Owen Smith’s lobbyist past becomes key battleground in Labour leadership scrap
The Pontypridd MP is struggling to define himself on his own terms.
Owen Smith has been furiously denying that he was ever a lobbyist, after it became clear this week that supporters of Jeremy Corbyn would attempt to use it against him.
The Labour leadership hopeful made his latest attempt to set the record straight after one senior Corbyn ally branded Smith “a TV-savvy turncoat who lobbied for big pharma and Tony Blair”.
It comes as 180,541 people have applied to become registered Labour supporters to take part in the party's leadership election - netting the cash-strapped party a cool £4.5 million.
In a Guardian interview Smith said: “Let’s get the terms right – I was never a lobbyist. I was head of policy at Pfizer, then director of health economics and corporate affairs at Amgen … I never held a lobby pass, I have never lobbied MPs.”
However, Corbyn allies are having not of it – as Diane Abbott made clear on the Today programme.
“For practical purposes, he was … He wasn’t a scientist, he was a lobbyist,” she said.
The Hackney North MP also made it clear that Team Corbyn think there is much to be gained from making Smith’s lobbying background a key factor in the fight for Labour’s future.
She said: “He’s a great bloke and so on … but I don’t believe someone who’s been a special adviser and a pharmaceutical lobbyist is going to enthuse the base…
“People find the link between politics and lobbyists very distasteful … There’s no issue close to Labour members’ hearts than the NHS.”
As a relative unknown with no striking selling point, there was always a danger for Smith that he would be defined by his opponents rather than on his own terms.
The challenge for Smith now is to quickly find something bold and exciting that people can get to know him for.
He almost achieved this with his eyecatching proposal for a second referendum on Brexit. But the signs are that this is not enough. Smith needs to come up with something else. And if he fails to do so, he risks being defined as a former lobbyist throughout the leadership contest.
Meanwhile, the furore has prompted lobbyists to hit back, with various practitioners telling Public Affairs News that Smith has nothing to be ashamed of.
Among those insisting that the attacks on Smith are unwarranted is FTI Consulting head of public affairs Alex Deane.
“The Corbyn activists attacking him for being a ‘lobbyist’ are just daft. Perhaps they don't think that any voice for business in politics is legitimate - but that says a lot more about them than about him,” he says.
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