“Barnett has seen its day”: Profile of Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith

Stuart Rodger

Former lobbyist for Pfizer is only challenger to incumbent leftwinger Jeremy Corbyn 

IN the latest development in the ongoing battle over the Labour leadership, MP Owen Smith is set to be the only alternative against incumbent leftwinger Jeremy Corbyn after Angela Eagle pulled out.     

An accompanying website – SavingLabour.org – has been set up to mobilise Corbyn’s critics. The website has a list of endorsements from figures including JK Rowling, actor Jason Isaacs and historian William Dalrymple. But what of Owen Smith himself? 

He used to be a TV producer

Smith became MP for Pontypridd in Wales in 2010 after a career as a TV producer and public affairs lobbyist. He served in Ed Miliband’s front bench team as shadow secretary of state for Wales and then subsequently shadow secretary of state for work and pensions. Offering his resignation to Jeremy Corbyn, he said: “The communities we seek to represent need a Labour party that is able to articulate their concerns and most importantly win power to deliver for them. I regretfully make the decision to resign, in the best interests of our party, the people that most need a Labour government.”

He earned around £80,000 per year as a lobbyist for pharmaceutical company Pfizer

In a professional capacity prior to becoming an MP, he wrote a press release about choice in the NHS which said: “We believe choice is a good thing”. In an interview with Wales Online, when asked about private involvement in the NHS, he said “where they can bring good ideas, then I think that’s fine”, but insisted: “I think if their involvement means in any way, shape or form the break up of the NHS, then I'm not a fan of it, but I don't think it does.” On the use of Private Finance Initiative, he said: “If PFI works, then let's do it.”

Before becoming an MP, he worked as a lobbyist for pharmaceutical company Pfizer, earning around £80,000 a year. Speaking to the Daily Telegraph during a public controversy about Pfizer’s proposed takeover of a UK pharmaceutical company, he said: “Obviously having worked there I am probably a little more understanding than some of those other members.” On the Hansard registry of members’ interests, however, he consistently lists his outside financial interests as ‘nil’. 

On Scotland, he once said: “Barnett has seen its day”

On Scotland, Smith has been absent for most debates and votes on the Scotland Bill, especially those relating to housing benefit and other welfare powers. He did, however, vote against giving the Scottish Parliament full fiscal autonomy and against making the Crown Estate accountable to the Scottish Government. 

In a debate on devolution funding mechanisms, he said: “Barnett has seen its day.” He has been unspecific about the alternative possibilities, but touted allocation by an independent body: “An arm’s-length independent organisation whether it is the Office for Budget Responsibility – or whether it is some other body – is an excellent idea that we should take account of.”

He said the Bedroom Tax was “cruel” and “illegal”

Until his resignation, Smith sat in Corbyn’s front bench as shadow work and pensions secretary. In the role he described the Bedroom Tax as “cruel” and “illegal”. He has condemned the Tory’s cuts to Personal Independence Payments (Pip) for disabled claimants. Before being appointed to the role, however, he followed the party whip and abstained on the Tory’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill last summer, which sought to freeze all working-age benefits, including tax credits. 

He has called for more redistributive taxation

He has been broadly critical of George Osborne’s economic policy of austerity. In a 2010 debate he said: “The government have told us endlessly – that the deficit was too high … the only answer was to cut eight per cent or thereabouts of GDP, which would restore confidence and we would see heroic growth The trouble is that neither economic theory nor the evidence supports that argument.”

He has made calls for more redistributive taxation. He has consistently voted for increasing the tax rate for those earning over £150,000 a year, backed a bankers’ bonus tax and a mansion tax. 

On nuclear weapons: “I was a teenager when I was a member of the CND and I have long since grown up” 

Smith backed the Remain side in the EU referendum, and suggested the possibility of a second referendum on any final Brexit deal, telling the BBC that people should not think “we are on a definite path out”. 

On foreign policy, he has proposed a War Powers Act, and he supported the intervention in Libya – but not the intervention in Syria. Speaking to Wales Online about the Iraq war, he said: “I thought at the time the tradition of the Labour party and the tradition of leftwing engagement to remove dictators was a noble, valuable tradition, and one that in South Wales, from the Spanish Civil War onwards, we have recognised and played a part in."”

On Trident, he once said: “I was a teenager when I was a member of the CND and I have long since grown up and I now know that I don't think we can afford to divest ourselves of nuclear weapons right now.” Asked by Andrew Marr if he would push the button, he said: “You’ve got to be prepared to say yes to that.” 

Picture courtesy of: Twitter / Owen Smith 

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