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Who Is Owen Smith, the Man Who Thinks He Can Topple Corbyn?

And what does he have to do to win the Labour leadership battle?

by Gavin Haynes
21 July 2016, 12:00am

Owen Smith at his campaign launch (Photo by: Andrew Matthews / PA Wire)

What kind of a guy is Owen Smith? Well, as he himself said last week, he is normal. "I am normal. I grew up in a normal household. I've got a wife and three children. My wife is a primary school teacher."

And, just like the rest of us normals, his father also ran BBC Wales. Like most of us do after quitting our jobs in the organisation where our dad was supremo, Smith went on to work as an £80,000 a year lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry (though he never personally took the Viagra he was flogging ). And, in a rite of passage Gordon Brown's "hard-working families" will surely recognise, the MP he eventually replaced in the Commons was already a close family friend.

Owen Smith's career so far runs from PR to media to parliamentary special adviser in the classic modern politician way. In that sense he is "normal", in that his CV closely resembles that of David Cameron. He is perhaps not hugely 'identifiable', except that he is plain-speaking, looks a bit nerdy, and likes rugby (still only identifiable in Wales).

But questions of his own identifiability must come second. For now, Smith's key task is not to be either Jeremy Corbyn or Angela Eagle.

Eagle – with her Jackie Collins campaign font, her teary resignation from the shadow cabinet, and her toxic vote for Iraq – was always going to end up as the stalking horse candidate. The fact that only one relative unknown then came forward illustrates exactly the mountain to be climbed in challenging Corbyn. It's also why, in doing so, it seems likely that Smith will be stealing many of Corbyn's clothes.

Given the strength of the Corbyn Army only ten months ago, the only way to win this leadership election is to reach out to the hard-leftists who now control the base, and tell them: "I'm Jeremy Corbyn, but smart and efficient and without the electoral anthrax about Trident or co-parenting of the Falklands with Argentina or a worrying history of appearing on Iran's Press TV."

Elected to Parliament on his third attempt, Smith backed Ed Miliband in the 2010 leadership election, and Andy Burnham in the 2015 one. He is, in short, the candidate of the middle-left "there's something really wrong with 21st century capitalism" team that has yet to produce many solid ideas about what they should do about it.

As reward for his support, Ed gave him a job straight away, and since then, there's always been a sense of the coming man to him. In his most recent role, as Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, he was strong on his feet in the House, and the right level of shouty and righteous, once asking IDS how he slept at night.

But he will have difficulty pulling votes off the hard left given that he opposed Corbyn's stance on removing the welfare cap, and abstained in the vote on the government's Welfare Reform Bill. This was at the post-Ed moment where Labour was closed for repairs, and night manager Harriet Harman had decreed abstaining to be the Party's official position. Jeremy Corbyn famously voted against that bill – a move which helped seal his ascendancy and Andy Burnham's doom.

Ordinarily, making a leadership bid after only six years in the Commons would feel premature. But all bets are off in today's Labour – no longer a political party, just 200-odd aircrash survivors wandering dazed in the smouldering jungle wondering who to eat first.

His decision to do so shows the ambition of the man. Unlike Angela Eagle, whose brief rise to the top table of Labour is a basically Buggins' Turn for an MP of 24 years' standing, even back at BBHC Radio Wales' Good Morning Wales, Smith was the kind of pumped-up type-A who was running his first internship like a potential Prime Minister.

All bets are off in today's Labour – no longer a political party, just 200-odd aircrash survivors wandering dazed in the smouldering jungle wondering who to eat first.

"He was full on," suggests one former employee there, Lee Waters. "Very, very bright, lots of enthusiasm, very little self-doubt, but a very high standard of what he expected. To be honest, he was challenging to those above him. He was difficult to manage because he set such a high standard and wouldn't accept any nonsense."

Finally, his rapid rise illustrates how an entire generation of would-be PMs has been consigned to the scrapheap because they voted for the Iraq War. Smith, who only entered Parliament in 2010, doesn't have that baggage. But he has been around long enough to have said some incredibly vapid stuff about it. "We are making significant inroads in improving what is happening in Iraq," he told Wales Online in 2006, while standing in a by-election. "I thought at the time 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." All of which displays a charming Boys' Own view of the world, going round knocking off dictators in the name of Socialism.

Smith has promised to be "radical and credible" in his campaign, but so far he has nailed neither. His radicalism can't just be policy, it needs to be him showing radical mettle. He needs to play the opposite of Corbyn's "We don't do personality" school of politics and hold Labour's elected leader up to the kind of ridicule the endlessly polite "Jeremy's a nice guy but..." tone of things so far has not brooked. He needs to tear into him for his shambolic organisation, massive policy position holes, and low-wattage mind.

To be politely patronising like at the 2015 leadership election is a short route back to the backbenches. In a battle for the soul of the party, he needs to go to war in the same way that Kinnock did against the Militants in the 80s. Politeness in the face of idealism is one of the Labour Party's achilles heels – driven by a nagging leftie guilt that the idealists are simply better people.

As for credibility, as the Trident debate rumbled on this week, the old question of whose hand you'd prefer to have on the nuclear trigger hovered in the background. Few swing voters would want Jez "let's build the submarines to save the jobs but not actually put any nukes on them" Corbyn. But then, would you want a guy who once dialled 999 as a producer in order to demand an interview with the local chief constable? In short, would you want Owen Smith?

@gavhaynes

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