‘It’s a binary choice isn’t it – Owen or bust.’ These were the words of one Labour member when I asked him if he’d been persuaded by Owen Smith’s performance in Hammersmith on Tuesday night. It seems to be the view of many party members and supporters, although the binary is usually framed the other way – Jeremy Corbyn against ‘Not Jeremy Corbyn’, with Smith having no real identity of his own.
This characterisation is common to both the Anyone But Corbyn crowd and Corbyn’s own diehard supporters. The former think Corbyn is so hopeless that their priority is getting him out, not getting Smith in, while the latter claim Smith is an unprincipled Blairite sellout and everything Corbyn is not.
In many ways, these people are right – Owen Smith is the anti-Corbyn. The event in Hammersmith could not have been more different from a Jeremy Corbyn rally, one of which was taking place simultaneously across town in Newham. Nobody was handing out copies of Crossfire or the Socialist Worker outside Hammersmith station; there were no TSSA stewards giving directions.
Instead, a slightly awkward-looking student volunteer in a red Owen Smith T-shirt stood in the bar of Hammersmith’s Lyric Theatre, almost blending in next to an usher selling programmes for Bugsy Malone. She directed enquirers up some stairs and towards the back of the building, where there were a few more volunteers and an Owen Smith banner. For all the Corbyn campaign’s claims of being the anti-establishment movement, it was this campaign that felt like a small insurgency, and not a particularly organised one.
It was also very Labour, in stark contrast to party’s almost total invisibility at Corbyn events. Along with poster’s declaring ‘Owen Smith: Labour’s Future’ and frequent mentions of the party, it seemed like a lot of party meetings I’d been to before. The young volunteers in branded T-shirts signing people up and giving directions; the slightly older people – either in smart casual or else dark suits with bright red ties – milling about looking important; the low hum of conversation while we waited for the candidate to appear. Next to the excitement of a Corbyn rally, it seemed a little sterile.
Smith himself, however, was definitely not sterile – he was energetic and personable. ‘Don’t clap before I say anything,’ he began, ‘you might not like it.’ It was another break from Corbyn, and not only because there’s no danger of people not clapping at one of his rallies. While over in Newham, Corbyn lectured his followers on concepts and ideas and ‘doing politics differently’, Smith was much more personal. He talked about people and communities, about his own experiences of South Wales during the miners’ strike, and about his frustration with Labour’s weakness over the past six years.
He’s also angry in a way that feels both authentic and righteous. Corbyn occasionally gets angry too, but it seems more abstract. Smith is angry at concrete things. He’s angry at the Conservatives’ attacks on Labour’s legacy – sure start, the NHS, workers’ rights – but he’s also angry at what he regards as Labour’s supine response and Corbyn’s lack of leadership. He reveals that in his 10 months as Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, he had only one meeting with the party leader on this key policy area. This, he says, is a dereliction of duty by the whole party. ‘Everyone in this room will be complicit,’ he says, if Labour disintegrates and the Conservatives are allowed to do what they like with the country.
Then he took questions, perhaps the most radical difference between the two candidates. Whereas Corbyn seems only to deliver speeches to crowds of people who already agree with him, Smith is at least willing to be challenged, to reach out and try to convince people who don’t agree with him. Indeed, the whole event was pitched explicitly at undecided voters, and Smith seems to be the only candidate who understands that there is an electorate that needs to be convinced as well as a political party. ‘At a hustings a few weeks ago, Jeremy said, “Yes, we’ve got to get some of the people who contemplated voting Tory in the past to vote for Labour.” Rubbish. We need to get two million people who actually voted Tory, 12 months ago, to vote Labour,’ he said, referring to Corbyn’s apparent reluctance to engage with non-Labour voters.
The question is, will it work? Smith’s audience on Tuesday night may not have been fully decided, but they were at least willing to listen to him and none of them were hardcore Corbyn supporters. As one of them told me afterwards, ‘I was already sympathetic, but he did settle my doubts.’ Engaging with doubters will be vital if he becomes leader, but so will bringing back people who feel Labour abandoned them and may well be unwilling to listen to us.
He will also have to work hard and fast to convince people that he is not simply the anti-Corbyn, chosen because the party needed a challenger and he was the only one available after Angela Eagle dropped out. Having seen him speak, there is certainly enough there to build the kind of personal story modern politics requires, even if in many ways he is also the anti-Corbyn. Most people, however, don’t go to political meetings and, should he win, I suspect many will still regard him as just Not Jeremy Corbyn. It is a label he will have to shift, and fast.