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Profile: The Owen Smith story

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter

media captionLabour leadership challenger Owen Smith outlines his ideas

The man challenging Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership is virtually unknown outside Westminster. So who is Owen Smith?

We know who he wants to be. The great unifier. A political miracle worker who can unite Labour's warring factions to win a general election many in the party think will happen sooner rather than later, whatever the new prime minister says. He says he wants to "save the party" and prevent it from what he fears would be a catastrophic split.

And we know how he would like to be seen - a more voter-friendly version of Jeremy Corbyn, with similar "radical" left-wing values but a fresh, modern face.

But what about the man himself?

His campaign launch - tieless, immaculate white shirt, flanked by his family and a youthful band of supporters - could have come straight from the Cameron/Blair playbook.

But his big idea - rewriting Clause IV of the Labour constitution to include a specific commitment to fight inequality - is designed to be a break with the Blair era.

He is proud of his Welsh roots. He was born in Morecambe, Lancashire, but grew up in South Wales, and was recently described by the Guardian, as a fully paid-up member of the "Taffia", the Welsh political and media establishment.

His father Dai, is a prominent Welsh historian and a one-time chairman of the Arts Council of Wales, whose books include one on Aneurin Bevan as well as The World of South Wales. The man Owen Smith would one day succeed as Labour MP for his home town of Pontypridd, Kim Howells, was a family friend.

Owen Smith - the basics

image copyrightGetty Images

Age: 46

Family: Married to Liz with three children - Jack, 17, Evan, 15, and Isabelle, 13

Educated: Coedylan Primary School, Pontypridd, comprehensive schools in Pontypridd and Barry, University of Sussex, where he studied history and French

Parliamentary career: MP for Pontypridd since 2010, former shadow work and pensions secretary

Job before politics: BBC producer, lobbyist for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer

Policies: Raise the top rate of income tax to 50%, write a commitment to tackling inequality into Labour's constitution, £200bn plan to build new infrastructure and council housing. Backs Trident nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. In contrast to Mr Corbyn, has said he would be prepared to press the nuclear button. Would be "tempted" to call a second EU referendum. Wants to increase the involvement of Labour members in policy decisions.

What he says about Jeremy Corbyn: Has praised the Labour leader for helping the party "rediscover its radical roots" but claims the party has fallen in the public's esteem under his leadership and is even seen as a "laughing stock" by some people. Says Mr Corbyn needs to stand aside so the party can become a "serious" and credible alternative government again.

Off duty: Watching rugby, he is a regular at Pontypridd RFC, and listening to Bruce Springsteen. Once described his "guilty pleasure" as "too many beers".

The young Smith was steeped in the traditions and mythology of Welsh Labour, always to the left of the party nationally, but he credits the 1984 miners' strike as his "political awakening".

He recently recalled, in a speech to his constituents, how as a teenager he had marched with striking miners from the Maerdy Colliery, and had been inspired by their "sense of community, solidarity and passion for justice".

"This is why I am Labour right to my fingertips. I'm not interested in machine politicking and Westminster parlour games, but rooted politics - that's about making a real and lasting difference to people's lives."

He joined the Labour Party at the age of 16, while still a pupil at Barry Boys' Comprehensive School, in the Vale of Glamorgan.

media captionOwen Smith answers quickfire questions on his political views

After studying history and French at the University of Sussex, he joined BBC Wales as a radio producer in 1992. His father, Dai, was appointed editor of BBC Radio Wales in the same year.

Colleagues recall an amiable but highly ambitious character. On one occasion, when he had landed a sought-after job on BBC Radio 4's Today programme in the mid 1990s, in London, his keenness to impress his bosses got the better of him.

Asked to call the police to check on a breaking story, the young producer stunned more experienced newsroom hands by dialling 999 to demand an interview with the chief constable.

The incident led to an official complaint from the Metropolitan Police.

Quizzed about it on the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme, he said it had been a "pretty stupid" thing to do but he had "pressured" into getting a comment, adding that he did not think he had called the 999 emergency number but a police hotline.

"It was clearly a really stupid and embarrassing thing to do," he said.

"I was embarrassed about it at the time, I am embarrassed about it now, but I think my judgement isn't called into question by this, it was a foolish mistake by a young man."

In his own words

image copyrightGetty Images

"I am on the left of the Labour Party, I share many of Jeremy's values but I think I can talk about modernising those values, I think I can talk about Labour's future, in a way in which no other candidate, including Angela, can," speaking to Channel 4 News on 13 July,.

