Owen Smith is standing for the Labour leadership on a platform well to the left of what anyone would have deemed possible in 2015. From standing firm against Tory spending plans, through pledging a series of specific tax rises, to investing in a British New Deal, to strengthening workers’ rights, it is very obvious which side of the fence he’s on. There’s no Blairite triangulation here – simply a clear, left-wing, domestically-focused programme.
As a result, attacks on Owen have had less to do with his policies and more to do with his background. The attacks on his career before Parliament are deeply unfair and have been rebutted elsewhere. However far to the left we move, we can’t just dismiss anyone who has worked in the private sector as inherently suspect. But many comments about his record in Parliament deserve an answer, too. They aren’t just unfair and misleading. They’re part of a toxic kind of politics, which any true idealist should shun.
Owen in Parliament (or being attacked for being an MP)
The (in)famous vote on the Welfare Bill in July has been covered over and over again, and plenty of people have explained what it meant in detail. Briefly: Labour tabled a ‘reasoned amendment’, which would have killed the Bill while giving specific reasons. It then abstained on the Second Reading because some parts of the Bill (like an increase in apprenticeships) were good. It tried to change the Bill in Committee, and then voted against it at Third Reading. The Tories have a majority, so it would have passed anyway. I completely agree we made the wrong call, and so does Owen Smith: we should have made our opposition clear. But Labour MPs weren’t just letting the welfare cuts through. It was simply trying to change it first before trying to vote it down, good bits and bad alike.
Owen has also come under fire for not voting on the Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill in October 2010. (For context: he entered Parliament for the first time in May 2010.) This was a Private Member’s Bill which aimed to ensure that minor procedural errors in strike ballot notices didn’t invalidate the ballot. Employers have been exploiting the law aggressively in recent years, so I have plenty of sympathy with the idea (though I might argue with bits of the detail). It’s good that a large number of MPs turned up to vote for it. But the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government had a majority of 73 and was never going to give it Government time. As a result, it was never going to actually become law. We don’t know if Owen had a constituency commitment; we don’t know what else he might have had to do at the time. We do know this wasn’t a do-or-die vote. Frankly, we know that if he had an important constituency meeting, he’d have been better employed there.
Owen’s been attacked for ‘going fishing with Tory MPs’. Yes, Owen went on a trip which involved fishing one summer. He’s Vice Chair of the All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Angling, raising awareness of issues relating to the sport. You might think that’s not very important, but millions of voters go fishing, and there are hundreds of APPGs covering almost everything. They all include both Labour and Tory MPs: Jeremy Corbyn used to chair the APPG on Mexico, with three Tory MPs and Ian Paisley’s son as officers. It’s hardly surprising if, as part of a group looking at angling, the Angling Trust might have been keen for these MPs to, well, experience angling. And having looked at Owen’s expense records, I can find no evidence he claimed any expenses for the trip.
And on expenses: one of the silliest attacks on Owen has been for claiming more expenses than Corbyn. Owen represents Pontypridd in the Welsh Valleys; Corbyn’s seat is a Tube journey from Parliament. Of course his expenses are higher. He has to travel further and he has to have two bases (if you don’t believe me, remember the Commons regularly finishes at 10.30pm or 7.30pm). If we compare a Welsh MP’s expenses unfavourably with those of the MP for Islington North, we may as well just say London MPs are preferred as leaders. In a country where metropolitan elites are forever mocked, I shouldn’t have to explain why that would be profoundly damaging.
Why it matters
This is dishonest, misleading stuff, easily explained for any who honestly want an answer. More importantly, it’s toxic. It takes the diary trade-offs, policy compromises and parliamentary tactics which being an MP will always involve and uses them to ‘prove’ an MP dishonest, on the take or lazy. Taken to its logical conclusion, it makes an effective legislature impossible. It’s a left-wing version of UKIP.
How do different sports’ concerns, or issues from a country far away, or information about British industries make their way to Parliament? Partly from MPs’ own backgrounds, but mainly from talking to people outside Parliament with an interest or expertise. Select Committees and APPGs are part of that process. You know how oppositions get some concessions from governments in Parliament? They work with their opposite numbers in the Lords. They put forward amendments and they may word them to get some government MPs or peers to back it. They may meet ministers to talk about what concessions they can get if the Lords lets a Bill through. And sometimes they work constructively and consensually on legislation on which no one disagrees much.
If any attempt to compromise, or negotiate, or secure concessions just proves perfidy, we have two choices. Parliament could just grind to a halt. Alternatively, the Government can ram all legislation through with no meaningful scrutiny, no chance to improve it and no opportunity for the Opposition to win concessions. Do you want either of those? Does any sensible person? Do you want a closed Parliament where MPs do nothing but casework or sitting in the chamber?
This sort of campaigning takes the basic work of MPs and actively undermines it. Worse, it depends and builds on ignorance of how Parliament works, when activists should be trying to do exactly the opposite. It’s not just attacks on Owen Smith, and it’s not just Corbynites. Those memes of an empty Commons talking about a debate on [popular/important issue] and a full one talking about [expenses/unpopular issue] – never mind that the first was a snapshot in the middle of a long debate and the second was actually Prime Minister’s Questions? They’re part of the same culture. So is the mindless counting up of how many parliamentary questions (PQs) an MP asked. Never mind their relevance or that a minister doesn’t ask PQs or an MP might chair a Select Committee and do far more for scrutiny that way. Just assume they’re lazy instead.
It’s hardly surprising democracy is held in low esteem if all the key participants and the activists mock it just as much, and with as broad a brush, as any cynical non-voter. Activists presumably believe in the power of politics, and campaigning, to effect change. If so, they should fight within Parliament, and battle for parliamentarians’ support, to their hearts’ content. But don’t feed into a culture which treats all MPs as lazy, all leaders as liars and all deals as betrayals. If you paint politics as a cesspit, don’t be surprised if the public agrees with you. And don’t be surprised if the new politics ends up nastier and narrower than the old.