Owen Smith knows he has a mountain to climb to defeat Jeremy Corbyn. But he thinks that his Welsh roots, background in Government and the private sector can help him make Labour an electoral force again.
It’s fair to say that Owen Smith is proud of being Welsh. An avid fan of the national rugby and football teams, he’s the grandson of a miner and son of a Welsh historian. His Westminster office even sports a statue of JPR Williams, the legendary rugby fullback who took part in the greatest try of all time.
Williams was also a hospital surgeon, as well as a gifted sportsman, and in Wales the NHS and national pride are often bound up together. Not surprisingly, Nye Bevan, the Labour Health Secretary who oversaw the creation of the health service, is Smith’s greatest political hero.
Aptly enough, it was as junior shadow health minister that the Pontypridd MP first made his mark in Parliament. Colleagues who know him best say that his ‘coming of age’ in the Commons was in September 2011, during the passing of Andrew Lansley’s controversial Health and Social Care Bill.
Flanked by John Healey and Liz Kendall, Smith got up to savage the Health Secretary and deliver what many fellow MPs considered to be a tour-de-force, at turns impassioned, quick-witted and lyrical. The bill was ‘paused’, but eventually passed in watered down form, another reminder to Smith of the ultimate impotence of Opposition.
But he had made his mark, barely a year after entering the Commons as a newly-elected MP. Did he feel that debate was his breakthrough in Parliament?
“Definitely. I think I’ve shown in the way in which both in the Health job and the Exchequer Secretary and as Wales, where fewer people paid attention, and at the DWP, that I will take the fight to the Tories with real passion in this place, in the place that matters for getting across to the nation our arguments. That’s because I’ve got a really deep, deep set of beliefs.”
“On that Health Bill what I saw was a Tory party that were using Labour’s language and subverting it, taking some of the things we’ve said in the last Labour government, like choice, a word I’ve used in the past, and subverting it, using it as a Trojan horse to basically break up the NHS, de-nationalise it, marketise, it privatise it, call it what you want. That’s what they’ve done.
“They hate the NHS their view of the NHS is it’s bloated, public, inefficient, and the reason they fundamentally hate it of course it’s the best institutional representation of what we believe in, in Labour.
“Which is you pool your risk, you share your reward, strength and solidarity and unity, using the tax base to provide a universal system that everyone benefits from. And they cannot stand that because it works and people love it. And it’s an illustration of how Labour’s values are actually what the country wants.”
Smith, who has come under attack for working for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, said that Corbyn had laid bare his lack of knowledge of the way the NHS works.
“Jeremy said something the other day about wanting for all medicines to be developed in the public sector. That’s clearly an impossible dream. It would be lovely if all medicines could be developed by the public sector but that’s never, ever going to happen,” he said.
“And therefore of course you will always be purchasing goods and services from the private sector - but the core ethos of the NHS has to be about public ownership and public provision free at the point of use. Without that we erode its DNA and a bit of Labour’s DNA disappears as well, because it’s a reflection of what we are about.”
Another Welshman with passionate views on the NHS is actor Michael Sheen, whose videoed speech condemning cuts went viral ahead of the 2015 general election. In his St David’s Day address, Sheen told politicians “by God, believe in something”.
“I think he’s a great guy,” Smith says. “I think the work he’s done around Port Talbot, his native Port Talbot, he’s one of a number of great actors who’ve come from that town.
“I thought that speech was terrific. He borrowed of course from my great hero Nye Bevan and it was a great expression of the modern, practical socialism that I believe in. I don’t think it’s backward looking to reflect that.”
But Smith is not blind to some of the gaps in NHS care at present. When Angela Eagle launched her leadership challenge to Corbyn last month, the Pontypridd MP was not in London.
Some questioned his absence from the political front line at such a crucial time for the party, not least as colleagues knew he had more support that Eagle behind the scenes. Some critics even suggested he deliberately absented himself to leave Eagle to trigger the contest against Corbyn.
Smith has briefly mentioned that he was visiting one of his brothers (he has two) in hospital, but without giving any details. For the first time, he tells HuffPostUK exactly why he was not in Westminster.
