We Went to Owen Smith's Labour Leadership Barbecue in London Fields

Meeting Owen's Army in an East London Park.

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08 August 2016, 10:12am

(All photos by Chris Bethell)

This ain't no ordinary barbecue. This is a moderate barbecue. It's a sunny Sunday afternoon, and as you rotate your head across London Fields, a small park in Hackney, suddenly all the young and aggressively over-dressed gathered around their little porta-fires resolve into a slightly more earnest, clean-shirted crew. There must be about 40 of them, huddled around a single low smoulder of barbecue.

One hip hungover guy (HHG) – aztec vest, messy beard, laceless sneakers and pink shorts, stinking of red wine – wanders past this beige scrummage with his girlfriend. His head turns. "Fuck me," he gasps. "It's fucking Owen Smith."

The Labour leadership contender has just walked straight past him, and HHG has pretty much shouted his low-grade insight into the ex-Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary's face. This is as much of a warning as any of us should ever need to avoid a career in politics. "Wow... Mr 35 percent," HHG slurs over to us. "I'm just so glad that I didn't sleep last night. The surrealism of it all is so... perfect."

Wrong, buddy. There's nothing surreal about a barbecue with Owen Smith, because Owen is an ordinary guy, just like you and me. In fact, he's the candidate of sunny, identifiable suburban normality. He's Mondeo Man in a can, unlike his weirdo serial-divorcee cornflake-beard Chavista opponent. And unlike his oddball teetotal allotment-raking manhole-photographing opponent, Owen Smith enjoys all kinds of meats. This must be the subtext of today's Young Labour meat-n-greet: don't vote for vegetarians; they're weirdos. They're dangerous plant extremists and, what's more, they think they're better than everyone else with their little tufts of charred quorn carefully loaded onto a separate dish to the rest of the barbecue.

That said, the meat platter we were promised today is still pretty minimal. Unlike Jezza, there's no feeding the 5,000 for Smith. A few kebab sticks sizzle on a griddle, but there aren't enough for the food to ever make its way around to us. This is socialism-lite, after all.

The stump speech is short – and if you've heard Smith speaking before in any context, then you've heard it: "Labour needs to govern / This is a pretty miserable era if the Opposition can't even oppose any more / My name's not Jeremy Corbyn; please vote for me."

There are a couple of sensible questions, and one heckler clutching an ominous black can of super-cider: "You've got to speak with more passion mate," he dribbles. Owen doesn't quite know how to take this. "I am speaking with passion, pal," he responds, flatly, but the man is hustled off before it can go to a vote.

There's a bit of Dogs That Look Like Their Owners going on with the audience – glasses abound; pastiness and wonkishness are in heavy supply. These are Labour's hardcore moderates, and today, they are taking a straightedge approach to moderation by enjoying it to the extreme.

Owen's Army, like their forebears Burnham's Brigade and Cooper's Contingent (but not Kendall's Kommando), are here to tell you that the Labour Party should tack leftwards from the Blairite years, but should do so in a sustainable, costed, electorally-sophisticated way.

All of the supporters we speak to report having voted for Jez a year ago. They're disappointed realists: many of them point to his failure to campaign over Europe, or by his failure – as laid bare in the VICE News documentary – to ask a single question about IDS's resignation. Many of them are now phone-banking for Owen.

"It's about 40 percent for Jeremy, about 30 percent for us, and the rest still undecided," one Owen-alike argues. "So I'm not denying there's a lot of uphill, but it's far more open than you'd think. Perception hasn't caught up with reality out there in the country – lots of people feel the same as us now."

"There's still a feeling Jeremy hasn't been given a fair go," another admits. "But then, I phone right across the country, and it's clear out there that he doesn't really represent the northern heartlands. He just represents London liberals like us. Owen's not stealing Jeremy's clothes; they're the Labour Party's clothes. It's just that Owen can articulate all of these things I believe in much better. He has a plan."

For his part, Labour's Future hangs around for the better part of an hour, making chit-chat with a string of young admirers in fluent wonkese. It's almost as if there's actually nowhere more important he has to be today. His answers are all blandly on-grid, i.e: "I agree with you – but the problem is, Theresa May's speech on the steps of Downing Street was her marching right onto traditional Labour turf. And how is she being allowed to do that?"

But he does seem likeable, non-robotic – curious, even. And his supporters aren't out of hope just yet. They're in it for the long haul, and the haul is still ridiculously long – another six weeks of hustings and stump speeches and phone banks and seasonally-appropriate eating opportunities and cuddling with Andrew Marr on the couch to get through. Corbyn has already reached the apex of public recognition, but a lot of people just haven't heard enough of Smith yet to really make up their minds. If the needle does flick, it will be towards him.

The final selfie over, he walks up through the middle of the park with his handlers, towards the ice cream van on the north side, and instantly the crowds ambling down the pathway no longer have any idea that he's plausibly our next PM.

This time last year, Liz Kendall had her own "Picnic with Liz" up in Dulwich Park on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, and she still managed to pull in 40 people. Owen's got about the same now, except it's Sunday and glorious, and Liz eventually managed to poll just four percent of the Labour vote.

He should pray for all the "Fuck me it's Owen Smith"s he can get.

@gavhaynes / @CBethell_photo

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