If Smith wants Labour members to trust him, he has to show he trusts them

Left wing activists fear they'll lose all influence if they let go of Corbyn, writes Simon Wren-Lewis


The betting odds suggest Jeremy Corbyn is a clear favourite to beat Owen Smith, even if those are based on thin information.

But if comments on my recent posts, and personal conversations, are anything to go by Corbyn will be very hard to beat. People are always reluctant to hear that their preferred strategy is not working.

After all it happened to Labour MPs when they believed they had to triangulate to the right to win elections, even after the 2015 defeat.

Now it is happening to Labour party members who still believe they can create a mass social democratic party without the support of Labour MPs. Just as hope will not win out against reality for Labour under Corbyn after the no confidence vote, nor will it do so for Owen Smith’s campaign if he does not address the concerns of Labour members. [1]

The first thing Owen Smith can do to change this is to acknowledge Corbyn’s greatest achievement: building an enthusiastic activist base for the party. This achievement was only possible because of Labour’s previous failure to do so.

To read some you would think that Corbyn’s support is largely made up of ex-Trots or SWP members, but this is nonsense. It is similar to the support that the socialist Bernie Sanders received, and the rise of new left movements elsewhere.

It is the activist base that Labour desperately needs to help counteract the influence of the media.

One very real reason why this base does not want to let Corbyn go is their fear that without him they will lose all influence. Corbyn’s nomination in 2015 was an act of generosity by some MPs, and members fear with justification that this will not be repeated.

As a result, they believe any prospective candidate from the left will never be on the ballot. When I wrote earlier that the left within Labour would be in a better position after a poor general election loss in 2020 if that loss occurred under Smith rather than Corbyn, this point was quite justifiably made.

Owen Smith could counter this fear by pledging to lower the number of MPs required to nominate a candidate for leader, or by some equivalent means to ensure that members can always vote for a candidate from the left.

Many of those opposed to Corbyn will be horrified at this suggestion, which is precisely why it would be a strong move for Smith to make. My impression is that most Corbyn supporters regard all the 172 MPs as essentially tainted by the antics of the original anti-Corbynistas.

In that sense, my warning that the tactics of this group of overtly anti-Corbyn MPs would completely backfire has proved correct. Many members also see all those MPs as deeply sold on New Labour triangulation, and are reluctant to believe that only a year after the 2015 defeat and Corbyn’s victory, and because of recent events, that election strategy has become history.

Smith should disown this election strategy explicitly, but by making it easier for a Corbyn successor to become leader again Smith will effectively be saying to members that they can always be in a position to prevent any future backsliding.

If Smith wants Labour members to trust him, he has to show that he also trusts them in the future.

The other area where Smith needs to clarify his views is on immigration. At the moment he seems to be living in the same land as some leading Brexit campaigners: saying we need to stay in the EU single market but also that immigration in some areas is too high (although he has also condemned Conservative type controls).

There is a real debate on whether Labour needs to advocate controls on unskilled migration to preserve its working class vote (see my short dialog with Martin Wolf).

As I suspect most Labour party members care a lot more about staying in the single market than they do about controlling immigration, it is important for Smith to signal where his priorities lie.

Smith has already outlined a series of measures on economic policy. There is a lot to discuss and a lot to like here, and I suspect it is not very different from what policy might have been under a Corbyn leadership.

Which suggests an obvious move, which is for him to say that he would offer John McDonnell the opportunity to continue as Shadow Chancellor. (See his Newsnight comments on any offer to Corbyn.)

If that position has already been promised to Angela Eagle in exchange for her stepping aside, then some equivalent offer should be made.

There is a common theme to the first and last points. To defeat the Conservatives, Labour needs to be a broad church. It has to have a strong, effective and largely united set of MPs, but also a vigorous activist base. Remember that Labour membership rose substantially around 1997.

It needs to develop policies that can appeal to both left and right in the party, which has to mean both left and right being involved in policymaking.

If he is to have any chance of winning in September, Smith needs to convince party members that he believes in that and can implement it.

[1] Just to be clear, I think Labour members should vote for Smith whether he takes up these suggestions or not, because under Corbyn after the no confidence vote Labour are heading for at best a disastrous defeat in 2020 and at worst a split party.

Simon Wren-Lewis is Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He has served as an economic advisor to the Labour leadership. This post originally appeared on his blog Mainly Macro

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8 Responses to “If Smith wants Labour members to trust him, he has to show he trusts them”

  1. david clayton

    Lots of good points in here and like most members I want to see a Labour Government more than my ‘side’ win in this horrible election. But. As a Corbyn supporter who is willing to be persuaded I can’t say I see Smith as any less ‘unelectable’ and much more likely to give up on the idea of left wing politics. Something very strange is taking place in this debate, and it has horrible echoes of the EU referendum. Very little is about substance and awful lot is about simplistic assertions, rumour and downright lies. Why is the Corbyn leadership so bad? what has happened to make so many MPs fearful for their safety? Why has no-one been charged as a consequence? Where are the big names of the PLP? Surely there is someone more convincing than Smith out there. Is there simply a lack of talent in the PLP? Would we be better with a different set of MPs? Why are there so many attacks on Labour opponents and so few on the Tories? Labour certainly needs to be a broad church but actively abusing a large proportion of the congregation while failing to explain what is really going on is not helping. And to be honest, if you are going to have a coup, demonstrate some political and leadership skills and have a successful one. Not the half arsed shambles of this summer.

