“Labour has lost a million votes in a year” – Smith speech is final cry of defiance

16th September, 2016 1:37 pm

 

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This is the full text of the speech given by Owen Smith at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers today.

Almost a year ago exactly, Jeremy Corbyn unveiled the strapline for his new minted leadership of our party. It was a promise, he said, to bring back “straight-talking, honest politics.”

At the time, I, like many in our movement, agreed that we needed some of that. That after a generation in power, Labour really needed to renew itself and that Jeremy’s leadership – though I had not supported it – might spark the debate and the definition that renewal requires.

I even wondered if that debate – and the responsibility of trying to lead us back to power – might change Jeremy and his side-kick John McDonnell and transform them from the hard left protesters they’d been throughout their careers, into the co-operative and consensual leaders Labour needs if we are to build a winning coalition in the country.

With hindsight, however, it’s clear that I was kidding myself. Though the rhetoric has softened, the tone of voice is less shrill, and the campaigning techniques brought into a digital era; the real intention is just as it has always been.

To take control of the Labour Party, bit by bit, seat by seat, by fair means or foul, and to drag us away from the centre left of politics, where our values and our voters reside, to the hard left they represent, and which the country rejects.

Now I say that as someone who would describe himself as on the soft left, or centre left of our party.

I’m someone who believes that in the past we have sometimes trusted the market too much and the state too little.

I believe in freedom as well as solidarity and I want to redress the balance between individuals and both  market and state. People today bear far too much risk in their relationships with employers and the Government – and enjoy far too little protection or reward.

I want more investment in our NHS, and to be clear about its status as a public good, with no eye for profit.

I think austerity is self-defeating for our economy and destructive of our society.

But I am a Keynesian, not a Marxist like our current Shadow Chancellor, and prudent borrowing and government partnership with business to grow our economy is the answer, not a longed-for crisis in capitalism that destroys paychecks and pensions en route to some fabled revolution.

Most importantly, I am a democratic socialist – it says so on my party card – and I believe our duty is to win power in the country, at the ballot box, through making our case in Parliament . To win the trust and seek to serve the British people.

Because it is only through building a coalition of support to command respect and win power that we can ever enact our values and make Britain the secure, prosperous, fairer and more equal country we dream of.

And honestly, right now, with Jeremy Corbyn as our leader, I see no chance of that.

In straight-talking terms, we are heading for division and destruction.

Now that is hard thing for me to say, because I love this party and I never want to talk down our chances. But it needs to be said. Because, however bruising this contest has been for me or for Jeremy, or for our party as a whole, these home truths have to be faced.

Our party stands at a crossroads. Jeremy Corbyn and his allies in Momentum want to lead our party down a route away from Labour’s mainstream, Parliamentary tradition, and away from the voters. The alternative path, that I have advocated in this  campaign is no less radical in its plans for public investment and workers rights, but far more honest about how achieve those goals.

It is not honest for Jeremy to claim that Labour stands on the verge of power, nor that we were doing well before the challenge to his leadership.

We lost a council by election just yesterday with 35 per cent swing away from Labour.

And it is certainly not honest for Momentum to preach a message of unity, while planning to deselect the 170 MPs who dare to disagree with their assessment of Labour’s chances of winning.

Momentum are trying to get rid of good Labour MPs through deselection, while Jeremy’s leadership is threatening to get rid of good Labour MPs through electoral defeat at the hands of the Tories.

Whatever the outcome of this contest, whoever wins on September 24, the last 2 months have made it crystal clear that the very future of Labour is at stake. Just as we had to fight Militant in the 1980s, we have to fight to save the Party we love today. We know because the phony war and phony rhetoric has been swept aside in  these last few weeks, as their true intentions have been revealed.

Momentum in Brighton and Liverpool – some of them exactly the same people as were in Militant all those years ago – organising to deselect a Labour MP.

Threats to MPs all over the country.

A “deselection list” circulated by Jeremy’s campaign, attacking Labour MPs. Disowned by the campaign. Apologised for by the campaign. And then defended, on stage at this week’s hustings, by Jeremy himself.

One of Jeremy’s economic advisers – rumoured to be his chief adviser if he wins– openly calling for deselection of any MP who disagrees with the Leader.

It’s part of a culture of bullying and intimidation that says to Labour MPs and Labour members that they have to shut up and get in line or get out.

Exactly the same tactics used by Militant in the 1980s.

What is unifying about Momentum organising a conference to compete with the conference of the party they ostensibly support?

What is comradely about organising to push out long-standing Labour representatives?

Where is the solidarity in turning a blind eye to abuse and booing and hatred?

There is nothing comradely about setting up party within a party. Still less in trying to use our movement as a host body, seeking to occupy it, hollow it out, until it’s outlived its usefulness, when you throw it aside like a dead husk.

But as John McDonnell said of himself, some see Labour membership as “a tactic… If it’s no longer useful, move on”.

