On 2 August, Labour leadership contender Owen Smith revealed his workplace manifesto. Despite criticising the current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for offering slogans rather than solutions, Smith launched his workplace pledges with one of his own.
Or perhaps not quite one of his own, as the very same phrase had been used just weeks before by a member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. Either this is a striking coincidence, or Smith is paying close attention to the team he’s standing against, and taking the very words right out of its collective mouth.
On 29 June, following the EU referendum vote, a debate on the UK economy was held in parliament. The motion was called by the opposition to discuss the risks posed to the UK economy without membership of the EU and the measures necessary to ensure stability, growth and cohesion in the country following Brexit.
Among the numerous speakers was Rebecca Long Bailey, Labour’s new shadow chief secretary to the treasury. The Salford and Eccles MP’s contribution to the debate gained notoriety for turning one of then-chancellor George Osborne’s own favourite phrases against him. She commented that rather than “fix the roof when the sun was shining”, Osborne had taken the opposite path and actually “sold it off”.
She concluded her speech with the following statement:
All Members of the House must fight for and support our economy and the people in it. The economic outlook for the UK is uncertain, and we are facing turbulent political times.
As my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor emphasised earlier, there are strengths in our economy, but we must nurture and support them at this vital time. If we do not, the future looks bleak.
Labour is willing to work across the House to ensure that the people of this country are protected from whatever is to come, and we are committed to delivering an economic agenda that promotes Britain and British industry. Let us be the envy of the world once again.
Her final phrase, urging parliament to “let us be the envy of the world once again”, is the very one Smith used as he launched his workers’ manifesto.
Smith’s proposals for workplace conditions were revealed at a meeting with trade unionists. The Labour leadership challenger announced 25 pledges during the meeting that he hopes will “take Britain from the shameful position of having some of the worst workplace protections in Europe” and, instead, make Britain “the envy of the world”.
He also insisted that he has a “radical vision” that amounts to “nothing short of a revolution” in workers’ rights. This is language that has been used about Corbyn, and by the Labour leader himself.
Smith’s policy positions are also strikingly similar to those of Corbyn. He wants to end the public pay freeze, as does Corbyn. He plans to repeal the trade union bill, as does Corbyn. And he wants to reinstate the 50p top rate of income tax, as does Corbyn.
But there are some differences. Among them is that Smith has indicated that he wants to outlaw zero-hours contracts, but would consider replacing them with ‘one-hour contracts’. Corbyn too wants the contracts excised but it’s unlikely he would set the bar at one hour as he has pledged to “end the scandal of insecurity”, and a one hour promise of work is most certainly not a ‘secure’ living.
Smith also supports the renewal of Trident, the UK’s nuclear weapon, whereas Corbyn is committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament.
At this stage in the Labour leadership contest, however, it seems that the major difference between Corbyn and the ‘alternative’ candidate – apart from their age and birthplace – is that the latter has the support of many members of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). But why is that the case if his positions are not that far removed the current leader?
Could that be because his positions are flexible?
Just weeks ago, Smith told Andrew Marr that “austerity is right”:
Yet now vows he is vehemently against austerity. If he can do a U-turn on that fundamental issue, is it not possible he will do so on the others he is now proposing?
This is the crucial question that voters need answered before returning their ballots in September. And if Smith truly believes he’s a viable alternative to Corbyn, he must start churning out some thoughts and words of his own.
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