Owen Smith – a thoroughly modern MP (with a twist)

March 28, 2013 7:58 am

Whilst Labour has a healthy poll lead nationally, there are few places where the party is performing better than in Wales. Riding high in the polls, in control of the Welsh Assembly, and looking to make gains in the 2015 elections, the Welsh party – who had their conference this weekend – are in rude health. So recently I caught up with Shadow Welsh Secretary (and relative newcomer to the Shadow Cabinet) Owen Smith, to talk Wales, One Nation and why people have lost faith with their politicians.

Smith has a rather unassuming office for a member of the Shadow Cabinet. Then again he hasn’t been an MP long – and has therefore had less chance to get into the whips good books than most – so he’s still in one of the smaller offices off one of the labyrinthine corridors of Porcullis House. But despite being relatively new to Parliament, he’s had something of a rapid rise, becoming Shadow Welsh Secretary last May when Peter Hain decided to step back from the front bench.

Others who were elected in 2010 and found themselves swiftly promoted to the Shadow Cabinet (Umunna, Reeves) are often talked about as potential future leaders – and certainly people with big roles to play in the party. Smith has had little of the hype, but certainly deserves some. In person he’s engaging, fun and provocative. In the media appearances I’ve seen him do he’s quick on his feet, comfortable, confident and smart. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him become a cabinet mainstay in future.

He also has a particular interest in the idea of “One Nation” – not in the shoehorn it into a press release/speech way some members of the Shadow Cabinet are prone to, but on a deep social and philosphical level. Smith was writing about One Nation before conference last year, and has been working on some of the ideas around it with the Labour leader. But for a Welshman there are pitfalls in the use of the term – so how does Wales fit into One Nation?

“The devolution question people think is one of the thorniest questions around One Nation – but I don’t think it is,” he tells me. “Devolution isn’t about diminishing Wales’s voice – it’s about amplifying it.”

Wales, Smith says, is an integral part of Britain and of the Labour movement. Few would disagree on either score. “So many of not just the great figures, but so many of the movements and so much of the rich history and legacy of the Labour movement an be traced back Welsh politics, Welsh communities, Welsh ideas.”

He’s also keen to dispel the idea that Welsh experience over the past 100 years – especially for those living in the urban belts in the North and South of the country – is much different at all to that of those living elsewhere in Britain, although he does admit that seeing the vastly different life chances of those living in some parts of the country compared to his own constituency has had a profound effect on him.

But Why is Labour so successful in Wales, and yet has often failed to cut through electorally in the South? Smith believes that the strength of Welsh Labour is in part based on its confident patriotism, saying “Labour in Wales has spoken with an authentic voice for the majority of people in Wales.”

He’s a thoroughly modern MP – ten years as a journalist, a former Spad and then five years “working for some of the most capitalist companies you could care to mention” including major pharmaceutical companies – yet there’s something traditional about him. Not Old Labour in terms of politics, but perhaps in terms of manner.

Clearly for him politics is very much about place, and he’s passionate about his local community (and his local Rugby team “Ponty”), and seems genuinely affected by the “great loss” of the changing culture of our communities. Communities that “were once at the vanguard of the industrialised world” now find themselves in decline and struggling to work out what they are for. It reminds me of hearing John Cruddas speak about Dagenham, or Maurice Glasman talk about the deindustrialisation of the North.

So is he “Blue Labour”?

“No. But I thought lots of the ideas that Blue Labour came out with we’re interesting.” As with many people, the name itself might be one of the biggest issues “I always thought the phrase was a bit uufortunate”, he tells me. I sense that like many in the party who were once open to the ideas behind Blue Labour, he now sees “One Nation Labour” as the best means of achieving similar goals.

So how do we provide hope and opportunities for the communities that have suffered so much in recent decades?

Smith echoes the broad but not especially detailed rhetoric from Ed Miliband about changing the shape of the economy and arresting the decline of local communities. Yet he’s willing to go further than most Shadow Cabinet members, expressing concern about the and the transfer of wealth to a smaller number of people in a smaller part of the country. Instead, Smith believes, Labour should be “exercising the power of the people on their behalf” – empowering the people through organisation perhaps?

The answers, he believes, come not from “things we need to invent” but from “things we need to rediscover anew”. The answers don’t, however, appear to come from a return to unlimited and unquestioning support for the market:

“Politics coalesced, to too great a degree, around a set of accepted – in particular Economic – orthodoxies around the ability of the market to deliver change, and the inability of the people to get politicians to drive alternative change, and to drive equitable change…we need to understand that if we’re going to show once again that we are the party that can represent the people.”

