the last Labour governments, particularly over the last Iraq war.

Again Smith has insisted he is not a ‘Blairite’ and that he opposed the Iraq invasion in 2003, accepts the need for the wealthiest to pay more tax, all part of what he says would be a “radical, but credible” agenda for Labour.    


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The Pontyrpid MP would be the Welsh first politician to lead Labour if he defeats Corbyn in September in nearly a quarter of a century.

Neil Kinnock, who led the party from 1983 to 1992, being the last Welsh Labour politician to lead Labour at UK level.

There are striking similarities between Smith’s pitch in the tumultuous leadership election gripping Labour and Kinnock’s remaking of the party for much of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Smith has styled his leadership bid as that of the ‘soft left’ – a term used much less in Labour circles then it once was, particularly in the period since Tony Blair was elected as party leader back in 1994.

Kinnock like Smith sought to characterise himself as “soft left” – a term that is arguably somewhat loaded and appears to be seeking to counterpose itself to a perceived extremism.

There is an attempt by Smith to contrast his suggested 'reasonable radicalism’ with that of a so-called hard left characterised by Corbyn and John McDonnell in the way that Kinnock did with the likes of Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone back in the 1980s.

In fairness a politician like Smith, who is little recognition in the public mind, has no choice other than to seek to come up with his own inimitable political brand to have any chance at all of winning Labour’s top job.

But there’s no disguising the similarities between the pitch Smith is making and that of Kinnock back in 1983 when he was elected as Labour leader and swiftly and ruthlessly set about marginalising his internal opponents.

During Kinnock’s nine years in charge of Labour the party dumped its backing for unilateral disarmament and began a process of shifting to the right that in some ways arguably laid the ground for the rise of Tony Blair's New Labour.

Smith, like Kinnock, is a former unilateralist, who said he would be prepared as prime minister to press the nuclear button, saying in a TV interview that “you have to be prepared to say yes to that”.  

It may also be worth asking whether Smith as leader would seek a change to the rules governing the way Labour elects its leader, to ensure that noone of Corbyn’s persuasion ever gets close to leading the party again.        

Kinnock, soon after becoming leader, presided over a backlash against the ‘Bennite’ rebellion of the early 80s with changes to Labour’s rulebook to make it harder for figures like Benn to stand as leader.

After all it was under Kinnock’s leadership that rules were brought in requiring that any leadership candidate had to command a large chunk of support of the party’s MPs before they were even allowed to stand in an a ballot involving grassroots members.

There may also be fears among those on the Labour left that Smith would act to curb the activities of pro-Corbyn Labour pressure group Momentum.

Is there a possibility that a Smith-led Labour party would seek to prescribe Momentum and expel some of its members along similar lines to the way Kinnock did with the admittedly much more hardline Militant Tendency?

Would there also be a return to the centralised approach of the Blair years for example, when left wing Labour members faced formidable obstacles to even standing as parliamentary candidates?   

Of course all this is speculation and it may well be that Smith will be decisively defeated by Corbyn, in contrast to Kinnock who won comfortably when he stood in Labour's leadership election 33 years ago.  

But those with a vote in Labour’s leadership contest may want to consider that Kinnock, a strong Smith backer who recently talked of taking Labour along the road to power, actually presided over two general election defeats.

That of course included a defeat at the hands of a widely disliked Tory party at the 1992 election, despite his remaking and re-imaging of Labour over a nine year period.

Whether Smith would be any more successful remains to be seen, but there are at least questions for him to answer about what substance there is to his “soft left” pitch and what it really means in policy terms.                     


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