Owen Smith's 'smash back on her heels' gaffe shows why he is losing the Labour race

Owen Smith says he'd like to "smash" Theresa May "back on her heels"
Owen Smith says he'd like to "smash" Theresa May "back on her heels"
Adam Bienkov By

Owen Smith's speech today in which he said he would like to "smash" Theresa May "back on her heels" has understandably caused a certain amount of outrage this afternoon.

The comments, which were clumsy at best and callous at worst, are being linked to previous occasions when the Labour challenger has made controversial statements about women.

In 2010, the then newly elected Smith compared the Liberal Democrats to a beaten woman.

"Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?" he wrote in a later withdrawn article.

More recently Smith appeared to suggest to the leader of Plaid Cymru that she had only been invited onto television because she was a woman.

"I think your gender helps" he told Leanne Wood as they waited for recording to start during an episode of BBC Question Time last year.

During his nomination campaign against Angela Eagle, Smith again got into trouble after saying that he had a "normal" family life with a wife and children - comments which were taken by some as of 'dog-whistle homophobia' directed against his opponent.

Taken individually, all of these incidents could be explained away. Taken together they make for a worrying track record in a Labour leadership candidate, particularly at a time when the party is under so much criticism for having never elected a female leader. And particularly for a candidate whose main pitch to members is that he is the "competent" candidate.

Kamikaze politics

At times the Labour leadership race has felt like one of those films where you work out the ending after just five minutes but still feel obliged to watch the rest. The new make-up of the Labour party and Corbyn's enduring popularity with party members make Smith's chances of replacing him distant at best.

But there is a difference between being honourably defeated and crashing down in a ball of flames. Right now Smith is heading for the latter scenario.

His Newsnight interview earlier this week in which he came close to accusing Corbyn of being unpatriotic, attacked the 'metropolitan' and 'liberal' views of those who support him and suggested that there are too many immigrants in some parts of the country, demonstrated all the sophisticated political strategy of a kamikaze pilot. Although potentially popular in the country at large, it appeared almost deliberately designed to turn off Labour's largely metropolitan left-leaning membership. Corbyn's support among many Labour members may be relatively soft, but comments like these are only likely to harden up that support.

Interestingly Smith didn't repeat any of those comments on immigration or patriotism today. Instead he ran through a raft of left-wing policies, some of which on zero hours contracts and wealth taxes even appeared to be slightly to the left of Corbyn himself. At times, he lapsed into New Labour style gibberish, stating at one point that "We will deliver the north/south gap narrowing.” But overall it was a clear pitch to Corbyn supporters, albeit not a particularly convincing one. Ending his speech, he said that while Corbyn had promised a "misty-eyed… revolution", he would deliver a "cold-eyed and practical revolution". For the thousands of Corbyn supporters who even now flock to see him at rallies and town halls, this is hardly a compelling rallying call.

But none of these policies are likely to be much discussed over the coming hours. Instead, his clumsy comments about May have ensured that all discussion about his launch will be dominated by debate about Labour's women problem and whether Smith is an embodiment of that problem.

For a leadership contender whose basic pitch to party members is that he is a more competent and less controversial version of Jeremy Corbyn, this has not been a great start to his campaign. If you're running as a competency candidate, continually making gaffes doesn't really help your case.

For all the zeal of Corbyn's more hardline supporters, there are many who might be persuaded by a more dynamic and charismatic alternative who looks like an obvious winner. So far Owen Smith doesn't look like that candidate.


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