The following interview with Owen Smith was conducted for Soft Left Politics. Questions are in bold, his responses follow.
Why did Labour lose the General Election last year?
We were too timid in our defence of the record of the last Labour government, which lifted a million pensioners out of poverty, introduced the national minimum wage, brought in civil partnerships and rescued the NHS from a state of disrepair. We didn’t defend that proud record vociferously enough and that meant too few people could see the real benefits of a Labour government.
We were also too timid in expressing the differences between ourselves and the Tories. The truth is that a Labour government under Ed Miliband would have brought an end to the disastrous austerity experiment and reversed the damage brought by Iain Duncan Smith’s punitive regime at the Department of Work and Pensions. That difference was not clear to too much of the electorate, who, thanks to our timidity, simply didn’t know what we stood for.
Every time we lose we let down the people who need a Labour government. Why are you better placed than Jeremy to make sure we don’t do that again?
The Labour I lead will be both radical and credible. Jeremy has put the party back in touch with its socialist principles, but I’m afraid he’s not the man to put them into practice.
Jeremy has had an opportunity to put together and lead a top team and he has had a platform to share his policies and principles with the electorate. I’m afraid he has not been able to take advantage of these opportunities and there is now a real risk that for years to come we will be the party with the best policies, but with no way of implementing them.
Principled electoral failure is no good to the people who really need a Labour government. That is why I will make it a priority to hold together and use all of the talent within our party, and to work with every sinew in my body to persuade and convince every voter, no matter how they have voted in the past, of the merits of a Labour government.
In September you stated that you supported the principle of the benefit cap. Is that a position you still hold?
I believe we need a fair social security system, but the Tories’ policies have made it systematically less fair.
I led Labour’s opposition to the Welfare Bill, which lowered the household benefit cap to £23,000 in London and £20,000 outside London. The Tories forced through the reduction in the House of Commons. However, working with Labour members in the House of Lords, I helped secure another victory over the Tories by forcing the Government to exempt carers from the cap.
Your campaign has promoted you as having an ethical foreign policy – what is your ethical approach to foreign policy?
A Labour government under my leadership would take human rights seriously in our dealings with other countries, and use our diplomatic influence to promote human rights. Every decision I take as the leader of a Labour Government will be made with this simple principle in mind.
We need to learn the lessons of the Iraq war. That’s why I would introduce a new War Powers Act to ensure no Prime Minister could take Britain to war without Parliamentary approval. Parliament needs to know that military action is proportionate and in accordance with international law, that all other options have been considered and that there is a credible strategy for dealing with the aftermath of conflict.
On Newsnight you claimed that in some parts of Britain there are too many immigrants. Does this mean that you would not accept a deal with the EU that retained free movement of people?
In some localities public services have come under intense pressure because of immigration. We need to be honest about that and target resources on those areas.
I think Brexit will be disastrous for this country. The risks were dismissed but it is increasingly apparent that they were very real; for businesses, jobs and wages and for ordinary people. I think we should negotiate the best possible deal and then trust the British people to either endorse it or reject it through a second referendum or a General Election. It would be unacceptable to reach a deal which forced EU citizens living here to leave the UK, or British citizens living in the EU to come back against their will.
To win again Labour will need to demonstrate an understanding of, and respect for, identity; which we’ve often been seen to sneer at. How should Labour outline a progressive patriotism?
I come from a traditional Labour background that celebrates people’s national identities, whether that be Britishness or any of her constituent parts, and celebrates a feeling of pride in our cities, towns and villages. There is no conflict at all between being proud of your own community and showing solidarity with others.
Labour used to harness patriotism for progressive causes. Attlee’s administration made a play of building a health service and set of homes that were ‘fit for heroes.’ We should harness that sense of patriotism to build the kind of Britain we believe in.
What does it mean, to you, to be a socialist in the modern world?
I am a pragmatic socialist. For me it is not about romanticism or ideology, it is about making a difference now. I want a radical Labour Party, but a clear-headed one; a party that is able to convince electors that we should form the next government. What is the point otherwise?