Ioan Marc Jones: Owen Smith is Labour’s best chance of avoiding a split

Written by Ioan Marc Jones on 14 July 2016 in Opinion

The majority of members will surely reject Angela Eagle - even if it means splitting the party.

Personal politics is the balance of idealism and pragmatism. It is an internal debate between the principle of power and the power of principle.

Prior to the last general election, for example, I found the Green Party inspiring on several issues: support for refugees, higher top-tier tax rates, free education, and radical environmental policies.

Labour’s platform, in contrast, was rather tepid. Miliband disingenuously rode the wave of anti-immigrant feeling with mugs and stone. Labour offered only minor gains on education and their environmental policies – while superior to Cameron hugging a husky – proved lacklustre.

But the Greens stood no chance of winning real power and their policies, though beguiling, seemed a touch romantic. Furthermore, according to the profoundly inaccurate but somehow believable polls, it was neck and neck between the two major parties. The Tories were promising further cuts to public services and would inexorably ensure further tax cuts for the rich. I weighed idealism and pragmatism. I voted Labour.

Following the general election, I joined Labour. I wanted to have a say in the direction of Britain’s most prominent left wing Party. The choice in this election proved simple. Unlike Cooper, Kendall and Burnham, Corbyn spoke directly to my idealism. He advocated positive environmental policies, free higher education and practical increases on corporate and higher rates of tax. Importantly, Corbyn, unlike the other candidates, was a staunch critic of recent British foreign policy.

I wasn’t credulous enough to believe that Corbyn was the most likely candidate to secure a Labour victory. But in the furore of Corbyn’s movement, I was convinced his politics could resonate with the electorate. This settled my pragmatic anxieties. I voted Corbyn.

The chances of Corbyn winning a general election, small though they were, have all but diminished. Blame lies with every section of the Labour Party: the leadership’s lack of compromise; MPs failing to accept the mandate; and members abusing anyone and everyone. The Labour Party under Corbyn, with the inimical tension between members and the PLP, stands little chance of electoral success. A victory for Corbyn, moreover, could unravel the entire Party.

The notion that a leader can overcome a 172-strong MP revolt and then unite the Party is a fallacy. A Corbyn victory may well cause a split – which some members and some prominent figures on the left, such as Will Self, verily welcome. Alternatively, a vote for Corbyn could hasten mass deselection, which is troublesome in terms of attracting the electorate and maintaining the institutions of the Labour Party.

The only certainty, in my view, is that the majority of members will reject Angela Eagle. This has nothing to do with her record on economic and social issues. On such matters, she appeals to pragmatism. The problem is foreign policy.

Eagle voted for the Iraq war and against the Chilcot inquiry. She supported airstrikes in Iraq against so-called Islamic State. She also voted for the bombing of Syria. Indeed, Eagle has advocated the vast majority of military actions since becoming an MP in 1992.

Foreign policy issues are emotive. Personal principles on matters of life and death prevent any movement towards pragmatism. The oft-invoked notion that one has to abnegate one’s principles in the pursuit of power rarely applies to such matters.

On foreign policy decisions, members are unwilling to forgive or forget the recent past. And, particularly at this moment, following the damning revelations in the Chilcot inquiry, members hope to elect a candidate that will not repeat the same mistakes. Eagle is evidently not that candidate. I believe that Britain needs a Labour government – something Corbyn, in the current circumstances, seems unable to ensure. But it needs the right Labour government. It needs a Labour government that will not accept war as the easiest option. 

Enter Owen Smith. Smith is inexperienced and rather uninspiring. He is nonetheless Labour’s best chance of avoiding a split or mass deselection. Smith will thus appeal to those members that are willing to compromise. His record on economic and social issues is generally attractive – owed in large part, perhaps, to Smith only recently becoming an MP. And, importantly, Smith claims that he did not support the Iraq war.

The question is whether members continue to embrace their idealistic urge – ostensibly embodied in Corbyn – or whether the pull of Smith’s pragmatism will prove attractive.

I’m not quite sure where I stand. I believe voting for Corbyn will indeed split the party. This prospect, however, isn’t as foreboding as it perhaps once was – considering the recent trajectory towards coalitions. A Labour Party split will inevitably hasten a cross-party movement towards proportional representation, which the majority of members, including myself, support.

Whether PR is achievable is purely hypothetical, which will surely detract the more pragmatic members. This election is about defining not just the Labour Party, but the left generally. Members will have to draw their own conclusions based on far too many hypothetical variables.

This leadership election is, again, a battle between idealism and pragmatism, principle and power. The only thing that seems clear at present is that the majority of members will not support Eagle.

On foreign policy issues, the power of principle always overrides the principle of power. Support for the Iraq war will ultimately result in Eagle’s downfall. Eagle will be unable to escape the shadow of Chilcot.

The Labour leadership is thus effectively a two-horse race: Smith against Corbyn. Only one thing is certain: it will get ugly – or, rather, uglier.


Photo: Press Association.


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