There are two compelling reasons to vote for Owen Smith as Labour Party leader. The first is that he is not Jeremy Corbyn: anything would be an improvement. The second is that, in a secret ballot of MPs, he defeated the capable and courageous Angela Eagle. If those who have most to do with him, and will have to work with him should he succeed, are prepared to show how this level of support, he must be a capable performer.
Unfortunately I must admit to being a bit disappointed at the outset. Doubtless this is a product of my history and background.
Owen Smith is a man of South Wales. His father was well-known historian and political commentator. Owen attended Barry Comprehensive School (the Barry of ‘Gavin and Stacey’), which is just seven miles from the Cardiff council estate where I spent my childhood. Amongst his many strengths as a leadership candidate is that no-one can deny his deep roots and commitment to the party that he joined at 16. ‘Blairite’ is the standard term of abuse in today’s Labour Party but Owen Smith entered Parliament after Iraq and cannot be accused of supporting this intervention.
My disappointment comes from the opening sentences of the first e-mail communication that I received from him: ‘I grew up in South Wales during the miners’ strike. That’s when I came alive politically’. Now what on earth are we to make of that? For me it touches a particularly raw nerve. I worked in the Coal Board during the 1984/5 Miners strike and view it as unmitigated catastrophe.
The strike lasted 358 days that made little economic sense and proved to be a complete political disaster. Despite the rhetoric and the subsequent romantic image it was never a demonstration of solidarity. Area ballots held in the Midlands, North East and North West coalfields produced heavy votes against the strike. NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) members in the most profitable NCB area in Nottinghamshire continued to work throughout. Support from other trade unions was variable and some were publicly hostile. The NUM ended up irreversibly fragmented. In less than a year Arthur Scargill and his adherents destroyed what previous generations of miners had taken decades to establish: a single cohesive trade union.
However, it made Scargill, the Marxist leader of the NUM, the hero of the left. One of the most uncomfortable aspects of this awful period for me was attending Labour Party meetings in Islington and hearing the class rhetoric. There was a vicarious enjoyment of the strike from those for whom nothing was at stake
Given the fact that the economics were increasingly moving against UK deep-mined coal in the international energy market, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable demise of the industry. There were enormous challenges of industrial change emerging and a need to create social policies to alleviate their impact and help those worst affected. By failing to address this issue, the Labour Party not only gave Margaret Thatcher a short-term victory, it set itself back by a decade.
What we need now, thirty years later, are forward-looking economic and industrial policies for the age of the knowledge economy. I appreciate that Owen Smith desperately needs to prove his attractiveness to a left-wing selectorate, but I hope he is not going to try to achieve this by nostalgic appeals to class war history. I am sure he is much, much better than that and I hope I am doing him an injustice.
For more on the Miners’ strike read my book, Labour’s failure and my small part in it – a memoir for my grandchildren, available as a free download by clicking the icon on the left-hand side of the page.