Tag Archives: Owen Smith

Do you have to gain power to make change?

Do you have to gain power to make change?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 November 2016 

“The greatest lesson that we can take from our history is that we can only implement our vision and apply our values when we win power and form a government”, Labour MP Owen Smith repeated ad nauseam during the recent Labour leadership contest. Owen Jones, generally considered to be on the left of the Labour Party, seemed to echo Smith on the issue of power and influence on his Youtube channel in August 2016. “Instead of sticking our fingers in our ears and going ‘lalalala it’s all fine’ there just needs to be strategy to improve those ratings”, the Guardian columnist argued about Labour’s poor poll ratings. “Otherwise we are finished, and the Conservatives will run the country for years. I’ll just keep doing my videos whinging about things, coming up with ideas. Waste of time. Just words, isn’t it? Just words.”

However, despite what the two Owens assert about the futility of opposition, the historical record suggests a far more hopeful conclusion.

“Power is not the only factor instrumental in creating change”, Salim Lone, a former Communications Director at the United Nations, noted in a letter to The Guardian in May 2016. “In fact it’s what one does in ‘opposition’ that has historically paved the way for real change. Humanity’s progress has resulted primarily from the struggles of those who fought for change against entrenched power.” US author Rebecca Solnit agrees, noting just before the US presidential election that “election seasons erase the memory of movements that worked for years or decades, outside and around, below and above electoral politics.” She describes these as “the histories that matter.”

Producing change while not in power can broadly be separated into two camps: transformation that is forced on an unwilling ruling elite, and government policies that are stopped or modified by strong opposition. And let’s not forget that any change from below almost always involves an extra-parliamentary direct action struggle, from the setting up of trade unions and women winning the vote to the success of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s – all forced on an initially resistant ruling class. In the 1990s direct action played a key role in stopping the “biggest road building programme since the Romans” planned by the then Tory government and the attempt to introduce GM food to the UK.

Indeed, a close reading of the news demonstrates that successfully making change while not in power happens all the time. Last month The Guardian headline was “Poland’s abortion ban proposal near collapse after mass protests”. Back in the UK, Corbyn’s Labour Party has inflicted a number of defeats on the government – on planned cuts to tax credits and housing benefit, and the proposed prison contract with Saudi Arabia. It was a Tory-led Government, let’s not forget, that introduced gay marriage – 25 years after they introduced the anti-gay Section 28. And responding to the Chancellor’s recent announcement about investing in the economy, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell quipped “It’s clear Philip Hammond is now borrowing from Labour to invest in his own speech”.

Unsurprisingly governments will try to take the credit for any popular changes – former Prime Minister David Cameron making it known he had personally intervened in favour of legalising same-sex marriage, for example. But rather than taking the powerful at their (retrospective and self-justifying) word, a more accurate explanation of the process of positive change is highlighted by Tony Benn’s famous dictum: “It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

Of course, being in power is preferable to not being in power. Far more change is obviously possible when one is in control, when it can be planned, coordinated and sustained. Those attempting to force change from the outside do not have control of the process, the timing or the details. However, it is important not to underestimate the power of social movements and activism – the power of ‘ordinary’ people to create real, long-lasting change.

Indeed, with Donald Trump likely to be in the White House for the next four years it is essential this hopeful understanding of political change is widely understood and acted upon. The signs are promising: with Trump reviled and distrusted by a large section of the American public, it is likely there will be a much needed resurgence of progressive activism following the unjustified lull during the Obama Administration. Trump is dangerously unpredictable, so making predictions about his foreign policy is difficult, US dissident Noam Chomsky noted in a recent interview. However, he ended on a note of optimism: “What we can say is that popular mobilization and activism, properly organized and conducted, can make a large difference.”

Why Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party should reach out to non-voters

Why Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party should reach out to non-voters
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
7 October 2016

“We’ve got to win in Cardiff North. We’ve got to win in Nuneaton. We’ve got to win in Milton Keynes”, asserted Owen Smith in the recent leadership campaign. “We’ve got to get Tories and Greens and Liberals to vote Labour.”

In the mainstream commentary surrounding Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, one thing is clear – he must claim the centre ground of politics and reach out to Tory voters. The BBC’s political coverage is often based on this assumption, with the corporation deciding to hold its 2015 televised Labour leadership debate in the well-known marginal seat of Nuneaton.

