Ayesha Hazarika: Owen Smith needs to be Labour's Heineken leader

Written by Ayesha Hazarika on 5 August 2016 in Opinion

Labour may not do god but it does do JC. To beat him, Smith needs to reach parts of the parliamentary party that Jeremy Corbyn cannot.

As the Labour leadership contest heats up, the spirits of most members who want to see change are taking a bit of a dip.

Anyone who supports Owen Smith who just went through the pain barrier of watching the first televised debate, including myself, is feeling ready for a lie down and a hug.

Not because Owen didn’t perform well. He absolutely did. In normal circumstances we would be nodding along going “Yeah… this guy’s a serious contender.” He was fluent, passionate, well prepped, comfortable in his delivery and highly credible.

But none of that matters. This is not a normal contest involving cool objectivity, reason and logic. As a long-standing, long-suffering Labour party member and activist said to me today – there are no rules.

This contest is not about competence. It’s about a religion. Alastair Campbell once said “we don’t do God” but the Labour party now clearly does do JC big time.

It’s also about vitriol. It’s anger than anyone would have the temerity to challenge the leader even though the leader was a challenger in the past and the aforementioned leader was a serial rebel against previous leaderships. But you know all that.

If you’re a long-standing party member who’s spent your weekends knocking on doors or running a board in the rain and you’re worried about the party’s current leadership, you’re attacked as “not being proper Labour” by people who haven’t even joined the party.

If you’re a modest, kind, hard-working, working class MP like Sharon Hodgson – you’re labelled a rich, careerist Blairite. And even if you’re not an MP, you still face threats of being deselected. This happened to me late one night and someone demanded my voting record. I fessed up – Will Young all the way. I’m not an idiot.  

To be fair, a lot of people out there - mainly on Twitter because that’s the new reality, don’t you know - have been waiting a really long time for this glorious hard left messiah to materialise, and you can sympathise with their fury.

Jeremy’s performance at the hustings was, to be fair, a considerable improvement on his PMQs outings. He’s good at these events. He’s had the same script for a long time, he was cheered to the rafters and he was playing to a home crowd. But as far as this contest is concerned everywhere will be a home crowd. When Owen Smith got booed for saying his hero was Nye Bevan you knew this would be one tough gig.

Jeremy will be hard to beat. Many of this supporters are fiercely defensive of the man they love and are still raging at the mass resignation of the front bench and the way things spiralled out of control in the days after Brexit.  

But there is still a chance for Team Owen.

He’s a smart guy and a strong performer. He speaks the language of the left, but he needs to be mindful of simply agreeing with Corbyn on everything. He wouldn’t be putting himself through the hell of this contest if he didn’t disagree quite profoundly on some important issues. It doesn’t pass the smell test. He should be authentic, avoid pleading and show that his differences are his strengths.

He rightly talks about the need for Labour to get back into power and change society for the better. But he needs to also think about what the country is hearing as well as our members.

Brexit is a big issue for many of our members, especially in London, but not all. Yes. Many of us didn’t love the outcome but he needs to show how he can make it work by being an effective leader and helping shape the negotiations instead of only reaching for the second referendum lever.

One of the most agonising moments of the hustings (apart from Smith getting booed for calling out anti-Semitism) was the section on the advancement of women. Not going to lie, it was tough for us Labour feminists to see two blokes wanging on about women’s issues from scripts which leave most us cold.

Smith has got to up his game here – a lot of Labour women are rooting strongly for him despite first backing Angela and we need a bit more than the old-school commitment to a balanced parliamentary party (PLP) and shadow cabinet.

But Smith has one big card he should play. He can do something Jeremy can’t, something that is his biggest weakness. He can show he can lead the PLP over the summer. Although he is running for the top job, he should show members and the public that the PLP can be led and motivated. He should draw in many more people from across all the wings of the PLP to work on his campaign.

Even though most MPs are depressed and knackered, they know this is the fight of their political lives and Team Smith should sign them up to a busy summer where we can show party members what it is like to operate as a functional opposition (well almost).

We used to run an effective summer grid of attack stories on the Tories and line up different spokespeople from different teams and across the regions to get into the often quieter papers and broadcast cycles over August. He can’t do it alone and nor should he. No man is an island – especially in these stormy seas.

Smith should not just talk about uniting the PLP, he should do it and make them work to him. He should appoint a summer Shadow Cabinet with Angela Eagle as his economic lead and a gender balance in the senior roles.

That way he could prove his USP – that he’s our Heineken leader – he can refresh parts of the PLP that Jeremy cannot reach. 

Picture by: Ben Birchall/PA Wire/Press Association Images

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