The Labour leadership challenge initiated by Angela Eagle and pursued by Owen Smith was supposed to end the turmoil currently facing the party and bring unity. Unfortunately for them, however, none of the problems will be solved.
Smith’s campaign centres around the fact he is very similar to Jeremy Corbyn ideologically (insisting frequently that he is a socialist and not a Blairite), and it is Corbyn’s leadership skills which has caused the challenge. However his failure to perform as an effective leader is a symptom rather than the cause of the problem.
Corbyn’s left wing ideology is the root of Labour’s woes. They lost the General Election last year for being too left wing, and Labour MPs, particularly those in marginal seats, know that if they want any chance of retaining their seat (notwithstanding the more immediate threat of deselection) they must disassociate themselves from their leader.
It is for this reason that Corbyn has been unable to whip votes on issues that are most important to him, including the war in Syria and Trident renewal, and it is also why he has been unable to fill his shadow cabinet. There are six people with more than one job, including the shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, which show how highly Mr Corbyn regards those roles.
Sadly for Labour, however, the state of affairs would be very similar in the unlikely event that Mr Smith is successful. As a consequence of the uncompromising ideology of the Labour membership, he has had to pitch himself as being just as ‘radical’ as the man he is trying to displace. During a discussion about policies in a debate on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme, Smith said “it’s not a question about wether we can afford it.” Given that Ed Miliband lost the 2015 General Election in no small part because he was regarded as fiscally irresponsible, Smith’s blasé attitude towards public spending is unlikely to win over many new voters.
True, Smith is likely to be a better leader meaning that he is more likely to command the support of his shadow cabinet and the wider PLP, which will add credence to Labour’s electoral prospects. However the best this can do for Labour is retain existing voters – it certainly will not compensate for the fact that the electorate has repeatedly rejected socialism for the last 40 years.