This has been the dominant, so-called pragmatic, way of doing parliamentary politics for my lifetime – what Professor Jeremy Gilbert from the University of East London calls “politics as marketing”. In this conception of politics, “there is only ever a very narrow range of opinions which can really be considered sensible, because they are predicated on an understanding of how the world really works.” Voters are rational, self-interested actors with fixed preferences. The politician is sold to the voters as likable and competent, much like a salesperson selling the party brand to customers. “The target market is almost exclusively floating voters in marginal constituencies”.

Writer Tariq Ali argues this endless battle for the mythical, ‘sensible’ centre ground has led to the creation of an “extreme centre” in British politics, with Tory-Labour bipartisanship leading to destructive wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the financial crisis, privatisation, rising inequality and nasty and dangerous narratives being pushed on welfare and immigration.

Aswell as being tone deaf to radical social movements, this focus on a tiny number of voters in marginal seats ignores what has been called the largest party in British politics – the 15.7 million who didn’t vote in the 2015 General Election.

Corbyn himself has repeatedly said he wants to reach out to those who don’t vote, especially young people. Noting that turnout went down from 84 percent in 1950 to 66 percent in 2015, Professor Danny Dorling from the University of Oxford agrees, arguing “the best strategy for Labour to increase its share of the vote is to target people who vote for minor parties and the much larger groups [who] have given up voting or even registering to vote.”

So, who doesn’t vote and why don’t they bother? Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary university, notes the people who don’t vote tend to be “the poor, the poorly educated, the young, the transient, the newly arrived, and the less politically knowledgeable and interested.” Speaking to voters in Manchester before the last general election, the BBC’s Emma Ailes reported that “it seems anger not apathy is turning people off voting” – an observation highlighted by polling. According to a 2013 poll by Survation the top reasons given by people for not voting were a belief that their vote will not make a difference; that the parties and candidates are all the same; a lack of interest in politics; not enough information or knowledge to choose; and that their beliefs are not represented by the parties and candidates.

This deeply concerning reality is neither natural nor inevitable. As I note above, in 1950 general election turnout was around 20 percent higher than it is now. The Nordic countries have very high levels of voter turnout.  Indeed there have been British elections recently with very high turnouts – the Scottish referendum (85 percent – the highest turnout in any British election since universal suffrage) and the EU referendum (72 percent). Arguably, in contrast to most of the elections of the past 35 years, these two votes actually meant something – there was actually a real choice for voters to make.

This gets to the heart of the issue. Citing British Social Attitudes survey data, in 2010 Alison Park, the Research Director of the National Centre for Social Research, noted one reason for the low turnout in recent elections “is that New Labour’s move to the political centre in the 1990s has led to voters thinking there is relatively little difference between the two main parties.” Professor Bale explains turnout goes down when “the connection between who makes it into office and the policies they pursue is vague”.

To counter these common criticisms of modern politicians, Corbyn needs to position the Labour Party as a clear and easily understandable alternative to the Conservatives and make sure the party follows through on any promises it makes. In addition, Labour needs more working-class MPs, a problem Corbyn’s 2015 proposal to provide grants to less affluent parliamentary candidates would help alleviate.

To mobilse non-voters commentator Owen Jones has suggested Labour carry out the biggest registration drive in history. And with Labour membership standing at over 600,000 and Corbyn attracting crowds of 1,000s of people, journalist Paul Mason believes Labour supporters can play a key role by being ambassadors in their communities, engaging with the wider electorate. Trade unions, which have traditionally encouraged the working-classes to vote, also have an important role to play.

However, it is important to note the First Past The Post system means significantly expanding the electorate will not, on its own, win the election for Corbyn. This is because the people who don’t vote tend to live in Labour dominated seats, meaning a higher turnout in most constituencies would simply mean a bigger win for the Labour MP. However, it would still lead to some gains, with a Fabian Society analysis showing a 7.3 percent boost in turnout in marginal seats would lead to Labour winning 52 seats if each new voter backed Labour.

Corbyn, then, will almost certainly need to attract significant numbers of people who had voted Conservative. This isn’t as unbelievable as the mainstream media would have you believe. Polling suggests many of Corbyn’s political positions – on the NHS, on railways, on housing and foreign policy – have the support of large sections of the British public, sometimes the majority of Tory voters.

Beyond the narrow electoral math, there are a number of reasons why Corbyn’s Labour Party (and other political parties) should work hard to engage with non-voters – for their party’s own benefit and for the nation as a whole.

