As voting begins, here’s a 10 minute read explaining the Labour Leadership contest. From #Traingate to Trotsky entrists, we’ll be giving you an overview of both contenders and food for thought if you’re an undecided voter.
How did we get here?
To understand this year’s leadership contest, we need to think back to last Summer. After five years out of power, Labour – led by Ed Miliband – were unsuccessful at a General Election. There were loads of reasons why: they failed to convince voters that they could be trusted with the UK economy, and people couldn’t imagine Miliband as Prime Minister. The Conservatives also convinced people that Labour may do a deal with the SNP, which worried many voters.
Following Ed’s resignation, Jeremy Corbyn was elected as the new Labour Party Leader. He won because he offered something different to his rivals – unapologetic opposition to cuts and a promise to do politics ‘differently’. The fact that Corbyn was seen as ‘different’ (somehow more genuine and principled than other politicians) allowed him to come first by a large margin, thanks in part to many people joining in order to support him.
Some Labour politicians did not take kindly to the idea of serving under Corbyn, who was notorious for voting to satisfy his own principles rather than the wishes of Parliamentary colleagues. This June, the Leader was hit by a wave of resignations from his Shadow Cabinet. Former colleagues alleged that he undermined them, was inept at communication and relied on his Shadow Chancellor (John McDonnell) to make big decisions for him.
Following Corbyn’s decision not to resign despite a damning vote of no confidence, Pontypridd MP Owen Smith eventually emerged as the sole leadership challenger.
Idealism versus Pragmatism
Both sides rely on convincing the other that they’re wrong, which makes things tricky for undecided voters who don’t see the contest in such black and white terms. It’s a case of reason versus emotion: Smith’s supporters prioritise electoral success and Corbyn’s prize unwavering devotion to principles.
Corbyn is portrayed as a man with unshakeable belief in a more equal society and as somebody who embodies the antithesis of the flaws of the Labour Government which ruled from 1997-2010. In his supporters’ eyes, Jeremy is the elected Leader and Smith is attempting to unseat him in an undemocratic challenge which seeks to derail his project and move the Party away from its new, unashamedly left-wing position.
Owen Smith’s argument can be summarised by a feature conducted by the One Show. Whilst many people (even those who don’t back the Labour Party) support many of Corbyn’s ideas, they are unwilling to vote for the man himself. Smith’s Parliamentary colleagues have nominated him to challenge the Leader as he also identifies as a socialist, yet is seen as better suited to influence those beyond the Party’s existing base: a prerequisite to electoral success.
There is an argument that just because Owen Smith says he is more electable, this doesn’t necessarily mean it is true. Corbyn’s supporters fear that if Smith was Leader, he would be what the Late Tony Benn called a ‘weathercock’ – a figure whose course is swayed by the public’s opinion rather than somebody who influences people’s thinking. Many of Corbyn’s supporters can’t see why, if the public were only to realise how bloody wonderful their man is, he shouldn’t succeed at a General Election.
Whilst Smith’s backers include MPs seen as a throwback to Tony Blair’s premiership, he’s also supported by several more left-wing politicians. Such a broad and talented coalition is seen as more capable of taking on the Conservative Government than the minority of MPs who remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. Smith argues that strong opposition would allow the public to see Labour as a viable ‘Government in waiting’, increasing their chances of beating the Tories at a General Election. Smith’s argument is fundamentally that Labour can only make a difference to people’s lives by being in power.
What do they believe in?
Owen Smith’s opponents have accused him of attempting to hijack Jeremy Corbyn’s Socialist persona in order to take his job. The Welshman would argue that the pair have always shared many beliefs, but that he’s the candidate best suited to put them into practice. It’s also notable that despite Smith’s policies being produced at short notice, they seem credible, whereas few policies (other than the notion of being ‘anti-austerity’) escaped Corbyn’s camp prior to the Leadership contest.
If Labour faced charges last May that they were not competent at managing the UK economy, then both candidates have questions to answer. Both support an end to austerity (which even Smith fans would admit is mainly on the agenda thanks to his rival), instead backing massive programmes of investment. In what resembles a playground game of ‘my dad’s bigger than your dad’, Smith’s offer to invest £200 billion was followed by team Corbyn’s announcement that they’d like to spend £500 billion. Smith clapped back by suggesting he wants to build 300,000 homes a year, as opposed to Corbyn’s 200K.
