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The Oily Politics of Unity: Owen Smith as Northern Ireland Shadow Secretary

As a man entering his middle-years, if not with dignity, then certainly with a fuller, more rotund figure – it takes rather a lot to make me fall out of my chair.  And yet, perusing the news online last week, and happening across the story that Jeremy Corbyn has appointed Owen Smith as shadow Northern Ireland secretary – I went toppling from my seat much in the way of a giant redwood felled in the middle of the Canadian forests.

You remember Owen Smith right?   Yes, that Owen Smith.  The Owen Smith who resigned from the shadow cabinet in 2016 alongside a host of other MPs who were trying to sabotage Corbyn’s leadership by provoking a coup to force him from power.  The same guy who worked as a corporate lobbyist for Pfizer and yet underwent a ‘damascene’ conversion to Corbyn’s politics of anti-austerity.  You know – round about the time he challenged Corbyn for the leadership, and wanted to cleave off a good slice of Corbyn’s electoral base for himself.  Yeah that’s the one – the man the press dubbed as ‘oily Smith’ because he was so well known for telling people what he thought they wanted to hear.

Now some people have justified Smith’s appointment on the grounds that a crafty Corbyn has positioned one of the more significant ‘rebels’ in a political situation which is beyond Smith’s powers to deal with, and will very likely explode in his face. ‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer’, say Labour aficionados with gleeful, furtive whispers.  Smith has been handed ‘a poisoned chalice’, so the line goes.  But consider the implications of this if you will. It means that Corbyn has knowingly promoted Smith to the post of shadow Northern Ireland secretary – merely as a way of neutralising a political enemy. Were it true, this would be Machiavellian in the extreme on Corbyn’s part – and also do a great disservice to the population of Northern Ireland itself.

Nothing in Corbyn’s political make up convinces me of this, however.  I think Corbyn is someone with a good deal of integrity. I think he believes in second chances, likes to look upon Labour as a ‘family’ and wants to ‘unite’ the party.  I imagine, given his recent electoral success, he feels that a calm, reasoned and rational approach will pay off in the end. The Labour leader believes Smith is an astute politician who will use the experience he had as an advisor to the Northern Ireland secretary during the Blair years to do a good job.  That is why Corbyn is holding out this olive branch.

But he is making a grave mistake. The Labour Party is not a family but an institution which is gripped by the most irreconcilable class forces, especially in the recent period. The majority of the MPs at the top are locked in a visceral hate of Corbyn and the more radical policies he pursues – not because they haven’t been sufficiently exposed to rational, gentle arguments about ‘unity’ – but because they loathe his anti-austerity politique in their very bones as it threatens to empower and give a voice to the millions at the bottom. The very group of people whose lives seem so alien to the interests and aspirations of themselves.

Now I am sure that Owen Smith and the other plotters are not in any kind of position to challenge Corybn in the near future. After his stratospheric election success, they are – quite simply – in tatters. But we can expect them to shift tactics. In the next period, they will no longer seek to oust Corbyn but instead co-opt him and his supporters in the shadow cabinet to their ideological vision. The closer he gets to power, the more they will whisper in his ear how – in the interests of ‘unity’, in the interests of that devoted labour ‘family’ – he could do well by watering down his policies, just here or there…of course. Indeed this process has already started – Labour have backtracked over the decision to axe the benefits freeze.

There is one thing which can militate against that over and again. All of us. We can keep clamouring for the Labour leadership to remain as radical as possible, to stay responsive to the needs and interests of the movement from below – because the Labour leadership itself continues to be a contested terrain. And that means fighting to get as many people who represent genuine anti-austerity into positions of power. Obviously the election result and the swing toward Labour was a euphoric moment for many – including this writer – and people want to feel that Corbyn will go from strength to strength.

But Smith’s appointment smacks of the type of compromise which, in time, will poison the living, beating, vital heart of the movement Corbyn has been raised up by. It should be criticised and there is no gain to be made from the type of loyalty which shields Corbyn from such criticism. To do that, would be to hand the Labour leader a real poisoned chalice.

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Tony McKenna’s journalism has been featured by Al Jazeera, The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, New Internationalist, The Progressive, New Statesman and New Humanist. His books include Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective (Macmillan), The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin (Sussex Academic Press) and a first novel, The Dying Light (New Haven Publishing).

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