First, though it may not translate into immediate electoral gains, getting the support of non-voters would increase the popular vote for Labour, one source of legitimacy in political debates. In addition, it would increase the number of the poorer people who are interested and involved in Labour politics, and politics more generally. This process would hopefully mean Labour increasingly becomes more responsive to working-class concerns (such as income inequality and social housing) and begin once again to seriously represent the working-class communities who have been effectively ignored by New Labour and the Tories for decades.

More broadly, this could be the starting gun for a mass reengagement with the political system, with previously disheartened and unrepresented sections of society becoming invested in parliamentary politics and the outcome of elections. The importance of this should not be underestimated. It is clear the Brexit vote was decades in the making, the product, in large part, of the politics of the ‘extreme centre’ that the UK has endured since New Labour was established. For example, a recent Oxfam report noted the UK’s extreme level of inequality was a likely contributing factor in the vote to leave the European Union. Similarly, focus groups ran by Britain Thinks found “Britain is divided – a nation of people who describe themselves as ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’”. The research found the ‘have nots’ – who were much more likely to vote Brexit – described “a powerful sense of injustice about their situation in life” and “the feeling that systems are in place which work in favour of elites and against their best interests”.

In a similar vein the 2011 riots that swept England were informed by social and economic issues coming out of ‘the extreme centre’. In addition to difficult relations with the police, an extensive LSE-Guardian study noted rioters identified a number of motivating grievances, “from the increase in tuition fees, to the closure of youth services and the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance.” The report continues: “Many complained about perceived social and economic injustices.”

If the UK is to move forward and build the progressive, more equal, tolerant, just society that Corbyn supporters and many others want, then the political system has to sincerely engage with, and listen to, all of society – not just swing voters in Nuneaton.

Who is Owen Smith?

Who is Owen Smith?
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
29 July 2016

Labour leadership contender Owen Smith MP has stated he is “going to be just as radical” as Jeremy Corbyn. “Jeremy has been right about so many things”, Smith argued at the launch of his campaign. This pitch to Labour voters has been taken up by the Saving Labour group hoping to dispose Corbyn, with its supporters telling members of the public “there is no real difference… between Owen Smith and Jeremy”.

Is this true? How does this framing of the leadership contest fit with Smith’s actual political record?

Smith has already been criticised for his previous senior positions at Big Pharma corporations. “Smith worked for Amgen as its chief lobbyist in the UK for two years before becoming MP for Pontypridd [in 2010]. Before that he was a lobbyist for US drug firm Pfizer from 2005”, notes the Guardian. “While at Pfizer in 2005 Smith endorsed a Pfizer-backed report offering NHS patients easier access to private-sector healthcare”. According to The Times newspaper Smith stated in a press release “We believe that choice is a good thing and that patients and healthcare professionals should be at the heart of developing the agenda.” For Lisa Nandy MP (“a cracking Labour MP” – Guardian journalist Owen Jones) Smith’s senior role at Pfizer is a good thing because “having seen how a pharmaceutical company and capitalism operates from the inside is probably quite important, to be honest. If you are going to critique it, you need to understand it.”

Responding to questions about his position with Pfizer on the BBC Today Programme, Smith stated “I’ve never advocated the privatisation of the NHS” and “I believe in a 100 percent publicly owned NHS free at the point of use”. Nandy repeated this narrative in her interview with Owen Jones, replying “Yes” when Jones asked her to confirm Smith “wants an entirely publicly run National Health Service – no privatisation?”

In the real world, when Smith unsuccessfully fought the 2006 Blaenau Gwent by-election and he was asked about the involvement of the private sector in the NHS by Wales Online, he replied:

“Where they can bring good ideas, where they can bring valuable services that the NHS is not able to deliver, and where they can work alongside but subservient to the NHS and without diminishing in any respect the public service ethos of the NHS, then I think that’s fine.”

Asked about the controversial Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes introduced by the Blair Government, Smith responded: “We’ve had PFI in Wales, we’ve had a hospital built down in Baglan through PFI. If PFI works, then let’s do it.” In the same interview Smith sings the praises of New Labour’s introduction of academy schools, which was strongly opposed by the teaching unions. “I’m not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances”, noted Smith.