“My brother is someone who’s had epilepsy for many years. And he had a major episode relating to his epilepsy that meant he had to be hospitalised for a week. I was the only person looking after him at a moment of crisis,” he said.
“And so I was the person who had to take him to the hospital and look after him as he was going through that crisis. I stayed in the hospital for 29 hours from the Monday night until the Wednesday because my parents were away and he lives at home with them.
“And I tell you what, it’s a real eye-opener for me into just how terrible mental health services are in Britain, that he was bounced essentially between mental health services and A&E. He ended up being kept on a gurney for a week, when he should have been having specialist mental health care.”
It was Tony Blair who famously introduced more privately-run treatment centres, overseen by the NHS, to get waiting lists down. Yet unlike Liz Kendall in the 2015 leadership race, Smith is not going to praise the idea. In fact, he makes a virtue of just how far he’s travelled from the Blair era, when he was a special adviser to Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy.
“Part of the reason politicians are so cynically viewed right now is I think we failed to appreciate in the 1990s and 2000s how much people felt that politics was coming into a soggy consensus in the middle,” he said.
“People in my seat and elsewhere did feel that the Labour party moved essentially closer to the Tories in accepting the erosion of public service ethos in public services and I think we’ve got to be clear about that. I was as guilty as anybody at the time.”
Blair’s ‘what works’ mantra was seen as shifting Labour towards where the voters were, but Smith believes it simply left the party shifting from its core beliefs.
“In moving to that position we failed to appreciate the risks that we were running and the dangers that we would erode faith in politics more broadly,” he said.
“So yes people may feel ‘what works’, but they also want a Labour party that is recognisably a Labour party. And they also want to feel I think that politicians have deep convictions and that they are authentic in their views. And if the party’s ethos is seen to be shifting towards ‘what works’ rather than ‘what we believe in’ then that’s clearly a problem.”
Smith is acutely aware that his leadership campaign has been dogged by questions about his past as a special adviser and as a Pfizer employee.
“The answer I give is I feel as though I’ve been there, got the T-shirt and learned what the mistakes are. Having worked in the private sector, I’ve seen the ills of the private sector, having been an advisor to the last Labour government, I’ve seen what we got wrong. And I’ve come out the other side of this with a set of very clear political views and a clear set of convictions.”
Neil Kinnock, of course, did much of the groundwork in preparing Labour for the Blair era. But as the last Welsh leader of a national party, he often faced what his allies believed was prejudice simply because of the country of his birth.
Does Smith worry that his own Welsh background could be seen as a negative in in the South East of England or elsewhere? Or did Euro2016 reveal were were ‘all Welsh now’?
He smiles at the question. “I don’t think that’s a problem any more. In lots of ways we have become much more tolerant society, one of the things Labour was to be commended for in the 1990s and 2000s was presiding over a greater degree of tolerance and openness to all sorts of differences.
“I don’t think being Welsh holds me back. Not least because people have in the same period become more interested in their locale, their community, their identity, whether that’s Scottish, English, Welsh, being a Mancunian, being a Liverpudlian, there’s been a greater understanding and a value of where you come from and who you are.
“I come at this as a fairly clear, patriotic Welshman. I’m somebody who’s patriotically Welsh, I’m also patriotically British, I write British on my passport, not Welsh, because I feel that’s I guess the essence of who I am. But I also feel proudly European and part of a long tradition of European left thought and a long tradition of European Enlightenment.”
Yet many parts of Wales voted to Leave the EU in the referendum, and UKIP has been making impressive gains in the Welsh Assembly, eating away at Labour’s working class vote.
Can Smith change the narrative so that Labour recovers ground from UKIP in Wales, and in the north of England?
“I come from an ex-industrial working class part of south Wales, I represent it, I live there, my kids go to school there, my wife teaches there, that is my community. And it is exactly the sort of community that has been susceptible to the charms of UKIP and other parties. And part of the reason for that is those communiteis feel to use that dreadful phrase, left behind.
“They have essentially felt a sense of loss for a long time. The jobs have gone, their place in the world has gone. Ponty was a place where there were 13 pits in a chainworks, the longest train station in world, they were exporting more coal than New York a hundred years ago.
