When it comes to Labour Party politics, there’s a temptation to stay quiet about the whole ugly business and to step slowly away like you’ve just turned a corner and found two pit bulls tearing lumps from each other. Would anybody really want to comment on a situation in which you immediately become the common enemy to the Softs, the Trots and the variously besotted? Those over on the Left of Labour feel strongly about their leader, whilst those on the centrist wing feel equally strongly about the man they see as an invasive predator deserving the same treatment as New Zealand is about to mete out to its non-native possum.
When seen from the outside, Labour’s death rattle seems like a well orchestrated plan, borne out of genius and a pragmatic lust for power. In an age of the anti-politician, of widespread cynicism towards anybody with something more than a half-baked theory, as well as a general flinching away from the trappings of competence, Labour’s mess resembles political cunning of the highest order. Such foolishness surely doesn’t happen by accident. Chaplin didn’t walk onto the set of Modern Times (1936) and start falling over without having thought about it beforehand. It took meticulous planning for Stan Laurel to glue a paintbrush to Oliver Hardy’s chin in Busy Bodies (1933). So when Owen Smith appeared on Sky News (2016) on Sunday, he’d surely thought quite carefully about the angle at which he’d apply to the glue brush to his own chin.
The Labour leadership challenger appeared on Sky News to discuss the need for competent leadership. No doubt that’s why he chose to do so in front of a bookshelf bending under the weight of heavyweight political treatises such as ‘The Big Book of Baking’ and a well-thumbed copy of ‘Delia’s Complete Cookery Course’. There was Mary Berry peering out from under Owen’s right earlobe and Gennaro Contaldo over his left shoulder. Penelope Casas’ The Food and Wines of Spain’ and May Martin’s ‘Sewing Bible’ were in positions for which publishers would normally have paid good money.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, if Owen Smith wanted to take this chance to admit his love for baking and dressmaking but there is something incongruous about a man demanding that Labour be ‘credible opposition’ whilst backed by Elizabeth David, Simon Hopkinson and ‘The Fast Diet’. A competent politician (or, at least, a half competent advisor) should have taken a quick look at the backdrop and suggested that it might not have conveyed the right gravitas. This should not be difficult. A golden rule of politics is to avoid standing or sitting in front of anything that distracts from your message or might make you look foolish. It’s why so many our politicians in front of bookcases crammed with political memories, thick and daunting histories of world wars, and the ubiquitous volumes about Churchill and/or Bevan, depending on which way your library membership card folds. Anything by Jilly Cooper or Tom Clancy remains hidden in an upstairs cupboard. All of which means that Smith’s choice was either deliberate or a sign of low level incompetence.
If it was deliberate, it’s hard to see what end it served. What did the books say about Smith’s leadership bid? That he’s good on domestic matters? That he knows his way around a well-cut suit and could let our John Prescott’s waistband in an emergency situation? Are we mean to read into this that Owen Smith knows how to take the ingredients of a political party and make them into a credible multi-layered inclusive sponge cake? It is a hard argument to make. Which means that Smith’s backdrop was accidental and that destroys any argument we have about Labour’s ridiculousness being by design.
An inability to get the basics right is becoming a theme of the Labour contest. When Angela Eagle launched her bid for the leadership, not one of her team thought to check the news wires so they could cancel the gig when it became obvious that Andrea Leadsom was about to quit the Tory’s leadership race. It left Eagle calling out to journalists who had long since flapped their Hush Puppies over to Leadsom HQ.
It’s easy to blame Corbyn for these and every problem affecting the party but these slip ups really remind us that the moderate wing of Labour currently lack the organisation and political nous of the Left. Corbynistas are flawed in ways mild and violent but they are a known quantity and should be easily neutralised by simple competence. Yet it’s that tie-your-shoelace-competence that’s been missing on the right of the party since Tony Blair was caste into the wilderness of the jet-setting lecture circuit.
What it also shows is that Corbyn isn’t simply the accidental leader of Labour. The Labour Party might be more of a meritocracy than they would wish to admit. To the moderate end of the Labour benches, Jeremy Corbyn appears to have been a disaster. Very few can find a good word to say about him so inside Westminster. Yet each of Corbyn’s flaws dances a tight circle around a virtue. If some see his lack of dress sense as a problem, others see it as a refreshing change from the politics of Savile Row mannequins that once made Labour a slightly fuller-lapelled version of the Tories. Corbyn lacks bite at the Dispatch Box as David Cameron (and now Theresa May) have bullied him mercilessly but he can also stand back and nobly announce that he won’t dignify them by brawling. It’s either an abjuration of his vows to lead the party or it is a new kind of politics.
None of this is to defend Corbyn but simply acknowledge that he has a loyal following for a reason and the moderates are simply being naive or foolish if they believe they can counter his force with somebody as lightweight as Owen Smith. Framed on Sky News by the spine of ‘Jamies’ 15 minute meals’, ‘Sew Your Own Wardrobe’ and ‘The Big Book of Baking’, Smith merely emphasised how Jeremy Corbyn brings a weight to politics that’s unfeasibly hard to counter when you don’t have weight of your own. Corbyn’s politics might fail on the level of ‘the big picture’ but he works the small details effortlessly, which is hard to believe when he emerges each day from a house with an overgrown front garden and parts of his window frame falling off. Some might rightly argue that the house is a metaphor for Labour itself but, surely, that’s a measure of Labour’s problem. The anti-Corbyn forces can offer something better than a guy with an impressive library of cook books and guides to making your own trousers. That they can’t see this is currently their real problem.