The right of the PLP are faced with an impossible conundrum. On the one hand, many of them believe that only through being tougher than the Tories on welfare, or being seen to want to drastically reduce immigration, can they ‘reconnect’ with the voters they lost from 2001 onwards. Yet on the other hand, they must persuade an increasingly leftwing and discontented party membership that they will not repeat the mistakes of either Blair’s government, or Miliband’s capitulation to Tory spending plans. Forced into this double-bind, both Angela Eagle and now Owen Smith have sought to win the leadership election by persuading the membership, against all evidence, that deep down they have always been against austerity, and they just want to see Labour in power so that they can put Corbyn’s policies into practice.
As I wrote last week, this would be the essence of Angela Eagle’s campaign. She or Smith can win if they persuade enough party members who see themselves as on the left but sympathise with the right’s narratives of Corbyn’s supposed ineffectiveness in the referendum, or in the media, or simply fear the party will split. In order to secure those votes, they themselves must wear the clothes of the left.
But for Smith, just as much as the New Labour minister Eagle, those clothes are a hard fit. He has been touted as a ‘soft left’ figure by much of the media, and has set out his stance on multiple issues, calling for a second referendum on the terms of Brexit to appeal to the party’s Europhiles, and has claimed Labour’s victories on tax credits and PIP as his own.
Yet Smith’s record in the Commons voting ledger, in his previous public statements, and in his career as a minister, SpAd and lobbyist, show another story.
Once Smith had told Radio 4 last Tuesday that he was “against” the Iraq war (though crucially, not against any recriminations for Blair), Smith’s interview with Wales Online while running for Blaenau Gwent in 2006 duly emerged and revealed, far from being against the war, Smith was at best ambivalent and at worst quite keen on the invasion and occupation, having told the interviewer, “I thought at the time the tradition of the Labour Party and the tradition of left-wing 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.” Furthermore, in the same interview, Smith set out his support for PFI, praising a local hospital built through PFI and saying, “If PFI works, then let’s do it. What people want to see are more hospitals, better services.” Yet now he claims to have been against PFI all along.
When asked about another controversial New Labour policy, academies, he told the interviewer that he was not “terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances” and that academies “have made great inroads”. Far from agreeing with Corbyn on austerity, Smith said as recently as January 2015 that, “I don’t think it’s realistic to say that they [public spending cuts] are wholly unnecessary” and that “There is a very serious point that we don’t know what would happen to a government that failed to tackle its debts in the long run.” Yet now, predictably, he is against.
While Smith’s statements in these and other interviews have shown a remarkable ideological dexterity, his voting record offers another chance for judgement. Though he has been praised in comparison to Eagle for not abstaining on the Tories’ welfare bill last year, he was not among the 43 MPs who rebelled on the Tories’ workfare bill in 2013 (Ed Miliband’s largest backbench rebellion), nor the 13 who voted against the introduction of the welfare cap in 2014. Steadfast opposition to austerity, it seems, is merely a recent addition to Smith’s political makeup.
Perhaps more concerning than Smith’s past (or are they present?) affinities with New Labour, and his somewhat lacklustre voting record in Parliament, is his previous job working for the world’s second-largest pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, earning £80,000 a year as Head of Government Relations in their UK division from 2005 to 2008. Pfizer has been described as an “asset-stripper” by both Chuka Umunna and Lord Sainsbury – hardly a ringing endorsement of the professional history of the heir apparent to the Labour throne.
Despite Sainsbury’s criticism however, Pfizer felt generous enough to donate £52,287 to Sainsbury’s Blairite pressure group, Progress. The company received headlines in 2014 when they proposed to merge with British firm AstraZeneca, and become the largest pharmaceutical in the world. The deal eventually hit the rocks after Ed Miliband raised concerns that Pfizer would have no second thoughts about laying off large parts of the AstraZeneca workforce – an episode which Smith remained rather quiet throughout, except intervening to call his old employers, “brilliant”.
Smith’s view of Pfizer as a “brilliant” firm is not, however, shared by its critics. Pfizer’s international operations, particularly in the Global South, have come under increased scrutiny for a series of exploitative practices that have seen the company attempt to reap large profits for its drugs at the expense of populations who need them. As revealed by WikiLeaks, in Nigeria in 1996, the company attempted to unearth evidence of the Attorney General’s corruption, in order to dissuade him from taking legal action after claims Pfizer tested drugs on children without parental consent, while in 2010 in New Zealand, Smith’s former colleagues attempted to unseat an unfavourable health minister who didn’t see eye to eye with Pfizer on drugs policy. This is the kind of corporate lobbying Pfizer engaged in.
Pfizer’s most controversial overseas venture however has been covered in the New Statesman just a few months ago. Pfizer controls the entire global market for the vaccine PCV along with GlaxoSmithKline, and has used its monopolistic position to charge huge amounts for vaccines, so much so that Medicins Sans Frontier have launched a campaign named A Fair Shot to try and force the company to drop its prices so that countries such as Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon can access the vaccination. Was Smith not aware of this kind of practice? Or was it simply part of the Pfizer business model that he lobbied for?
Owen Smith should be forced to answer questions on his previous statements on cuts, privatisation and the Iraq war, on his voting for policies that caused poverty and destitution, and on his pre-parliamentary career with Big Pharma.
While Jeremy Corbyn was fighting in Parliament against the Iraq war, Smith couldn’t make up his mind. While Jeremy Corbyn was fighting in Parliament to save the NHS from privatisation, Smith was pushing it from the other side of the corporate fence. While Jeremy Corbyn presented uncompromising opposition to austerity during the last Parliament, Smith wondered and wavered aloud whether it might be necessary.
If you were to ask, “What does Owen Smith believe?”, the answer would not come quickly, or in a straightforward manner. Perhaps his answer would depend on who is asking the question. Perhaps his record inside and outside parliament should be allowed to speak for itself.