In Labour leadership contest, few believe Owen Smith has a chance

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Challenger Owen Smith greets Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn  (Getty)

With every big-name endorsement that Owen Smith wins in his quest to unseat Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour Party’s leader, his chances seem as remote as ever.United Kingdom Flag Icon

It’s not that Labour voters don’t respect Corbyn’s predecessor, Ed Miliband, or London mayor Sadiq Khan or even Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale or former shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn or any other of dozens of high-profile Labour officials.

But the Labour rank-and-file, which elected Corbyn as its leader with a first-ballot victory only last September, seem just as determined to deliver another mandate in three weeks when ballots close in this year’s Labour leadership contest. It’s entirely possible that Corbyn will even exceed the 59.5% of support he won in 2015.

So when Labour gathers for its annual conference on August 24, there’s little doubt — at least today — that Corbyn will emerge as the winner once again. It’s especially likely after his opponents failed to force him Corbyn to win renomination from sitting Labour MPs and after the same Corbyn opponents failed in court to prevent new (likely pro-Corbyn) party members from voting in the 2016 contest. That means that Labour’s parliamentary party will remain at contretemps with a twice-elected party leader. Smith, for all his qualities as a potentially unifying successor to Corbyn’s tumultuous leadership, is not yet breaking through as a genuine alternative, even as Labour voters begin to vote.

A strong Corbyn effort might embolden him and his increasingly isolated frontbench to force Labour MPs to stand for re-selection in their own constituencies, essentially forcing a primary-style fight for all of his critics. That may not matter to many MPs in marginal constituencies, who would lose reelection if a general election were held today, many polls show, whether they are automatically re-selected to stand for parliament or not.

The fear of both widespread de-selection from the left and a landslide defeat to the right, however, could force a formal splinter movement from Corbyn’s Labour, and that could conceivably, with enough support, become the ‘new’ official opposition in the House of Commons.

Given where Labour today stands — divided and electorally hopeless — it’s truly incredible that Smith’s chances seem so lopsided.

Labour, which suffered an unexpectedly poor showing in the May 2015 general election under Miliband, is falling farther behind after less than one year of Corbyn’s leadership and his perceived failures on Brexit.

Corbyn might have used the referendum on British membership in the European Union as an opportunity to galvanize his supporters and prove to his critics that he can deliver votes. Instead, Corbyn (who often expressed disdain for the European Union in the past) headed an ambivalent effort that, in part, failed to mobilize enough Labour voters to the ‘Remain’ campaign. That was enough to cause a massive revolt on Corbyn’s frontbench, draining further talent from the shadow cabinet and culminating in a no-confidence vote that won the support of 172 members of the Labour parliamentary caucus, nearly 80% of Labour’s elected MPs.

British prime minister Theresa May, who rose to power after her predecessor David Cameron resigned over Brexit, is enjoying somewhat of a political honeymoon despite the headaches of implementing Brexit and a new push to repeal the Human Rights Act, one of Labour’s chief achievements upon winning power in 1998 and which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. But the Conservatives would win an election today by a 11% margin, according to the latest YouGov/Times poll, which, amazingly, shows that Corbyn would retain just 60% of those who voted Labour just 15 months ago and that British voters prefer May as prime minister by a margin of 50% to 19%.

No one believes that Corbyn could actually win a general election, not now and not in 2020, when the next election is scheduled to be held, under a new fixed-term law passed by Cameron’s first coalition government in 2011.

Moreover, Owen Smith — like Ed Miliband before him — is exactly the kind of figure who might credibly unite Labour’s moderate and socialist wings; its cosmopolitan professionals and its union-backed grassroots; increasingly nationalist voters in both Scotland and northern England as well as more globalist voters in London. He calls himself a democratic socialist and is regularly referred to as a ‘soft left’ alternative to Corbyn. He’s certainly not a New Labour clone in the mould of either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. But his approach as Labour leader would be far closer to Miliband’s than to Corbyn’s.

Smith, virtually alone among top Tory and Labour officials, supports holding a second Brexit referendum after the government has negotiated a deal with EU officials.

Angela Eagle, who was first to announce a leadership challenge against Corbyn, withdrew in favor of Smith to ensure a united front among Corbyn’s critics after Smith won a greater number of nominations from Labour MPs. Strategically, Smith’s candidacy makes much more sense than Eagle’s. Unlike Eagle, Smith wasn’t a sitting MP in 2003 and so never had to authorize the Blair-led war in Iraq (Eagle supported it). Also unlike Eagle, Smith voted against air strikes in Syria last year. Both positions put him far more in sync with Corbyn’s rank-and-file supporters.

Born in Morecambe in northern England to a well-known Welsh historian, Smith has represented Pontypridd, a southern Welsh constituency, since 2010, though he was a longtime Labour adviser and so is well-known and highly regarded by the parliamentary party — a career trajectory not unlike Cameron’s own rise within the Conservatives. Smith served as shadow secretary of state for Wales from 2012 to 2015 under Miliband, and until May he served as shadow secretary for work and pensions under Corbyn. Polls nevertheless show Corbyn with a steady lead among Labour voters, though Smith has a lead among British voters generally.

But compared to Miliband or even Cameron, Smith isn’t a natural politician, and he’s proven somewhat gaffe-prone in his campaign to unseat Corbyn. He’s struggled to pierce Corbyn’s integrity and honesty, and he found himself tangled up last week after calling Corbyn a ‘lunatic’ at a rally. In a debate with Corbyn just four days ago, Smith allowed Corbyn to take the moral high ground after suggesting Corbyn might have voted ‘Leave’ in the EU referendum, drawing a withering and high-minded rebuke from the sitting Labour leader. Earlier this month, Smith appeared naive by suggesting that he would invite ISIS jihadists to the negotiating table to bring peace to the Middle East.

It seems inevitable that as May and her cabinet face the tough choices (and possibly economic doldrums) presented by Brexit, her government will become increasingly unpopular. But with Corbyn locked in as party leader, it seems even more inevitable that Labour will not be able to take advantage of that as 2020 approaches.

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