In July 2015 Smith abstained on the Government’s Welfare Bill, which the government’s own figures confirmed would push 330,000 children from low-income families further into poverty, with single mothers and ethnic minorities hit particularly hard. Now running for the Labour leadership, Smith told the BBC’s Andrew Marr his vote was a mistake that he now regretted. How sincerely he believes this is brought into question by his appearance on BBC Newsnight in September 2016 when he confirmed his support for the £26,000 benefit cap, saying “We are in favour of an overall reduction in the amount of money we spend on benefits in this country and we are in favour of limits on what individual families can draw down.” In March 2015 the Guardian reported the UK Supreme Court had “found that the effect of the policy [the benefit cap] was not compatible with the government’s obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child”.

Earlier this month Smith voted to renew the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons. Asked by Marr if he was prepared to “annihilate possibly millions of people” by firing Trident, Smith replied that “You’ve got to be prepared to say yes to that.” But wasn’t he once a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, asked Marr? When did he realise he was wrong? “About 15 years ago”, Smith replied. This doesn’t fit with a June 2006 Daily Mail report, which noted “Yesterday Owen Smith… came out in opposition to the Trident nuclear deterrent”.

Noting Smith entered parliament in 2010, the Guardian’s Zoe Williams argues he cannot be “tarnished by the Blair years and the vote on the Iraq war.” Indeed, though he was a Special Advisor to pro-war Labour Cabinet Minister Paul Murphy in 2003, Smith and his supporters have repeatedly highlighted his opposition to the war. However, interviewing Smith in 2006 Wales Online noted “He didn’t know whether he would have voted against the war”, with Smith arguing “the tradition of the Labour Party and the tradition of left-wing engagement to remove dictators was a noble, valuable tradition, and one that in South Wales, from the Spanish Civil War onwards, we have recognised and played a part in.”

As this suggests, even if he did oppose the war in 2003 Smith continues to repeat the delusional framing of the pro-war camp. For example, introducing the topic of Iraq in his campaign launch speech, Smith referred to the UK as “a country that has traditionally, patriotically intervened around the world to help impose and understand our values across the globe.” And again he tried to ride Corbyn’s coattails, noting “Iraq was a terrible mistake. Jeremy has been right about that.” The problem for Smith is this isn’t what Corbyn or the mainstream anti-war movement argue. Let me explain: if I slip on a banana skin – that’s a mistake. If I spill coffee down my shirt – that’s a mistake. If I spend months planning an illegal and aggressive invasion of another country that leads to the deaths of over 500,000 men, women and children and over four million refugees, then that’s a crime, and a massive one at that, as Corbyn implicitly suggested in his response to the publication of the Chilcot Report.

Corbyn, of course, also opposed the 2011 Libyan war – just one of the 2 percent of MPs who did. Smith supported the military intervention which steamrolled over peace initiatives being made by the African Union, enabled ethnic cleansing and the levelling of the city of Sirte, destabilised the country and region, increased the number of terrorist groups operating in Libya and exacerbated the refugee crisis.

Interviewed by the Telegraph in June 2006, Smith argued Tony Blair was a socialist. Asked if he has any policy differences with Blair except for the Iraq War, which he said was a mistake, Smith replied “No, I don’t think so.” The Telegraph’s take on Smith? “About as New Labour as you can get”. The Independent’s take on Smith for their report on the by-election was similarly blunt: “A dyed-in-the wool New Labourite.”

Big Pharma lobbyist? Radical? New Labourite? Socialist? Blairite? Corbynista without Corbyn? Who, exactly, is Owen Smith? Looking at his record of following the prevailing political winds, it seems Owen Smith will be whoever he needs to be for political gain.

*Buzzfeed journalist James Ball recently criticised a Twitter meme based on a similar article I wrote for Open Democracy titled ‘Who Is Angela Eagle?’. Comparing the selected points my article highlights about Eagle’s voting record with her overall voting record, Ball argued “can prove what you like with being selective with voting records”. As I explained to Ball, my article about Eagle – and this article – is about highlighting political differences between the challenger and Corbyn on key issues that may be of interest to Labour voters and the broader general public. It is not a complete record of Smith’s political career, obviously. I would hope readers don’t need me to tell them that Smith is not a moustache-twirling, Disney villain and has, I’m sure, made many positive contributions in his political career.