It’s easier to list the differences between the candidates than the issues on which they agree. Both see the need for the NHS to be 100% free at the point of use and would like to spend a bit more money on it. Neither is a fan of zero hours contracts and they’ve both outlined plans to make trade unions more powerful in order to protect workers’ rights. As socialists, it’s little surprise that both also support renationalisation of the railways and plan to increase taxes on businesses and big earners.
Europe is one key area of difference. In a pitch which will appeal to ‘Remainers’, Smith says he’ll try to block any Government attempt at ‘Brexit’ until they tell people what exactly this will entail. Next, he would like a second referendum or General Election, in order to allow the public to ratify the terms of our exit. Corbyn says any attempt to call a second referendum would be ‘undemocratic’ and says that workers’ rights, access to the EU’s single market and environmental regulations should not be affected by Brexit. As well as continuing to criticise Corbyn’s pro-EU pitch, critics also wonder how exactly he plans to influence the Tories’ Brexit negotiations.
Their other big disagreement is over Trident. Jeremy Corbyn wants to get rid of the UK’s nuclear deterrent as he believes it isn’t suitable for the 21st Century and is an unnecessary expense. His rival wants to retain weapons and argues that building and maintaining them is the basis of many people’s livelihoods. Whilst both are in favour of a nuclear-free world, Smith disputes Corbyn’s argument that losing our nuclear capacity would inspire others to do the same, and he therefore believes that weapons are essential for national security.
What are their policies when it comes to students? Corbyn says that he wants University to be free and will increase tax on businesses in order to pay for it. Owen Smith argues that a graduate tax should be introduced, which would replace the existing student loan system. In other education news, Corbyn wants to introduce a National Education Service to provide opportunities for free learning for people of all ages, whilst Smith plans to spend more on Surestart centres.
Skeletons in their closets
I’ve spoken to more undecided people than I thought I would at the beginning of this contest. I’ve also come across several people who won’t vote for either candidate: whilst they’re unimpressed by the incumbent, they don’t rate his challenger much either.
Summer is traditionally seen as ‘silly season’ and the leadership contest has treated us to gaffes from both candidates. Smith’s description of his rival as a ‘lunatic’ and suggestion that Labour needs to knock Theresa May ‘back on her heels’ may have been dismissed as the products of inexperience, but it’s not hard to see why both comments are inappropriate.
This week saw the arrival of #traingate. Jeremy Corbyn faced allegations that, far from being forced to take a seat on the floor of a train (a position from which he filmed a video about the UK rail industry), he instead ignored a number of empty seats and misled the public in order to make a political point. The matter – and Virgin Trains’ impartiality – is still up for debate, but may well harm the man whose slogan last summer was ‘straight talking, honest politics’.
Neither man’s comments on foreign policy are likely to earn favour with the general public, either. Corbyn’s refusal to say whether he would defend a fellow NATO member in the event of invasion leave him open to suggestions that he cannot be trusted with the nation’s security. His opponent faced the same charge following his assertion that so-called Islamic State would need to be ‘around the table’ for any discussions about peace in Syria.
Both candidates have faced questions about their pasts. Many accusations have been levelled at Jeremy Corbyn: from showing sympathy to extremist causes to undertaking work for an Iranian Government which persecutes LGBT+ people. Owen Smith has faced suggestions that he supports NHS privatisation due to the fact that he worked for a large Pharmaceutical company. Smith’s comments during a 2006 interview also give fuel to suggestions that he was once a ‘Blairite’ and has revised his opinion on key issues being discussed during this Summer’s Leadership campaign.
The past haunts the Party on the whole. Corbynistas (as some still insist on calling them) dread a return to the days of Tony Blair, whose legacy they believe was tainted by the Iraq War; encouraging private companies to invest in schools and hospitals; and an unhealthily close relationship with media baron Rupert Murdoch.
Tom Watson, Labour’s Deputy Leader, has raised concerns of Trotskyists (hardcore leftwing activists) attempting to infiltrate the party. An unsavoury left wing faction called the Militant Tendency acted in a similar way before its senior members were expelled by Labour Leader Neil Kinnock in the late 1980s. There is a fear that Jeremy Corbyn is not entirely unsympathetic to such groups and that, under his leadership, other disreputable former members such as George Galloway may also attempt to rejoin the Party.
Before ballots close on the 21st September, voters must decide not who their leader should be, but rather what they want their leader to be. Should the Leader of the Labour Party be an idealist who is perfectly in tune with the views of some Party Members? Or should they opt instead for a Leader whose main message is that he is determined to return the Party to power in order to put his socialist principles into action?
– By Liam David Hopley