Reaching Out to the Electorate: Why Labour Must Choose Owen Smith

Reaching Out to the Electorate: Why Labour Must Choose Owen Smith

Over the past week and a half ballot papers have begun to arrive through the letterboxes of Labour party members. Who we choose as our next leader will have far-reaching consequences for the party and the Left more broadly.

To me there are voices on both sides of the leadership debate that present compelling arguments. I don’t fit into the tired dichotomy of the ranting ‘anti-Blairite’ (who vehemently condemns anyone who asks even the most elemental questions of Corbyn and his leadership) and the raving anti-Corbynista (who believes every Momentum supporter is part of an irrational mob). It’s unfortunate that so much debate within the party has taken on this tone. Even where there are differences we should strive to have a constructive, open-minded conversation. Debate should be respectful, tolerant and members should always be open to the fact that the view they hold might just be wrong – none of us are infallible.

On the pro-Corbyn side, Jeremy Gilbert presents a thought-provoking case. He contends that Owen Smith is likely to suffer a similar fate as previous Labour leaders on the ‘soft left’, like Ed Miliband and Neil Kinnock, both of whom suffered bruising electoral defeats. Gilbert argues that we may be taking a risk with Corbyn but at least we’d be travelling in a direction we haven’t tried before. The undercurrent to his argument is that re-electing Corbyn offers the best chance in the long-term of challenging the neoliberal status quo.

I am sympathetic towards much of what Gilbert says. In my mind it is clear that neoliberalism cannot continue unchallenged. As a political economy, neoliberalism abstracts people from their social context, seeing people’s lives and circumstances as a product entirely of their own making; it ‘responsibilises’ individuals for their own fate, masking the social and economic factors which bear upon and constrain people’s opportunities. Precisely because it is hegemonic, it narrows the terms of mainstream political debate and is a stranglehold on voices that call for a socially just world, where wealth is redistributed and everyone – regardless of background – is treated with dignity.

Perhaps the time has come – nearly a decade after the financial crisis of 07/08 which left us in the mess we’re in – when the fissures of neoliberalism are beginning to appear. That’s the argument made by Martin Jacques. He points to a tanking global economy and the rise of ‘populist’ politicians (like Trump and Sanders in the US) who no longer accept the orthodoxies of the past three or four decades. If Jacques is right, we may be on the verges of a time when the seeds of a new, radical politics can be sown.

Where I depart from Gilbert is in the moment I extend my sight towards an imagined future where Corbyn remains leader of the Labour party. In that imagined future, I don’t see a society where radical, transformative change has happened. I don’t even see a society where we’ve gotten closer to realising that goal. I see a Labour party that has continued adrift. In that context the inevitable outcome would be a massive vacuum on the Left, giving the Tories free rein to govern as they wish and wreak havoc on society.

There are various reasons I think that a Labour party with Corbyn at the helm faces dismal prospects. One factor is Corbyn’s poor communication – Owen Jones and others have made the argument. Another is the leadership’s inability to develop a basic set of policies to give even some indication as to what a Labour government in waiting looks like.

But Corbyn’s main shortcoming is his intransigence in reaching out to portions of the electorate that don’t share his political values. He seems oblivious to the fact that he inhabits a world which is at odds with most of the electorate’s. To put it bluntly, Corbyn appears oddly absorbed in this myopic and insular world – a place where he seems himself as the bearer of ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ and anyone who opposes him merely an obstacle to implementing those principles.

This stubbornness in reaching out beyond his core base is already having a profound impact. The party brand is becoming toxic. Despite living in London where support for the party remains high, I feel it on the doorstep. I speak to voters who see him as a 1980s throwback or, worse, as dangerous and out of touch. What Corbyn supporters interpret as abidance to principles of social justice, equality and world peace, they see as a threat to the values they hold dear.

There are two main strands of opposition to Corbyn. One comes from people whose main concerns are national security and immigration. These people value British tradition and want to see a ‘strong’ place for Britain on the international stage; they interpret large-scale migration as a threat to their way of life. In their eyes, Corbyn’s opposition to Trident and defence of freedom of movement are seen as red flashing warning lights. Then there is a second group – people who want a government that will lay the groundwork for them to earn more, pay less tax, and improve their material standing. To them, whether others share in the country’s economic prosperity is secondary or irrelevant and the fact that Corbyn is part of the so-called ‘hard-left’ makes him unelectable. To both these groups – socially conservative patriots and aspirational individualists – talk of socialist and progressive values just doesn’t cut it. You can extol the virtue of grassroots radical democracy until you go blue in the face, but the message will continue to fall on deaf ears.[1]

The fact that the party is increasingly cut off from the electorate isn’t just anecdotal. In the polls we’re doing as poorly as we were in the early 1980s. And more than 2 million voters who voted Labour in 2015 now say they would vote for Theresa May for PM over Jeremy. If there was a General Election tomorrow, the uncomfortable truth is that the Labour party would probably face catastrophe.

What we need is a leader with qualities that Corbyn palpably lacks. First and foremost, s/he needs to genuinely engage with and listen to people that aren’t her or his core base. Second, that person needs to be able to build bridges and lead voters towards a common goal. That means developing a language that can find connections with people who don’t naturally hold Labour values.

None of this means abandoning left-wing principles. A lot of is to do with framing and the narrative one builds around specific policy proposals. For the security-focused patriots, there are overlaps to be found – many are scathing of the financial elite who they see as selfish and narrowly concerned with their own social standing. There is also common ground to be found with aspirational individualists. You can articulate an agenda which sets out how taxing the ultra-wealthy and investing in strong public services can help them get on in life. The examples I give here aren’t blueprints: they are made to underscore the point that common ground can be found and that this doesn’t mean betraying ideals.

If Corbyn isn’t the person to lead us forward, then the obvious question is whether Owen Smith can. My honest answer is that I don’t know. Smith has only just emerged from the woodworks and there are still a lot of questions about what he precisely can do. His gaffe about getting ISIS round the table shows he has a lot to learn about communication and strategy.

But where I am confident in Smith is that he’s at least aware of the need to engage with people who don’t share his political instincts. He made the point lucidly on Newsnight, when he set out the need to reach out to socially conservative voters. More importantly, over the past few weeks we’ve seen in Smith someone who is willing to learn and think creatively about next steps. He gets the need to think differently about the future. He may not be the final answer, and under his leadership the party may share the same fate as it did under Miliband and Kinnock. But with a bit of luck and with the right team around him, he might start moving us in the right direction – enabling us to have open-minded and generous conversations with communities across the country. That might just set the groundwork for the more complex work to be done, where an alternative to our crumbling economic system can start to be assembled.

For Labour to move forward, party members must set aside their left-wing glasses and attempt to view the world from a perspective which isn’t their own. That process may be uncomfortable but it’s essential. Politics is – and always will be – about compromise and negotiation. My argument is that if you accept this premise you also have to support Smith over Corbyn.

I’ll be putting my cross by Owen Smith’s name when I receive my ballot paper. I’d ask you to too.

[1] You can read more about this typology at

Pancho Lewis is a Labour party activist and social researcher at The Campaign Company. All views here are his own.

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