Owen Smith is not Alan Milburn. Corbynites should stop pretending he is.

by Tom Miller

Some misguided ranting from Paul Mason this morning. It is a shame really as I respect Mason’s politics. I rather thought him above this kind of attack, which takes a very similar format to revolutionary left sectarian hit jobs. These include an attempt to discredit someone else’s politics by association, a refusal to examine any of the points they make against one’s own, and of course the most important part – making the case that anyone whose leftism is not as ‘pure’ as yours must mean that not only are they left wing at all, but actively an aide to the right. How convenient, the neatness of this ‘my politics or theirs’ line.

His target is not just Owen Smith, but the wider ‘soft left’ tradition within the Labour Party – the real enemy. Presumably he feels that this Robin Cook descended tradition within the Labour left represents ‘big war’ and the 1%. So I am not sure what’s got into him, really.

He also seems to think that people on the soft left within the party are unable to act in our own right or make our own decisions, and that there is no way that ‘guilt by association’ cannot apply. 

Smith’s platform is a good one. 


The soft left is perfectly comfortable with policies like this, and there is little reasons for it not to stick with them if Smith wins. The left still has major unions and enough members to control the party apparatus after all, but on principle these are all policies that a more flexible democratic socialism can easily stick to. Even the great bulk of Corbyn’s are within the Labour tradition. That’s the point, and the one Corbynites seem prepared to die in a ditch to set aside or ignore – from the perspective of Corbyn’s soft left critics, policies are 95% not the problem.

If there are ‘opportunistic’ reasons for it being like Corbyn’s, ‘tactical’ might therefore be a better description. 

The similarity is about stressing the point that management of the PLP, pluralism and the breadth of the party, openness to criticism, and our electoral strategy are all key motivations for the parts of the left which are more open spirited than Corbyn’s. These are concerns that are shared by many previous Corbyn backers, not least Owen Jones, Danny Blanchflower, and many of those around Open Labour of whom I am myself an example.

This is what Smith wants the election to be about, because it should persuade some Corbyn supporters, and because even if he loses, the result is at least an improved Jeremy Corbyn that the PLP and a range of critical traditions can be more at ease with supporting.

But back to policy, there’s also as little evidence to suggest that Smith doesn’t believe in his own platform as there is for Corbyn. The Corbyn framing objective is basically to make sure that Smith is not treated as fairly by members as JC is and that he has harsher tests to run against.

Hence Mason’s outrider piece but also a range of others which repeat some pretty unsavoury tactics.

Mason deliberately does not pause to think about how well Smith would likely be doing if someone for the right of the party had stood. 

Imagine how Smith’s policy programme would look now if there was a modern ‘Blairite’ platform and candidate at this election. How would the policies above look then? Corbyn has been very lucky that MPs thought only a single candidate challenge was viable.

This whole election I have seen Corbyn backers unwilling to engage with either the policy platform Smith stands on, not to be treated in good faith, or the criticisms he makes, likewise. So perfect is JC that his journalistic backers have complete moral license to smear and disengage from any actual debate. Instead they are attacking their opponent on the basis of his jobs before becoming an MP, smearing him as a right wing shill, and attacking him for the actions of another part of Labour he has no stake in. 

The whole excercise is not aimed at debating him, but  toxifying not Smith and the soft left. This aims instead at stopping people from listening to his arguments, or making them afraid that finding them persuasive undermines their own ‘left’ credibility. Some element of cultural leadership takes place. All accross the country there are debates going on in which ‘Blairite’ is casually applied to all and sunder, as if this were the issue. Or even particularly comradely.

This is bullshit – deeply unprincipled and baselessly sectarian. Intellectuals and social media influencers take top responsibility for it. Why should any of it make an undecided person vote for Jeremy Corbyn?

Last and only semi-related point: the fact that Mason raises Corbyn and McDonnell’s deeply unwise ‘anti-imperialist’ utterances being dragged up by opponents. Does this make them wise interventions now? Are they beyond criticism because critics raise them? What strange logic.

If Jeremy was into working out who he wanted to vote for him I could point this out more easily, but let’s imagine it’s someone slightly suburban and middle class in perhaps Harlow, with a kid on the way. Decent wage, waged nonetheless. 

Take 50 people of the same profile and ask them whether they agree with Jeremy that the UK should not respond if Russia invades a NATO ally. What would they think? Or perhaps the ludicrous suggestion from both candidates (later corrected by both candidates) that there is any point in negotiating with ISIS?

The problem is not the people making criticisms of this kind of politics or this record in politics. The problem is the politics. It is bankrupt hippy nonsense, and it can’t be defended practically in a workers movement interested in gaining authority or power.

But Mason’s slight of hand is quite fantastic. Give Smith a bigger part of the blame, and dismiss valid criticism because it is ‘anti-Jeremy’ or has been said in the capitalist press. 

The sad thing about this kind of rhetorical dishonesty is that it actually works. It should be called out.