Well I don’t think Labour membership is a tactic. I don’t think the Party is a vehicle. I’m not relaxed about seeing the Party split “if that’s what it takes”. Our movement is more than that, and I love it too much to see it die.

 

Labour values

I love the Labour Party for the values it stands for, of solidarity, equality, social justice, decency – socialism.

I love the Labour Party for its history, as a political party formed by ordinary working people to advance their class interests because if they didn’t do it, nobody else was going to do it for them.

I love the fact that this is a broad-based Party where people may have honest disagreements over policy but share the same commitments and values, and where we have always found common ground.

This Party is not one man. It’s bigger than one man. And it’s defined by more than just support for one man, or hatred for one man.

When an audience member in this week’s hustings said “Everybody hates Tony Blair”, she summed up so much that’s wrong with the Labour Party today.

The tragedy is not just in the willingness to talk of hatred, to take pride in hatred – although that needs to change, as anyone who has seen the vitriol, the insults, the abuse thrown around online and on stage in Jeremy Corbyn’s name during this campaign will know.

The tragedy is not just in the misunderstanding of the country – who elected Tony Blair three times, because they thought he was someone with the ideas and the leadership qualities to change the country for the better, and were proved right by the change we delivered after 1997.

The biggest tragedy is in the misunderstanding of our own Party, the willingness to narrow ourselves as a movement, to turn in on ourselves.

We have always been a broad-based Party, where people may have honest disagreements over policy but share the same commitments and values, and where we have always found common ground.

We are the party of Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Blair – not the party of Jeremy Corbyn or Tony Blair.

And those of us who don’t think of ourselves as either Blairites or Corbynites – which is most of us – are welcome in this Party too.

The whole Party stood together against apartheid, marched in solidarity with striking miners, fought against poverty and inequality here at home, asserted our country’s moral duty to support the world’s poorest people.

Those weren’t fringe positions taken on by lone prophets: they were held across the Labour movement.

If we lie to ourselves about what this Party is and has always been, if we choose to pretend that what we have all always stood for is something we have only just discovered, then we do a gross injury to our history and injustice to our predecessors in movement.

And if we take pride in our narrowness as a movement, instead of celebrating the broadness of our Labour tradition and everything that we have achieved together, then we make it less likely that we can appeal to the public, and less likely that we can win.

If we hate our own history, why should anyone else love it?

The whole Party can take credit for our greatest achievements, from the advancement of workers’ rights, through the creation of the NHS, the building of decent council housing, legislating for equal pay and against discrimination, creating the Open University, introducing the minimum wage, supporting working families with tax credits,lifting a million pensioners out of poverty, rebuilding our public services.

But let us never forget, every single one of those achievements came in government.

They came because Labour was able to persuade millions of people that they offered the best solutions to the country’s problems and the best leadership to deliver them.

Every single one of those achievements came as a result of our party’s historic insight that we can only deliver change for the people we want to represent if we are there in Parliament representing them.

It’s right there in Clause One of our Rule Book: our purpose is “to organise and maintain in Parliament and the country a political Labour Party”. In Parliament and the country.

We can never give up on the parliamentary road to socialism, because it is the only road to socialism in any country where we believe in the principle of democratic consent.

And we can never give up on the parliamentary road to socialism because it reminds us that we can only advance our principles through the force of our arguments.

Not through brute force, not by abusing those with whom we disagree – and not through waiting for voters to come around to our point of view, and assuming they are stupid or heartless or selfish until they do.

If we start looking down on voters, then voters will start looking down on us. And the more reasons we give voters not to support us, the more they will look elsewhere – and the more space we will offer to our opponents.

Look at Theresa May on the steps of Downing Street, making a speech that could have been made by a Labour Prime Minister, about people who are just getting by, about making sure that her government wouldn’t be driven by the interests of a privileged few.

Even her big policy announcement about bringing back school selection – as regressive and divisive a policy as you can think of – was hedged all around with rhetoric about helping the least well-off.

The Tories want this territory because they know it’s where the voters are.

They want to steal our language because they know they can win with it – but it only works when Labour isn’t credible.

If we don’t stand firm as a credible party of the left, then we’ll be pushed to the fringes. And that’s what I fear is happening to us now.

 

Labour at lowest ebb

Today, Labour is at its lowest ebb. In the last Parliament, we consistently led in the polls – and we now know that it wasn’t enough to stop us losing badly in the end.

But in this Parliament, we have been consistently behind. In 95 published polls since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, we have been behind in 91, ahead in three, and level in one.

We were ahead in three polls after George Osborne’s disastrous Budget – the period when Iain Duncan Smith resigned, and when Jeremy Corbyn said it wasn’t his job to attack the government. We were level in one poll after David Cameron resigned. And aside from that, consistently polling behind one of the worst governments of my lifetime.

In one recent poll we were on 27 per cent. That means that since the 2015 election, the Labour Party has lost a million votes.

That’s not the performance of a party poised to sweep the country. It’s the performance of a party staring electoral oblivion in the face.

