Owen Smith said he was “furious” at Jeremy Corbyn’s performance against Theresa May at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, claiming the Labour leader’s effort at the dispatch box was not good enough.
In an interview with the Guardian as Smith began his campaign for leadership of the party, he accused Corbyn of letting the new prime minister off too lightly at a time when the Conservatives had made cuts to public services and tax credits but were still trying to lecture Labour over social justice.
“I was more than frustrated: I was furious that we were sitting there with a Tory government that has imposed swingeing cuts on public services, on tax credits, on universal credit, that have smashed women and public sector workers the length and breadth of Britain, and we are taking lectures from them about social justice and economic fairness,” Smith said.
“It makes my blood boil to see us so useless at saying to them: ‘How dare you have the temerity to make these claims, to make these arguments.’ Jeremy is just not up to the job of taking them on at the dispatch box. I don’t think he enjoys it; I don’t think he’s robust enough at arguing Labour’s case.”
Smith, the MP for Pontypridd and former shadow work and pensions secretary, is the only challenger to Corbyn in the two-month race, in which hundreds of thousands of party members and registered supporters will be able to vote.
Smith said he had already approached Momentum, the grassroots group that grew out of the campaign to elect Corbyn to the leadership last summer to ask if he could make a direct appeal to its members.
A little-known figure outside Westminster, Smith grew up in south Wales and marched alongside friends and family during the miner’s strike. He claims to be as “radical” as Corbyn but with a better chance of winning against May – and says he has more practical policies.
“We’ve got to put in place concrete proposals that are going to materially change people’s lives for the better: build better libraries in people’s communities; repair schools and hospitals; fill the potholes in the roads,” he said.
“If we can’t win power, then, frankly, Jeremy can shout all he wants. He can shout from the rooftops, but it’s all howling into the wind unless you can actually deliver something, and that means winning. It means being in power in order to deliver things.”
He said the shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s latest pledge of a £500bn boost to public investment only emerged after Smith had made his own similar promise.
“It was only this week that John McDonnell, having heard me call for a £200bn investment programme, pulls out of his back pocket a fag packet on which he’s written £500bn. Now he could have done that at any time in the past six months. That’s because they’ve not been serious about shifting beyond whipping up the anger to actually offering people solutions.”
Smith said that instead of assembling a credible government in waiting, Corbyn had made Labour a “laughing stock”. “We have become, in many corners of the country, with our voters, a laughing stock, and we have got to change that. And unfortunately, with Jeremy at the helm, we will not change it.”
He said he would like to see Corbyn become Labour “president” – in charge of the party in the country, not in parliament.
In a sign that the summer leadership battle is likely to be bitter, Smith has already faced a series of challenges from Corbyn loyalists, who have called him “Blair-lite” over his past as a special adviser in the New Labour government and an employee of the US drugs companies Pfizer and Amgen.
He tackled the criticism head-on, saying: “Let’s get the terms right – I was never a lobbyist. I was head of policy at Pfizer, then director of health economics and corporate affairs at Amgen … I never held a lobby pass, I have never lobbied MPs.
“I used to occasionally talk to the Department of Health, but not MPs. Pfizer makes medicines that the NHS buys, so I sometimes spoke to the NHS.”
He argued that his time in the private sector should be seen as a positive thing, saying that politicians should have “real life experience” and claiming that biotech was a hugely successful industry in Britain.
“I’m just as radical as Jeremy,” he said. “I’ve got wider life experience than Jeremy has, to fuel my radicalism. It helps having worked in the private sector. It helps having lived in Surrey, in order to see the massive gap that exists between the life experiences, the life chances, of people who’ve got a lot in society and people I grew up with who’ve got much less in society, and wanting to close that.”
Responding to his comments made at Pfizer that choice was a positive thing in the health service, Smith insisted that he was referring to Labour policies at the time, which involved using private providers to cut waiting times for a series of specific procedures, including hip and knee replacements.
But he conceded that this approach had opened the door to further privatisation under the Conservatives. “The use of language and the deployment of private sector within the public sector have been used by the Tories as a Trojan horse to open the door to the use of the private sector within the NHS.”
Smith has already announced a series of policies, including pledging a second referendum on whatever Brexit deal May’s team negotiates with the other 27 EU member states.
He told the Guardian that housing would also be a key priority under his leadership, and that he would set a new target of building 300,000 homes a year – more than double the number of housing starts in 2015.
“We will put the money behind it, and we’ve got to find the ways to do that. Some of that is central government funding, some of it is allowing councils to borrow to invest in their communities,” he said.
Smith revealed that he had received a death threat from a member of the public since announcing his candidacy, and was expecting the forthcoming campaign to be tough. He accused Corbyn of failing to clamp down aggressively enough on extreme views within Labour.
“It’s tough to change culture, and it would take real leadership over a long period to do that,” he said. “Jeremy hasn’t shown any desire to change that. He’s been, I think, quite sanguine about that.”
But Smith said his family were ready to support him in the race. “I met my wife when we were 16, at Barry boys’ comprehensive. Liz was the first of three girls who came there to do their sixth-form studies. We are very, very strong together and she is a thousand per cent behind me.”
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