Tom Peterkin: Owen Smith a long way behind Jeremy Corbyn

Labour leadership contender Owen Smith launches his campaign.His position  as unity candidate was secured after he won the support of 18 more MPs and MEPs than Angela Eagle. Picture:  Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Labour leadership contender Owen Smith launches his campaign.His position as unity candidate was secured after he won the support of 18 more MPs and MEPs than Angela Eagle. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
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Labour’s ‘unity candidate’ Owen Smith faces greater odds than his compatriot Neil Kinnock ever did, writes Tom Peterkin

As the son of one of Wales’s most pre-eminent rugby historians, Owen Smith has a love of the oval ball game.

This is something that he shares with another well known Welsh politician – the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock.

Kinnock used to coach mini-rugby at Old Deer Park, home of London Welsh RFC. Smith’s rugby influences are perhaps more cerebral. His father Professor Dai Smith has written extensively of the game’s influence on his country’s culture and even contributed to the official history of the Welsh Rugby Union.

Given Wales’s passion for rugby union, it is not surprising to find that both Smith and Kinnock share it too. But there are also parallels between them that go beyond drinking Brains bitter and discussing the finer points of rucking after an international at the Millennium Stadium.

As Smith attempts to style himself as the Great Redeemer of the Labour Party, he could do worse than look at Kinnock’s example.

After Labour’s calamitous election defeat of 1983 it was left to Kinnock to pick up the pieces of the party which had lurched to the left under the leadership of Michael Foot.

Although Kinnock never made it to Number 10, history will credit him as a reforming leader who played a key role in making the party electable again. It took Kinnock the best part of a decade and he didn’t even manage to finish the job. It needed a fresh face in the form of Tony Blair to put the finishing touches on Kinnock’s mission to take the party from the left into the centre ground of British politics.

Smith is attempting to do something similar – transforming Labour into a credible alternative government as opposed to a movement that is enthralled to the ideology of the hard left.

Such is the crisis engulfing Labour at the moment that Smith faces an even stiffer challenge than Kinnock. At least Foot had stepped down following his disaster at the polls, leaving the way clear for Kinnock to succeed him.

Smith has to deal with the fact that Corbyn refuses to quit, despite losing a no-confidence motion voted on by his parliamentary colleagues.

Corbyn is emboldened by the mandate he has been given by the members and supporters who flocked to the party in his support. Taking him on is, therefore, an enormous task. Can he succeed?

The challenge facing Smith was laid out in stark terms by an opinion poll of Labour members this week. Despite the barrage of criticism directed against Corbyn by his parliamentary colleagues and opponents, the YouGov survey found 55 per cent think he is doing well as Labour leader (up four points over the last fortnight).

That was accompanied by a reduction in the proportion of members who think he is doing badly (down seven points to 41 per cent).

Crucially, 54 per cent said Corbyn would be their first choice. A mere 15 per cent said they would support Smith. Angela Eagle polled 21 per cent.

Since then Smith’s cause has been bolstered by Eagle’s decision to withdraw, turning a three-horse race into a straight fight between the moderates and the left-wingers.

Yesterday Smith was in a combative mood when he outlined the consequences of Corbyn remaining in post. Labour, he said, would split if Corbyn was re-elected, adding he had warned the Labour leader face-to-face that the party was “teetering on the brink of extinction”.

To prevent the split that threatens the party’s existence, Smith has to convince the foot-soldiers than he can be a unifying figure – hence his attempts to appeal to the left as well as the moderates and his claim that he is “just as radical” as Corbyn.

His promise to offer Corbyn the presidency of the party is also an attempt to present himself as someone who can bring the warring factions together.

Smith’s emergence as the sole Corbyn challenger lifted some of the gloom amongst Labour parliamentarians.

His supporters are desperately hoping that the Smith/Corbyn fight will crystallise party members’ minds when they are faced with question over whether they want Labour to be a left-wing movement or a serious party of government.

“It is going to be difficult, but he has a chance,” said one Smith supporter yesterday. “He is personable. The Parliamentary Labour Party like him and he is well liked across the House.”

His mission has been boosted by Eagle’s decision to retreat gracefully from the leadership contest that she triggered. She will fall in behind Smith’s bid, bringing with her the MPs who supported her.

Smith’s future as the “unity” candidate was secured after he got the support of 90 MPs and MEPs, who judged he was a better bet than Eagle, who was backed by 72 parliamentarians.

As a relative unknown, Smith will have to get used to an increased level of scrutiny. Already comments he made while working for Pfizer have come back to bite him and have increased the challenge facing him. Smith said “choice” was a “good thing” when considering a report on offering patients the freedom to use the NHS and private sector healthcare providers.

His opponents have seized the remarks as evidence that he supports privatisation of the health service, a line of attack that will undermine his left wing credentials. When it comes to scrumming down with Corbyn, Smith may have a chance but any victory is likely to be taken against the head.