Now I have an old-fashioned view about leadership. It’s about leading – and it’s about taking responsibility when things aren’t going well.

That’s why it’s so disappointing to see Jeremy and those around him blaming everyone but themselves for Labour’s poor performance since he took over.

That’s why it’s so disappointing to see people who should be comrades throwing abuse at committed members of the Labour Party who did their best to make Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership work but saw time after time that he just wasn’t up to it.

To quote another famous JC: don’t look at the mote in your brother’s eye without considering the beam in your own.

If you can’t be honest with yourself about why things are going wrong, then you can’t take the action you need to put things right.

And that’s why I fear that if people vote for more of the same with Jeremy Corbyn, they’ll get more of the same with Jeremy Corbyn.

 

Five days left, five things I’m fighting for

So with five days left in this race, there are five days left to save the Labour Party. Five days to save it from a leadership that’s taking the Party away from the concerns of the British people, away from credibility, away from unity.

Five days to get the Labour Party into a position where it can face outwards and talk about the problems the country faces and the solutions we offer – not face inwards with talk about deselections and Red Tories and splits.

So in these last five days, here’s what I’m fighting for.

I’m fighting for an end to austerity: with a £200 billion British New Deal to rebuild Britain over the next five years. With interest rates at a historic low we can afford to borrow to invest in the schools and skills, healthcare and housing needs of this country.

With credible leadership, focused on putting our ideas into practice by getting Labour back into government, we can make anti-austerity more than just a slogan, but a practical policy.

I’m fighting for our NHS: when hospital deficits are at £2.5 billion and rising and services are being cut back, it’s time to increase NHS spending by 4 per cent a year – more than £60 billion over five years – funded by new taxes on the very richest in Britain.

I’m fighting for better pay, better living standards and better rights for working people. A real living wage of £8.25 an hour, rising above £10 an hour by 2020 – and paid to all workers over 18, not just the over-25s.

An end to the public sector pay freeze.

A ban on zero-hours contracts.

And a modern Equal Pay Act to tackle the many ways in which women are still disadvantaged in the workplace.

I’m fighting to safeguard British jobs and British economic interests following the EU referendum.

So far the Japanese government has offered more effective scrutiny of Britain’s Brexit plans than Her Majesty’s Opposition.

This is the biggest upheaval in Britain’s place in the world in my lifetime, and the Labour Party isn’t on the pitch.

And it’s clear why we’re not on the pitch. We’ve got a leader who won’t hold the government’s feet to the fire on Brexit because he’s quite relaxed about it.

He’s campaigned harder to keep his own job in this leadership election than he campaigned to keep hundreds of thousands of British jobs during the EU referendum.

We can do better than this. And under my leadership, we will. I’m calling for the final Brexit deal, whatever it looks like, to be put back to the British people in either a second referendum or a general election.

The final thing I’m fighting for in these last five days is the thing that makes all the others possible: power.

Because we can’t do any of this – end austerity, save the NHS, secure a better deal for working people or ensure that Brexit doesn’t leave all of us worse off – without being in government.

Earlier this week Jeremy admitted on national TV that he didn’t know how many seats Labour needs to win to beat the Tories.

It was the starkest evidence yet that Jeremy isn’t really serious about winning power. He is complacent and content with opposition.

Well I’m not . I want to win back each and every one of the 106 seats we need to form a majority, and that is why I am announcing today that in addition to the welcome clarity that this contest has brought, I would use the welcome extra resources it has brought the party – the money from our registered supporters – to employ an organiser in every key seat.

People committed to Labour, and to mobilising our movement not just to attend rallies but to knock doors and persuade those who voted Tory or UKIP at the last election to vote Labour at the next one.

 

Conclusion

The straight talking honest truth is that under Jeremy’s leadership, we’re not poised on the brink of power.

We’re not set to gain seats, we’re set to lose seats.

Set to go backwards so that in 2020 we’ll be even worse off than we were in 2015, and the challenge we face to win in 2025 will be even tougher than the one we have now.

And the real tragedy is that Labour has never been so needed as we are today. After six years of failed Tory austerity and with Theresa May’s warmed up 1950’s agenda for Britain, our progressive values and vision have never felt so vital.

But we only have a chance to get a hearing for that vision, and for getting into government if the general public thinks of us as a credible alternative government, with a credible alternative policy programme, led by a credible alternative Prime Minister.

That means being a strong opposition in Parliament – of a kind that we just haven’t been in the last year. Taking on the Tories effectively, scrutinising their policies, exposing their mistakes.

It means putting a strong team together, providing them with leadership and direction, and trusting them to get on with the job.

It means uniting the Party behind a leader they can trust to represent their values and put them into practice.

And that is what I can do and can be.

It’s all to play for in these last five days.

Thousands of members, registered supporters and affiliates haven’t voted yet. Thousands of people are still undecided – or just want to leave it to the last minute.

And my message to you all is simple.

Use your vote to start the process of taking Labour back to power.

And elect me to help us serve the country we love and the save the party we all belong to.

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