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Owen Smith’s policies – like Jeremy’s but not as good

GREG DASH takes a look at the Labour leadership challenger’s policies and finds them half-baked

OWEN SMITH’S “cold-eye socialist revolution” received a lukewarm reception after his “radical” ideas were scrutinised, and revealed to be repackaged or watered down versions of current Labour policy. 

This manoeuvre will do little to put to rest accusations that Smith’s left-wing politics are little more than spin with no substance. So how revolutionary are Smith’s ideas?

JobsOne of Smith’s key policies, the reintroduction of a ministry for labour to replace the Department for Work and Pensions was announced by Jeremy Corbyn in August 2015 and committed to by John McDonnell in June during a speech at the Institute of Employment Rights.

In the same speech, McDonnell committed to two more policies proposed by Smith at the launch last week: reintroducing sectoral collective bargaining — pitched as a watered-down reintroduction of wage councils by Smith — and the repeal of the Trade Union Act.
Smith’s plans on getting workers on company boards was one of Liz Kendall’s policies during the 2015 leadership election — an idea first toyed with by Tony Blair under the guise of “stakeholder capitalism,” but it was never fully adopted.

In contrast to this, Jeremy has set out clear goals to rebuild links with trade unions.

Earlier this year, he launched Workplace 2020, providing an opportunity for working-class people to shape Labour Party policy.

He has also announced that he will make it compulsory for businesses that employ more than 250 people to bargain collectively over pay with recognised trade unions, and has pledged to repeal trade union limitations introduced by Blair. 

Pay

Jeremy committed early to introducing a “full” living wage, to replace a rebranded minimum wage introduced by the Tories.

He has also committed to addressing the gender pay gap, requiring all businesses that employ more than 21 staff to be audited to crack down on discriminatory wage practices. 

Smith was initially silent on wages, before announcing a £8.25 minimum wage. This would indeed mean that those under 25 will see an increase from the levels set out by the Tory government, but workers over 25 will see a pay cut of 75p an hour.

Echoing Jeremy, he said he would ban zero-hours working, but oddly he backed the introduction of a one-hour minimum contract.

In contrast to Smith’s oppressive one-hour contracts, Jeremy has suggested we follow New Zealand in banning zero-hours work and introduce protections on overtime work.

“Availability provisions” within contracts can still allow for flexibility for those that want it, but will prevent a nominal number of hours (such as a one-hour contract) being offered to get around these protections. 

The economy

Smith is less radical than the Tories with his “New Deal” investment pledge.

Much was made of Theresa May’s recent announcement of “project bonds”.

Like Jeremy’s proposals last year for a people’s quantitative easing, May has suggested that the government should control monetary policy to stimulate investment in infrastructure projects.

The idea has since re-emerged within Labour as McDonnell’s proposal for a government-backed development bank. Through this bank, Labour will be able to raise £500 billion of investment for British infrastructure projects and create 100,000 jobs.

Smith has pledged £200bn of investment supported through government borrowing. 

Tax

Smith backed Jeremy's proposal to reintroduce a 50p top rate of income tax for earnings over £150,000. He also re-presented current Labour policy to reverse Tory cuts in corporation tax and to reverse cuts to inheritance tax.

Despite the focus placed on cracking down on tax avoidance this year by all parties, Smith failed to introduce a plan to ensure the rich pay their taxes like everyone else.

Jeremy has said he would intervene to enforce laws on British overseas territories and dependencies if they do not comply with British tax law, introduce anti-avoidance measures into British law, and invest in HM Revenue and Customs so they can hire the staff needed to collect the tax the country badly needs. 

The NHS

On a number of occasions Smith has had to explain comments he made while working as a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry that suggested he supported greater private involvement in the NHS.

Also in 2010, as a new MP, he called on ministers to “improve incentives” for pharmaceutical companies and warned against the use of cheaper, unbranded drugs on the NHS as they would affect the pharmaceutical industry.

Smith has pledged an extra 4 per cent a year real-terms funding to the NHS. This would provide a needed boost to the NHS, but with government spending rapidly falling, a 2020 general election will mean that a 4 per cent increase will not be enough to meet Smith’s pledge to bring spending in line with international standards.

Indeed, this was indicated by the £100,000 deficit in NHS spending seen in costings provided to journalists by Smith’s team. 

Jeremy has committed to opposing privatisation of our NHS in all forms, and reintroducing greater public control over the organisations that provide services through the NHS.

He has called for a reform of research and development tax credits, often used as a tax loophole by big companies; instead arguing that tax credits should only be given to organisations that can prove the social benefit of their work, or in exchange for a better deal for the NHS. 

Who is Owen Smith?

When called out for co-opting many of Jeremy’s policies, Smith bitterly criticised the shadow cabinet — many of whom have now resigned and are now campaigning for him — as being “devoid of ideas quite often,” and called out John McDonnell for not campaigning enough on workers’ rights.

The absurdity of this slur was made clear after trade unions and campaigners rushed to defend McDonnell against these accusations.

Dave Smith, secretary of the Blacklist Support Group, spoke out against the comments: “The blacklisted workers consider him one of us. John has been our parliamentary spokesperson from day one.

“He was the first person to name police officers who attended the illegal meetings, he chaired the launch of the Blacklisted book inside the Palace of

Westminster, and read out a statement from Peter Francis [undercover police officer turned whistleblower] admitting that he has spied on activists from at least six to seven trade unions during his deployment.

“That is without even talking about the countless early-morning picket lines in the snow and the rain at which he seems to be ever present.”

Orgreave campaigner John Dunn, also challenged Smith after his policy launch, calling out Smith for hosting a publicity stunt at the site where police brutally attacked workers during the miners’ strike.

I had a similar reaction recently, hearing Smith appropriate the struggle of the miners in south Wales and the sacrifice of my family and my community as part of his opening pitch.

The struggles of the families in south Wales are too important to be reduced to a soundbite or a political slogan, and Smith’s inability to recognise this suggests that these stories of anger, resistance and of solidarity mean nothing to him other than tools for political branding.  

Many of the policies introduced by Smith are indeed a step into a more progressive direction for Labour, and it’s likely that many people voted for similar-looking policies when voting for Jeremy last year — so why will I not be voting for Smith?

During the height of the coup, Kezia Dugdale spoke to the Guardian about Jeremy Corbyn’s weaknesses: “He’s deeply driven by his principles and wanting to do the right thing,” she said. “He won’t compromise them in order to be in government and he doesn’t think that he needs to.”

I don’t think this is a problem that Smith will face — and I’m deeply concerned about the sort of policies that the Labour Party might adopt and the “wrong things” it might do to get into power.

With the rise of right-wing populism and increasing xenophobia, the Labour Party has a duty to respond and offer an alternative based on the basic principles — solidarity, social justice and democracy — of those that founded the party.

Compromise on immigration by engaging with a dialogue that demonises people entering this country will not address xenophobia, and compromise on workers’ rights will not undo the damage of 10 years of Tory government. Compromises will not win back those that no longer trust politicians and no longer trust Labour.

Some of the ideas being proposed by both candidates are radical — it cannot be denied — but because of this they will only be implemented by someone who has the principle to not back down on ideas that will likely be unpopular with many of those in powerful positions (and many of those within the PLP). 

Unfortunately, after recent events it appears that some within the party no longer value “principle” — and only a new kind of politics will bring about the change that the country needs.
 

A video about the south Wales miners’ strike is available here

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