It’s then that Smith comes out with something that genuinely surprised me. I’ve been talking for months about Labour’s “F-word” – full employment – which the Resolution Foundation have been doing some very interesting work on, so it was heartening to hear that Smith believes that this is one of the “things we need to rediscover anew”:

“In an era in which wages are being squeezed – have been squeezed – how many people are in work and how long people are in work for and how much money they earn, such that they are able to pay for the basics of a civilised lives. Traditional debates in the Labour movement are – I think – ripe for reconsideration. Shorthand for that, I think there’s a real debate to be had around what sort of a solution high employment – they used to call it full employment – might achieve for us.”

“In an era in which the great ogre we face is lack of productivity, underemployment, unemployment and what the economists call hysterisis – which is permenant loss of capacity in the economy as a result of underemployment and unemployment of people who gradually lose skills and as they lose skills because they’re out of the workforce, that you gradually deplete the core skills base of your economy – and therefore you lock in a greater degree of unproductivity over the long run.”

Stronger communities, better jobs, full employment – is this paragon of modernity in fact a good old-fashioned Welsh lefty? Perhaps not, but he seems in tune with where the party seems destined to go – if it is brave enough – under Ed Miliband’s leadership. I hope we’ll be seeing plenty more of him – but I’m also confident that either way, behind the scenes, he’ll be pushing for a bigger, braver, more confident Labour Party.

All power to his elbow.

  • David Morton

    The day a Labour shadow cabinet member uses the phrase ‘full-employment’ is the day I begin the rediscover the tiniest fraction of hope. But I’m not hopeful.

  • Chilbaldi

    “Thoroughly modern MP” with that CV? The modern MP is more likely to have had 10 years as a spad after university – at least OS has done something a little different.

  • Chilbaldi

    “Thoroughly modern MP” with that CV? The modern MP is more likely to have had 10 years as a spad after university – at least OS has done something a little different.

  • markfergusonuk

    I’m not holding my breath, but I don’t rule out entirely this happening more often

Latest

  • News Blair: We should not chase after UKIP on immigration

    Blair: We should not chase after UKIP on immigration

    Tony Blair has warned the Labour Party not to give in to UKIP’s arguments on immigration, saying that the party has a “nasty core of prejudice”. In an interview with Progress, Blair says Labour should be take the line that UKIP are wrong: “Let’s be clear: We don’t think that UKIP’s right, not on immigration and not on Europe – so the first thing you’ve got to be really careful of doing is … saying things that suggest that they’re kind […]

    Read more →
  • News Scotland Murphy makes unity candidate pitch as Unite prepare to endorse Findlay

    Murphy makes unity candidate pitch as Unite prepare to endorse Findlay

    There are two interviews with Scottish Labour leader candidates in this morning’s papers. Jim Murphy launches his campaign by talking to the Daily Record (the same paper Johann Lamont did her resignation interview with last week), while Neil Findlay has a short conversation with the Morning Star. Murphy builds on the statement he made last night (“I’m applying for the job of First Minister”) by claiming he wants “to bring the country back together after the referendum.” He said: “I […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Brand or bland? Are these really my choices?

    Brand or bland? Are these really my choices?

    Russell Brand has a book out and a great publicist. His diagnosis of our current malaise is pretty spot on. His solutions however are woolly headed at best and inconsistent at worst. But Russell Brand is being taken seriously. He’s never off Newsnight nor out of the pages of the Guardian. People are flocking to follow him in their thousands. He is Che Guevara for the scripted reality generation. The established left simply don’t know what to make of this. […]

    Read more →
  • Comment If politicians can’t enact the policies people actually want, the system is broken

    If politicians can’t enact the policies people actually want, the system is broken

    This week, Class released a new poll on the theme of fairness and inequality, which will nicely coincide with the debates at our conference this Saturday. Speaking of which, you should totally book a ticket for that as we’re down to the last few. Anyway, I find our polling particularly interesting (I mean, you’d hope I would) because its aim is to gauge public opinion on long-term issues, rather than responding to a given news story. Class polls provide a […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Scotland “I’m standing for First Minister of Scotland and I intend to win”: Jim Murphy joins Scottish Labour leadership race

    “I’m standing for First Minister of Scotland and I intend to win”: Jim Murphy joins Scottish Labour leadership race

    We now have three candidates for Scottish Labour leader, as Jim Murphy’s long-awaited candidacy has been confirmed. The Shadow International Development Secretary and former Scotland Secretary released a statement this evening, saying that his intention is to be Scottish Labour leader and First Minister: “I’m standing for First Minister of Scotland and I intend to win. I want to bring Scotland back together after the referendum. There is so much to be proud of in Scotland but so much we […]

    Read more →