Owen Smith, the challenger in the Labour leadership contest, launched a series of scathing attacks on Jeremy Corbyn at a hard-fought public hustings in Gateshead on Thursday night, as the struggle for the future of the party intensified.
A day after Corbyn had been accused by his deputy, Tom Watson, of allowing “Trotskyist entryists” to infiltrate Labour, he clashed repeatedly with Smith, who accused him of returning to the 1980s politics of mass protest rallies and a Labour party out of power for a generation.
“We know how this one ends, Jeremy, and it doesn’t end well for the working people of Britain. It’s not about the T-shirts we wear or the badges on our lapels; it’s about power,” he said, to jeers from the audience.
When Corbyn criticised Smith for stepping down as shadow work and pensions secretary, the Pontypridd MP shot back that he had resigned “because you cannot lead us back to power, you could not fulfil the basic task ... of working with your colleagues. You undermined [your] colleagues at every turn.”
The electorate for the leadership contest has still not been finally determined, with the party awaiting an appeal court ruling, due on Friday, in a case brought by five new party members over the imposition of a six-month cutoff date to qualify for voting. There have been a series of legal clashes over the rules of the race, with Labour’s national executive committee defending its decision to impose the rules that have excluded up to 130,000 members who have joined the party since January from voting.
Smith, who appeared to have abandoned the cautious tone in which the early stages of the leadership debate were conducted, reiterated that he would offer Corbyn a shadow cabinet post – but said he would refuse to serve under Corbyn on the frontbench.
The leader insisted: “Our party is a strong party, our party is a big party, our campaigning abilities are immense if we work together on those campaigns. We have to build and transform our society and give people the confidence things can be done differently in Britain.”
The pair agreed on many policy issues, including the need to boost the national minimum wage, improve state-funded childcare and fight government spending cuts.
But they clashed over the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system, which Corbyn recently voted against retaining, while Smith says he is a “reluctant” supporter, because he believes in multilateral disarmament.
Smith also said he would have liked to see an all-woman shortlist for at least one of the recent elections to choose the Labour candidates for the forthcoming city mayoral races. Corbyn, however, said that was not a matter for the party leader.
Corbyn said many of the ideas Smith outlined throughout the debate – including fighting for social justice and raising taxes on the wealthy – were Labour policy before he resigned from the shadow cabinet.
But Smith shot back that Corbyn had been “long on slogans and long on rhetoric and short on policies and short on solution”.
“The rhetoric may well appeal to our base, Jeremy, but it won’t win us back Nuneaton, Cardiff North, Milton Keynes,” Smith said.
On Europe, Smith suggested Corbyn had failed to fight hard enough against Brexit: “You never really bought into the idea of remaining in the European Union … You never really liked the idea of the European Union.”
Corbyn, a longstanding sceptic about the EU, before campaigning for a remain vote in the referendum, asked his rival: “Are you becoming a mind-reader?” Smith replied: “I don’t need to be; you told us what you thought for 40 years.”
Unison, the second-largest union, became the latest to endorse Jeremy Corbyn yesterday, after the GMB backed Smith on Wednesday. Corbyn has most of the major unions on his side. However, on Thursday Unison’s general secretary, Dave Prentis, warned that Labour was becoming “the new nasty party”. In an opinion piece for the Mirror he said: “There can be no place for witch hunts against Labour MPs, councillors and party staff by the left or right of the party.” He said there were many people in the union who backed Smith and “their views will always be respected”. He warned that to do otherwise would lead to more Tory governments.
Corbyn’s backers, who are scathing about the “spin” operations run by New Labour, declared Thursday night’s debate “two-nil to Jeremy”; and have set up a website – corbynfacts.com – to rebut claims about him.
“The look on Owen Smith and his team’s faces at the end said it all. All they have is Project Fear and Project Smear and when they don’t work they just talk down the party,” a campaign source said.
Meanwhile, the row over “Trotskyist entryism” in Labour rumbled on, with members of the Socialist party – the successor to Militant, which was thrown out of Labour in the 1980s – suggesting they hope to win the right to be affiliated to Labour, alongside groups such as the Co-op party, if Corbyn wins.
Peter Taaffe, the veteran leader of the movement, reiterated his hope of returning to the Labour fold. Hannah Sell, the Socialist party deputy general secretary, told the Guardian: “We hope to be on a list of organisations which are distinct, but also come under the umbrella of the Labour party. If the NEC took a decision that we were allowed in, it would be possible.”
Corbyn’s allies suggested they have no plans to change the rules preventing members of parties that have stood candidates against Labour in the past five years from joining the party – but see no in principle objection to former members of any party signing up.
However, a source at Momentum, the grassroots movement set up to support Corbyn, and which Watson suggested was operating “entryist” tactics, said of Taaffe: “He is hostile to our party and has been openly talking about splitting it”.
John McDonnell, Corbyn’s ally and campaign director, had earlier accused Smith of “smear tactics” and suggested his plan for infrastructure investment was “mimicking” a similar proposal from the former work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb.
Another Socialist party member, Iain Dalton, identified himself as one of the people whose activities were highlighted in Tom Watson’s document, as attending and speaking at Momentum meetings in Leeds and York.
“I would like us to be an affiliated body to Labour,” he said. “I don’t want to go back to the 1980s, with people afraid of being hounded out. I would want it to be an open thing. It’s not as if there’s some iron wall between being a Labour party member and a Socialist party member. We talk about stuff.”
Asked whether he was a Trotskysist, Dalton said: “It’s not the first thing I would describe myself as; but I guess I am a Trotskyist if I had to pin it down.”
He insists that he is not a revolutionary, and wants to help create a socialist government – not an uprising on the streets. “The only time I have ever fired a gun was on Scout camp,” he said.
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