  2. toffer99

    The half-million or so who joined the party recently did so because Corbyn is the antithesis of the plastic, besuited PR man. This has become even more obvious with the advent of Smith. I can imagine Smith asking “Why did you take an instant dislike to me?” “It saves time” comes roaring back from 500,000 throats.
    You mention members who still believe they can create a mass social democratic party without the support of Labour MPs. Well if they won’t support us, the members, we’ll get some MPs who will.

  3. toffer99

    P.S. Us half million aren’t all left-wing activists. Unless you’re speaking from the viewpoint of Genghis Khan.

  4. Patrick Nelson

    “Just to be clear, I think Labour members should vote for Smith whether he takes up these suggestions or not, because under Corbyn after the no confidence vote Labour are heading for at best a disastrous defeat in 2020 and at worst a split party.”

    I don’t think that it is true either about 2020 or the party splitting – neither has to happen just because JC is leading the party, but even if it was there are far bigger issues at stake which is that there must be a reasonably sized political party that offers an alternative to the society degrading creed of neoliberalism.

    Labour would be in dire straights under Owen Smith or Yvette Cooper were in charge just as it was under Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown – Being a little bit nicer than the Tories just doesn’t win elections – we need to radically challenge the false suppositions that the Tory press has used to pull the wool over peoples eyes.

    For example – if Tory PM council house building, Keynsian, welfare state supporting Harold Macmillan stood today they would be calling him an extreme left winger, yet anyone who knows history knows that he was not. Yet thanks to the likes of Rupert Murdoch and their endless economic far right propaganda and thanks to Tony Blair taking the easy option – of aping the Tories – the political compass has been dragged way to the right in this country and irrespective of 2020 – we need to drag it back into balance. Jeremy Corbyn is the only candidate on offer who we can trust to work for this.

  5. Roger

    Native working class people cannot compete with better educated, lower paid people from Eastern Europe.
    There has to be something in it for them to vote for the Labour Party.
    The Labour party has encouraged globalisation which has been good for the elite and better paid , and arguably the economy as a whole but not for the native working class.
    The Labour Party has encouraged immigration which has also damaged the interests of the native working class.
    The Labour Partys’ answer seems to be to disavow the working classes and to become a party for the better off in jobs not directly threatened by immigrants- public services, professions, and media.
    But that is a silo and an abandonment of the people it avows and needs to win an election.
    Owen Smith falls into this category.
    Jeremy Corbyn is conflicted between remaining open to immigration( which is good for the economy and which he agrees with )and promoting the necessary support to working people ( increased living wage , increased public services, increased targeted job creation and income support ) because it has become “financially irresponsible ” to do the latter and electoral suicide to do the former.
    In my view the high road is to press for European expansion to create jobs in Europe (reducing the pull to England); press for free healthcare in Europe – which is one of the big draws for immigrants to this country – and to press for targeted mitigation for the areas suffering/benefitting the most from immigration – that means increased health , education and social services spending in Lincolnshire, the east and SE coastal areas and all other areas, including London, feeling the squeeze on jobs and services; and real job creation/training for those displaced at the lower end to take up other opportunities.
    If the economy in Europe was growing ; if life in the rest of Europe was as attractive as it is in England for migrants and if the people displaced in this country were compensated and protected there wouldn’t be the problems we witness now.
    Unfortunately I think that when Jeremy starts to say similar things he gets shouted down by his own MP’s.

  6. JohnB

    When Jeremy Corbyn stood for election a year ago I decided not to support hime with my vote. Although I found myself agreeing with his policies I was of the opinion that, notwithstanding this, he would not lead Labour to a General Elction win. I voted for Yvette Cooper and Jeremy won. Massively.
    Democracy means that I accept that.
    From the start most Labour MPs were opposed to him and now 142 of them aredetermined to have him replaced against the wishes of the overall party membership. That is not democracy.

  7. George K

    Ken Livingstone, when he initially stood for Mayor of London, experienced similar treatment from the media and Labour hierarchy to that of Corbyn, He was elected; so could Jeremy be. He had the courage not to be cowed by those powerful forces and vested interests; so has Jeremy. The very idea of Tory-lite, New Labour all over again is anathema. There is no point in a Labour Party so emasculated by compromise with the demands of a power elite. This is the way the world ends – Not with a bang but a whimper.

  8. Richard Honey

    Having seen Owen Smith at first hand I was much more impressed than I thought I would be. He is very bright, a good speaker and I heard more policy from him in an hour than from Corbyn in a year. Listening to him I felt he should have been the person at the helm during the last election if he’d had a bit more experience as an MP. Of course Ed was up against a lot with the well-oiled Tory machine with a narrative that had been well spun for the previous five years and connected to a deeper enduing trope that labour can’t run the economy. But I felt he would have handled those difficult moments in the campaign better: Leeds Town Hall question time with Tory small business plants in the audience trashing the abolition of zero hours contracts. Ed was left floundering – we’d never moved much beyond the justified outrage at current employment practices to develop a consistent narrative of how we would deal with the complexities in a comprehensive and progressive way – on the back of that, a carefully crafted answer that recognised the problems of small seasonal businesses but hitched the fortunes of small business and enterprise to the economic as well as social benefits of a fairer society could have neutralised that attack – I suspect Owen could have handled that. As he himself says he’s not the finished article but if he can find a slightly less spun manner and connect with the clictivists as well as the wider public as well as be trusted by MPs, we might have a productive dialogue rather than this current dialogue of the deaf. However I suspect it’s Corbyn’s status as outsider that makes him so attractive to Labour incomers – I just can’t see it ending well unfortunately.
    Incidentally, talking about the Tories pulling the wool over people’s eyes is too simple and implies some essential truth that we could all realise if it weren’t for the media etc. Even Marx came to realise that ideology works in a slightly more complex way than that.

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