The Politics of Fantasy? Jeremy Corbyn and public opinion

The politics of fantasy? Jeremy Corbyn and public opinion
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
30 July 2016

A common refrain among the elite and mainstream media commentators is that “Jeremy Corbyn’s politics are fantasy”, as the headline to an Observer op-ed by Tony Blair put it August 2015. Similarly, just after Corbyn began his campaign to be Labour leader in June 2015 the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee argued the Islington North MP was “a 1983 man” and “a relic”. A vote for Corbyn “is ignoring the electorate”, Toynbee argued. Before she stepped aside in the current leadership contest, Angela Eagle went one further, arguing Corbyn “doesn’t connect with Labour voters”.

The latter criticism is easily dismissed – Corbyn was elected with the biggest mandate of any Labour leader in history, and a new YouGov poll finds Corbyn gets the support of 54 percent of the party’s members, with Eagle coming second on 21 percent and Owen Smith trailing on 15 percent.

But what about his politics and policy suggestions? How do they sit with British public opinion?

Like Corbyn, a 2014 YouGov poll for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) found “a majority of the UK public believes the gap between the rich and the poor is bad for society and the economy”, according to Steve Hart, the Chair of CLASS.

To tackle income inequality, in January 2016 the Labour leader suggested maximum pay ratios – a policy backed by 65 percent of people quizzed by YouGov/CLASS. He also pushed for all companies to pay a living wage – supported by 60 percent of people according to a 2013 Survation survey – and stripping private schools of the charitable status, a move the YouGov/CLASS poll found was backed by 55 percent of respondents.

Turning to health, in contrast to Owen Smith’s 2006 Wales Online interview supporting private sector involvement in the NHS, Corbyn believes in a publicly run NHS – a position supported by 84 per cent of the public, according to a 2013 YouGov poll.

In May 2016 Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell confirmed Labour’s plan was to build 100,000 new council houses a year. ‘More social housing’ was the top answer – given by 58 percent of respondents – when an April 2016 Guardian Cities poll asked people about solutions to the housing crisis. McDonnell also said a Labour government would give councils the power to impose rent controls – a policy supported by 60 percent of British people, including 42 percent of Tory voters, according to a 2015 YouGov poll.

Corbyn supports the nationalisation of the railways, a position backed by 66 percent of the public, including a majority of Conservative voters, according 2013 YouGov poll. He also believes the Royal Mail should be publicly owned, a position supported by 67 percent of the public, including 48 percent of Tory voters, according to the same poll.

On foreign policy, Corbyn was a key figure in the anti-war movement that opposed the deeply unpopular Iraq War, speaking to the biggest protest in British history on 15 February 2003. On Afghanistan, Corbyn opposed the war and supported the withdrawal of British troops. Polls from 2008 onwards consistently found the British public supported the withdrawal of British troops. On Trident, Corbyn’s lifelong commitment to scrapping the UK’s nuclear weapons is shared by a significant minority of the population – an impressive level of opposition when you consider the British establishment and three main parties have historically supported the retention of Trident.

On the issues Corbyn’s politics don’t reflect public opinion, arguably these are often surrounded by significant levels of media-generated misinformation. For example, polls note the majority of the public support a benefit cap of £20,000 nationwide – a cut Corbyn and many charities working on poverty strongly opposed. At the same time a 2012 TUC/YouGov poll found widespread ignorance about spending on welfare. Asked what percentage of the welfare budget was spent on unemployment benefits, the average answer given was 41 percent (the correct figure is 3 percent). Asked what percentage of the welfare budget was claimed fraudulently, people estimated 27 percent (the government estimate is 0.7 percent). The survey found that public support for the then Coalition government’s plans to cut benefits was highest amongst the most ignorant.

In conclusion, what all this polling evidence clearly shows is that many of Corbyn’s political positions command the support of large sections of the British public, often a majority. And importantly, the polls highlight that many of his positions receive significant levels of support from Tory voters.

However, a new London School of Economics study highlights the problems Corbyn’s Labour Government faces in reaching the general public. Analysing press coverage of Corbyn in September and October 2015, the survey found “an overall picture of most newspapers systematically vilifying” the leader of the biggest opposition party, assassinating his character, ridiculing his personality and delegitimising his ideas and politics.” Noting other left-wing leaders also received negative press attention, the authors of the study note “in the case of Corbyn the degree of antagonism and hatred… has arguably reached new heights.”

Whether Corbyn will be able to successfully articulate his popular politics and policies in the face of continuous attacks from the overwhelming hostile media, many Labour MPs, the Tory Government and wider British elite, and whether he and his own team is up to the job in getting the message across – these are different and difficult questions which we will find out the answers to soon enough.