“The secret I think to appealing once more to those communities is sending a massively clear message that Labour gets it and that we are on your side, that we come from you and we represent you and we will serve you. That means investing. It does mean rebuilding the infrastructure. It does mean rebuilding light rail, for example, why on earth haven’t we invested in creating a London-style metro system for the greater urban area in south Wales as we have done in other areas?
“It does mean putting money into schools and hospitals and local services, as opposed to cuts. All that people can see is loss, where’s the gain in communities?
“If we had that greater degree of investment then some of the concerns about immigration would dissipate. My area, 97.8% white indigenous local, it is not an area of high immigration and yet immigration is an issue that comes up on the doorstep.
“Why is that? It’s essentially because people feel there has been decline in the area and they are looking for ways to explain that. It’s not local pressure on jobs and services, though in some others it is.”
Does he think that part of the answer to UKIP’s appeal is for Labour to now say more clearly that it backs curbs on freedom of movement?
“I think we’ve got this wrong from both ends. I think it’s both wrong to say you’ve got to stop it and it’s wrong for Jeremy to have said ‘well there’s absolutely nothing we can do about this’.
“The public wants a middle way on this. The public actually wants to have its cake and eat it - and why shouldn’t they? What they want is greater control and they want to be part of a Europe that is a free trade area. We can either say as a country ‘right, we voted out, that’s it, Brexit’s now coming and this is a binary choice’.
“Or we can try and respond to what public said to us in that referendum, which is wanting those two things. I think we could be much bolder at arguing for changes to the European Union and arguing for an outcome to the Brexit negotiations that was more akin to what people wanted.
“And if we did that and we got something, we should then be brave enough to put it to the British people to trust them once more, either in a second referendum or in a general election.”
Smith seizes on Corbyn’s perceived lack of enthusiasm for the Remain campaign, a factor many of his supporters believe has driven some members’ disillusion with the Labour leader.
But is he explicitly saying that if there is a snap election he is prepared to insert in a Labour manifesto a pledge to take keep the UK in the EU?
“Yes. I think many European partners that I talk to in socialist parties and others, they still want Britain to stay in the European Union.
“I think we are ahead of the curve in this country. The debate we had is one that is going to happen in other EU states. So the last thing should do is what Jeremy was advocating – ‘right, Article 50, trigger it and let’s get out of the European Union as quickly as possible’. Jeremy’s never really believed in staying in Europe, that’s why he didn’t fight hard enough at the referendum.
“And the Tories want to do the same. So the Jeremy and David Davis are at one on this in assuming we are leaving and ‘let’s get on with it’. I completely disagree with both of them. And if we get a good deal, that’s the point at which you might say to the British people, here’s what’s on offer if we stay in the European Union, would you prefer this to what we’ve got right now?”
So, the 48% who voted Remain, including many Conservatives, would be the target group for Labour if he wins the leadership?
“I think that group of people will grow. The Bank of England is set [on Thursday] to implement more draconian changes to monetary policy, in order to see off the risk of a further recession.
“America has had to change the rate at which it increases its interest rates because of a global anticipated slowdown in GDP because of the decision we took. This was a momentous decision Britain took and we ain’t seen noting yet in terms of the impact.
“It absolutely could be a vote winner for Labour and more importantly it’s what we believe in. We believe in collaboration and cooperation, in internationalism, not in isolation, introversion, atomisation, all the things the Tories believe in.”
And he’s clear that a general election could overturn the result of the EU referendum? “Yes. If Labour went into a general election with a clear prospectus for restoring our relationship with the European Union then that would obviously trump a referendum - if people voted for it.”
For now, Smith’s own personal love of Europe has to be put on hold. His wife and teenage children are off to France, but he’s got a very British leadership election to fight.
Still, his current reading matter transports him to warmer climes: he’s working his way through Elena Ferrante’s four Neopolitan Novels. “It’s the best thing I’ve read for ages. It’s basically a depiction of a working class Naples community and it could be about any town or village in industrial Britain. It’s a brilliant set of books”.
After September 24, when the Labour leadership result is announced in a packed conference hall in post-industrial Liverpool, Owen Smith may have more time on his hands for holidays. But he clearly hopes he won’t.
This is the second instalment of our Owen Smith interview. Read the first part HERE.