Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith Used Their Cardiff Hustings to Fight About Why They're Fighting

It was another shouting match in Labour's protracted relationship breakdown.

by Gavin Haynes
05 August 2016, 10:03am

Jez attacks with his laser-beam finger, but Smith pulls off an impressive block at the All Nations Centre, Cardiff (Picture by: Ben Birchall / PA Wire)

How on earth is this going to work? There are five of these things scheduled so far, right? Plus all the many sit-down interviews, stump speeches and Q&A sessions over the next six weeks. So what could they possibly talk about next week? And the week after?

We've already experienced the full width of Owen Smith's policy platform: Corbyn + competence, minus sincerity. We've had everything in the Great Leader's platform, too: same ol' deep-fried cornballisms he's specialised in since Maggie was on top. And we've now canvased everything there is to say on the economy, immigration, Europe, Trident, jobs and anti-semitism in detail I can only describe as "granular".

So... what's now left to say about anything in Britain? How exactly are any of us hacks going to keep spewing analysis, columns or even listicles in the face of the fact that everything-ever was efficiently covered in the first 45 minutes of this 90-minute minnow-wrestling super-bout?

Is it about to become one long round of the amusing final question on Question Time – Jezza on Pokemon Go, Owen Smith on Skepta's Mercury Prize nomination (Smith: "Well I think it's marvellous that a man of colour, this chappie, Spectre, who, really, represents exactly the diversity of today's Britain, one the Labour Party has always fought for, can be making talented music, and no it's not to my tastes to be honest, I prefer The Killers if you must know, Prefab Sprout now there was a band, but zzzzzzz...")?

It's not even that their debate lacked for substance. Compared to Blair-era dust-ups – hyper-banal agreeing-matches over the shape of the internal market in foundation hospitals – there's plenty of meat to be picked from the present hard-left capture of Labour.

Clearly, these guys both want to make a very different kind of Britain. It's just that they both have an extraordinary anti-talent to turn even chucking 40 years of UK economic policy on the bonfire into a series of rote lines about more apprenticeships, the challenges of all-women shortlists, or a billion extra pounds for Welsh devolution.

Most confusing of all is that both men seem to speak with so much "passion". Jeremy Corbyn – we can infer from his breathing and eating of sandwiches – is a human being. As such, he's clearly been stung by recent criticisms of his leadership style, and has finally taken some advice – to show his passion, to emote a bit, to just occasionally act less polytechnic, more Poly Styrene. This means shouting.

Owen Smith, a man who dreams in wonkish, has clearly been told by his people that he needs to overcome his melted-Wallace air by coming out swinging. If he is to win, he will need to attract the sort of angry-retweeter crowd Corbyn has made his stock. This means shouting.

Only, the problem for Smith is that he's stolen Jeremy's clothes. On the basic shape of their fiscal plan – borrow massively but cheaply, invest in infrastructure, up taxes, roll back changes to welfare – they were in violent agreement. That's meant to peg Corbyn into a corner and hand the leadership to Smith on competency, but it seemed almost the opposite kind of transference was taking place. That if you wanted these things – rather than just claiming them to be nice aspirations – then Corbyn would be a more authentic brand space.

Nowhere was this more obvious than on immigration. Both made the usual cooing noises about how everyone's welcome at Britain's multi-ethnic ring-a-rosies Getalong Gang. Which was deeply pleasing to the activists who will put an X on a leadership ballot. But it will sink like a sack of wet shit with real-life working class Labour voters, fleeing the party to join even Diane James' scurvied Ukip at the next election.

So if you squinted and thought for a moment, it seems obvious that Smith will roll back his position in a heartbeat once he's overcome the pesky inconvenience of his own members. Think he won't? Before he became leader, Tony Blair was asked if he'd ever abolish Clause IV – Labour's electoral-suicidal commitment to nationalisation of industry. His answer was simple: "No." It was also completely untrue.

But that is Smith's refrain – "We Need to Be in Government." And perfectly true as it is, he didn't help his chances of enacting that refrain by the way he was crowbarring it into every context in that very Lynton Crosby "the public are sad little goldfish, they only have the mental capacity to remember one thing" way.

It wasn't the only bit of cynical modern politicking he indulged in. There was also the fake row over anti-semitism, with Smith "calling out" Corbyn over his handling of the issue – all faker than a HuffPo Women column about the Ghostbusters reboot.

It showed Smith had come to the hustings tooled-up and spoiling, especially when he used that fight to crowbar in some lines about the other narrative the Anyone But Jeremy camp are trying to land: about intimidation of the moderates, mob rule, even "bullying" – an untoppable cardinal sin in Labourland.

Whether it spills over into wedgies for Owen's policy team, the broader disunity was there for the world to see – the crowd booed and cheered like they were watching the Rumble in the Jungle rather than the Obvious Fails in Wales. When Jez did his usual dusty homily at the end, 80 percent of the crowd gave him a standing ovation. At this point at least, he's got this one in the bag.

But if you were looking for the real reason Labour stand at the door of a historic election loss, it's that the biggest debate of the whole night was over who's fault the present Party disunity is. Is it Owen's for standing against Jeremy's whopping mandate? Or is it Jeremy's for pigheadedly ignoring 80 percent of his MPs?

This is the level things have got to: fighting over why they're fighting. It's the final stage in any relationship breakdown – the moment when your Relate counsellor chucks up her hands and fucks off for a cigarette. And that, really, is the only future the Labour Party can now look forward to – this pageant of minor disagreement grinding its way to an autumn in which the breakdown becomes irretrievable, the differences irreconcilable, and a hundred years of whatever all that was dissolve into a range of hard-left and soft-left shapes that better fit our angry new silo age. At least the Liberals had the graves of millions in the First World War as their death-knell. Labour just has the Ed Stone.


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