Labour’s leader in the House of Lords has said 10 months of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has convinced her that despite having the “right values” he cannot persuade voters of his cause nor win a general election.
In an interview with the Guardian, Angela Smith said she had gone from being enthusiastic about Corbyn’s leadership to surprised by his lack of energy in shadow cabinet meetings, and failure to play an active role in attempts to force government U-turns.
As a result she said she was taking the highly unusual step of endorsing Owen Smith in her party’s leadership contest.
“Whoever is elected leader has myself and Steve Bassam [Labour’s chief whip in the Lords] in their shadow cabinet so I haven’t previously taken a position but I’ll be supporting Owen,” said Lady Smith.
“I think Owen can make that persuasive argument to the public. It is not good having the right values and the right policies – if you can’t articulate and persuade other people.
“If we only rely on people who are always Labour or 100% agree with us, then we won’t win an election.”
Smith said she was furious to see leftwing politicians, who had been activists and councillors and then MPs, being branded “Blairite vermin or worse” because they had lost confidence in Corbyn’s leadership.
Arguing that the party was in an unhappy place, she added: “That is not the Labour party I know and love.”
The peer also said she was frustrated to see Corbyn claim victory for a major government U-turn over tax credits because he had played no part in the “strategy or tactics” of the party’s successful campaign on the issue.
She said the watering down of controversial Conservative policies, including over housing, the trade union bill and welfare cuts, had happened because of collaboration between Labour peers and members of the party’s shadow cabinet.
But she said Corbyn, who was using tax credits as a key part of his leadership campaign, had failed to attend any of the relevant meetings.
“He has been leader of the party during that time but there is a role for a leader to praise the team who have done the hard work and heavy lifting on these issues rather than just to claim the credit,” Smith said.
“On the trade union bill we worked very closely with Angela Eagle and other colleagues in the House of Commons; on the housing bill with John Healey, while Owen Smith and Seema Malhotra worked very closely with us on tax credits.
“But Jeremy was never at those meetings – he wasn’t part of the core team doing the hard work on those. It is a challenge for us because the only way we can win votes is being very strategic and thoughtful, forensic and evidence-based … Jeremy wasn’t involved in the strategy or tactics on them – not at all.”
Her comments follow an advert from Corbyn, published in the Guardian, that stated “I’d rather be fighting the Tories” and listed Labour successes under his leadership. Top of the list was that “around 3 million people won’t lose out on their tax credits this year”.
Smith said she had worked hard to support Corbyn after his election, including appearing on television to welcome his new style of politics. But she claimed that he had failed to prove himself a strong leader.
Smith was particularly critical of Corbyn’s performances at shadow cabinet meetings. Asked if she was impressed by him, she said: “No. I wanted to be, I would have liked to be, but I wasn’t. And I wasn’t alone. He was good at giving people their say, but I wanted to see more engagement in the debate. He listened politely but the role of leadership is to bring those strands together.”
She expressed anger about the tone of the debate. “I don’t think anybody in the Labour party enjoys what is happening now. People I’ve known for years, who are MPs and were before that councillors and activists on the left of the party, who have always taken a leftwing line, are being called things like Blairite vermin and worse because they don’t have confidence in Jeremy.”
It came after John McDonnell became embroiled in a row with the former shadow chief secretary, Seema Malhotra, over her allegations that people working for him and Corbyn had broken into her office and intimidated her staff. She wrote to the Speaker of the House of Commons to complain about a “breach of parliamentary privilege”.
The shadow chancellor claimed it had been an innocent mistake by his office manager, who was a widow with daughters who was now fearing for her job despite apologising. He said that his team thought Malhotra had moved out of the office given that she had resigned from the shadow cabinet a month ago.
McDonnell then interrupted the BBC interview by Andrew Marr asking “what camera am I on?” before making a direct appeal to viewers. “We’ve got to stop this now,” he said. “There’s a small group out there that are willing to destroy our party just to remove Jeremy Corbyn.”
McDonnell also said it was “inevitable” that both he and Corbyn would resign in the face of a general election loss.
In another sign of the distance between the Corbyn leadership and the parliamentary party, the Labour MP Wes Streeting published a letter he wrote to the party’s general secretary Iain McNicol.
In it, he asked for assurances that none of Corbyn’s staff who are paid using Short Money are able to play any part in the leadership election campaigning. Short Money is the cash given to opposition parties to fulfil their parliamentary functions.
A Labour source hit back at Lady Smith, arguing that the leader of the party would never take part in detailed planning meetings in the House of Lords.
“The 22 times that the government was overturned, which we couldn’t have done without the Lords, happened under his leadership,” the source said. “People present his leadership as incompetent and a car crash, and yet on all electoral tests we are moving forward.”
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