Jeremy Corbyn has inspired many people across the country, including me, by saying what he means and meaning what he says. Owen Smith sometimes also says what he means and means what he says – and that’s when the problems arise. Or perhaps it’s all just “banter”.
Most people would be entirely willing to forgive a single gaffe or an honest mistake. But Owen Smith’s gaffes don’t seem like gaffes anymore. There’s only so many times that a mistake can be made before it goes from being a mistake to symptomatic of a long-held belief.
In the past, Smith has opposed all-women shortlists and has made an inappropriate domestic violence analogy about the coalition government. He’s told one party leader that she’s only offered time on TV because she’s a woman.
He’s threatened to “smash Theresa May back on her heels” and implied that misogyny has only been a problem since Jeremy Corbyn became leader – as if Labour women hadn’t experienced structural barriers or abuse prior to September 2015. He also told Leanne Wood that she probably only got invited on TV because of her “gender”.
And this week, Smith shared a photo of a gobstopper saying he’d found the “perfect present” for Nicola Sturgeon. When people criticised him for his “Calm down, dear” stance on women being vocal in politics, he then retorted that it was “just banter”, because apparently he’s applying for a job at the Lad Bible rather than attempting to leader a political party into a general election.
He added that he couldn’t possibly be accused of sexism given that there were women working on his campaign – we’re yet to hear whether he also can’t be sexist because his mum is a woman and he loves his mum.
Smith seems to be acting more like the candidate for leadership of a university rugby club, rather than the leadership of our party and our country.
And he’s as ignorant on issues of race as he is on gender. He has said that there are too many immigrants in parts of Britain, and that Syrian refugees were putting pressure on local schools in Wales. But in Smith’s area, just 2.1 per cent of locals were born outside of the UK and only 16 refugees – yes, 16 – have settled there in the last few months. The numbers don’t exactly back him up.
Smith promises investment and support for the controversial Prevent strategy, while utterly ignoring the concerns of minorities, senior police officers and academics about its fitness for purpose. The policy has seen a Muslim student arrested for reading a book about terrorism for his studies, an eight-year-old referred over a T-shirt wrongly assumed to be “extremist”, and countless other examples of racial profiling which have alienated minority communities.
We know all too well what happens when Labour takes its eye off the ball on these issues: in 2011 the former Labour immigration minister was rightly barred from office over a campaign apparently aimed at “getting the white vote angry” at the “mad Muslims”, while in the early days of New Labour leaflets read: “Labour are on your side, the Lib Dems are on the side of failed asylum seekers.” We can’t afford to slip backwards under Owen Smith; we have to move on from this painful past.
The sponsored silence undertaken by Labour MPs about Smith’s sexist and racist words has spoken volumes. Those supporting Smith’s campaign have had very little to say. It is a shame to see that MPs previously committed to standing up for equality have now become far more committed to breaking Jeremy Corbyn and the movement around him.
Meanwhile, in Corbyn we have a candidate who has built his political life around fighting for justice and equality, whether as a trade union officer fighting for equal pay for women or an MP arrested for protesting against apartheid. This election campaign has seen him transform his passion for equality into a bold and credible set of policies.
This election has become a choice between the negative, damaging campaign being offered by Owen Smith that seeks to drag Labour back to the past and a positive project that looks to transform and rebuild Labour’s future being offered by Jeremy Corbyn. Smith’s rhetoric on women and minorities has no place in that future.
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