Why does Owen Smith keep comparing himself to Nye Bevan?

The NHS founder believed in 'the parliamentary route to socialism'


The Labour leadership contest has been very difficult to watch at times, particularly when the commentary has focused on gobstoppers and trains.

However, some very important debates have been taking place about the future of the Labour Party. It is during debates like these that the past becomes the present and Labour figures of old are suddenly given contemporary relevance.

One of these figures is Aneurin Bevan  — founder of the NHS — whose invocation has been central to leadership contender Owen Smith.

Bevan has been a go-to figure for Smith on the campaign trail. He has called himself a Bevanite a few times and has reminded us time and again that Bevan is his hero. His invocations have often focused on Bevan’s ‘search for power’, a nod to the belief that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable and that without being electable, Labour cannot achieve power and change society.

“I want to be a force for good in the world. Therefore, you need to achieve power. Nye Bevan, my great hero, said it’s all about achieving and exercising power. I’ve devoted my life to that.”

He has even spoken of choosing the ‘parliamentary route to socialism, the implication being that Corbyn and his supporters are merely building a protest movement without the ability to be electable and change things through Parliament. It is language reminiscent of a bygone era in the Labour Party.

Achieving power for the working class was key to Bevan. Nick Thomas-Symonds in his recent biography argued that Bevan was ‘a man of power’.

In supporting Owen Smith, Thomas-Symonds stated that Bevan’s ‘application of socialist principles to government’ and his belief in ‘pursuing an ultimate goal and seeing the practical route towards it’ had similarities with Smith’s ambitions today.

Smith and those who back him worry that under Corbyn, Labour will stay out of government.

So statements like ‘it’s Labour or nothing, which Bevan was supposed to have said to Jennie Lee, are used by Smith to show that he is the radical but electable option for Labour. He argues that he is as radical as Jeremy Corbyn, but that Corbyn is unable to ‘convey that willingness and readiness to run Britain to the peope. Smith believes that it is he who can put that ‘radicalism into practice’.

But Corbyn supporters will argue that Smith doesn’t represent the socialism of Bevan, pointing to his work for pharmaceutical companies Amgen and Pfizer as a betrayal of Bevan’s values.

An article from 2006 has resurfaced recently where WalesOnline’s Matt Withers said Owen Smith was a ‘Blairite lackey and would ‘make Nye cry’ over his commitment to ‘choice’ in the NHS.

Smith’s past is still following him around. ‘I have never advocated privatisation of the NHS,’ he has insisted. ‘It has been one of Labour’s proudest achievements. I grew up swaddled in stories of the Labour party creating the NHS out of south Wales.’

This is largely why Owen Smith’s constant invocation of Aneurin Bevan has started to become tiresome to many. In a recent leadership hustings, when Smith said his political hero was Bevan there was a groan from many in the audience.

Smith supporters interpreted this as a slander against Bevan: Corbyn supporters were booing the name of one of Labour’s greatest heroes! However, it is more likely to be Owen Smith’s incessant invocation of Bevan that made Corbyn supporters groan.

But herein lies the problem – both sides of any argument will invoke the legacy of Bevan and use it for their own purpose. It’s inevitable with a figure such as Bevan who has left a huge imprint on the conscience of the Labour Party, but whose political thought contains aspects that are contentious and sometimes contradictory.

As I have discussed previously in relation to Wales and to the junior doctors’ dispute, invoking Bevan is a popular thing for politicians to do.

However, part of the problem with the legacy of Aneurin Bevan is that he is seen by some as a left-wing revolutionary, but for others he is a compromising politician who would make concessions and look for consensus. To some he is both.

The invocation of his legacy can be seen as a reflection of the disagreements over the future of the Labour Party.

Nye Davies is a postgraduate researcher at the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University. His research focuses on the political thought of Aneurin Bevan.

9 Responses to “Why does Owen Smith keep comparing himself to Nye Bevan?”

  1. Richard

    The “search for power” is what destroyed Labour under Blair and Brown because it lead to the sacrifice and not the adoption of Socialist principles. A clear example with which I am familiar was the mistreatment of the disabled which began under the previous Labour administration. ATOS were given the job but the lead came from the DWP under Brown backed up by a contemporary media campaign of benefits cheat cases in the press, which lead to a measurable increase in disability hate crime in much the same way that the Brexit vote encouraged nationalist hate crime.

    Under Blair and Brown, anti-disability benefits cheat propaganda was confounded with anti-disability benefits claimant sentiment and the propaganda seemed designed to do exactly that and silence criticism of methods used to cut the benefits bill which were unethical and included fictional and or spurious justifications for turning vulnerable people down instead of giving them a proper assessment, in line with the spirit of human rights law. This is often ignored because of the overshadowing horror of the Iraq crisis but the treatment of disabled was an accompanying moral crisis at home and no less dismal for many of this country’s disabled who suffered because of the policy under Labour and suffer still from the precedent of politically convenient misassessment it set and the legacy in attitudes prevailing in today’s assessment system, exemplified recently in Channel 4 Dispatches’ “The Great Benefits Row”, presented by Ade Adepitan.

    The war to destroy Saddam’s Iraq was won but the battle for Labour’s soul was lost. The legacy of seeking power which New Labour created is inhumanity and injustice towards the weakest among us, because to find power New Labour were willing to emulate the antagonists of social justice, becoming part of the problem in the process of seeking to be electable enough to overcome it. New Labour made a Faustian pact with the likes of Murdoch and the spin doctors and today the party languishes in purgatory.

    Probably by coincidence as much as design, the series of articles on benefits fraud emerged at the same time as the MPs expenses scandal began to bite. Whether the feed of leaked benefit fraud cases was intensified and prolonged as a conscious decision and a result of the way New Labour’s spin machine operated is a question which remains unanswered but the propaganda served a purpose. The disabled were heaped with dishonour to cover the unethical assessment methods being used and to cover the dishonour of MPs of all parties and it worked.

    This is what electability meant to New Labour. They say power corrupts and it follows that seeking power is a journey towards corruption and the wrong priority for a socialist government which should seek to represent. Else it fails to represent and sacrifices its legitimacy just as the young and hopeful party of the Liberal Democrats did in forgetting their duty to represent, when they struck that bargain with the newly elected Conservative government and abandoned their promise not to raise tuition fees which is how the search for power made the Lib Dems unelectable.

    Whereas UKIP in representing the discontent of the majority made the difference which swung the Tories to promise a referendum and the referendum to a YES vote for Brexit.

    It strikes me that representation is what the election of Corbyn was all about. Smith in promulgating the search for power is failing to recognise the grotesque hypocrisy which lead to Corbyn’s election in the first place.

    My point in writing this really is to say thanks to the current membership of the Labour party, I think you did the right thing in electing Jeremy Corbyn and breaking the illusions of demagogic spin. I hope you will continue down the path of representation by representing the best in us and not the worst, which is in us all, to a point where it becomes the power in the land, because it deserves to be.

  2. CR

    I was going to vote for Smith, but due to his undemocratic attitude to the Referendum result Corbyn got my vote.

  3. David Lindsay

    Did Aneurin Bevan fight off hundred of lads in order to get Jennie Lee?

  4. Liberty, Bevan and Welsh Labour – Thinking Wales – Meddwl Cymru - Cardiff University

    […] Smith’s Labour leadership campaign video, where Bevan faded into a clip of Smith campaigning. Smith continually invoked Bevan during his leadership campaign (an invocation that General Secretary of the Communist Party of […]

Comments are closed.