"It's not enough just to be anti-austerity, you have got to be pro-something and I am pro-prosperity," launching his leadership bid.

"Nye Bevan, my great hero, said it's all about achieving and exercising power," speaking to the Guardian.

"I wasn't in Parliament at the time, I would have voted against, I would have been opposed to it at the time," on whether he would have voted for the Iraq war.

"We are making significant inroads in improving what is happening in Iraq. 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," speaking to Wales Online, when he was a candidate in the 2006 Blaenau Gwent by-election. He told the site he did not know whether he would have voted for the Iraq war.

"I'm glad you think I am normal. I am normal. I grew up in a normal household. I've got a wife and three children. My wife is a primary school teacher," responding to a journalist's description of him as "normal" - the comment sparked a Twitter storm and accusations of homophobia against rival Angela Eagle, who is in a civil partnership, something he has firmly denied saying he had been quoted out of context.

Smith worked across a range of programmes during his 10 years at the BBC, including Good Morning Wales and political programme Dragon's Eye without becoming a senior editor.

So in 2002, he turned his sights to politics and a job as a "special adviser", the Westminster insiders who act as a mouthpiece for ministers and help craft policies. In those days, being a "spad" was a guaranteed fast track to the top - Ed Miliband and David Cameron, among many others, had served their political apprenticeships in this way.

Smith's boss, Paul Murphy, now Baron Murphy of Torfaen, was Welsh Secretary and then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in Tony Blair's cabinet.

This was the high water mark of New Labour and he will have been at Murphy's side when he voted for military action in Iraq.

But Murphy says his young special adviser disagreed with him over the Iraq war. He describes Smith as belonging to Labour's "soft left" or "Bevanite" tradition, not on the right of the party but someone who can build a "bridge" between the left and the right.

After three years as a special adviser, Smith headed off to the private sector, moving to Surrey to take up a job as a lobbyist for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, on a reported salary of £80,000 a year.

Smith has objected to the use of the term lobbyist to describe what he did at Pfizer, telling Sky News: "Let's be clear I wasn't a lobbyist."

He said his job, as head of policy and government relations, had given him valuable private sector experience. Other public affairs professionals have defended Smith's former profession.

Jon McLeod, corporate affairs chairman of lobbyists Weber Shandwick, told Public Affairs News: "Was he a lobbyist? To the person on the street yes. Is it a bad thing? No... it goes without saying that it helps to have people in power who have worked in industry and understand a key sector."

At Pfizer, Smith was involved in an initiative to promote greater "choice" for patients in the NHS, including focus group research on "direct payments" for some services.

Jeremy Corbyn's supporters claim this shows he supported NHS privatisation but Smith told ITV's Good Morning Britain such allegations were "clearly a lie".

He said the Pfizer report on NHS choice, published in October 2005 in association with the King's Fund charity, had been commissioned before he went to work for the US pharmaceutical giant.

He said he had always believed a "100% publicly-owned NHS free at the point of use" but he had supported the Blair government's contracting out of minor operations to private hospitals to clear NHS waiting lists.

He said that "with hindsight" the policy had "opened the door to the current government to step through into a real attempt at marketisation and privatisation of the NHS, using the language of the last Labour government".

In 2008, Smith moved to Amgen, the UK's biggest biotech firm, to be its head of corporate affairs.

What others say

"Decent bloke, on the left, can heal rifts that look meaningful inside Westminster and septic from the outside: is any of this enough? Wouldn't we have said the same about Ed Miliband?," Guardian journalist Zoe Williams, who voted for Jeremy Corbyn in last year's leadership election.

"He was full on! I think that's the best way to describe Owen. Very, very bright, lots of enthusiasm, very little self-doubt, but a very high standard of what he expected. To be honest, he was challenging to those above him. He was difficult to manage because he set such a high standard and wouldn't accept any nonsense," Lee Waters, Labour's AM for Llanelli, on his former boss at BBC Wales.

"We have to be a broad church, we need everyone from Jeremy Corbyn, all the way through to people on the right. Owen is very clever, he is astute, he knows when to open his mouth and when to shut up. I think he is absolutely right in his judgement of what is needed right now," Labour MP and Smith supporter Chris Bryant.

"He's always been very intelligent, very courageous, and he needs that courage now and he needs that energy that he's always shown because this is going to be a battle for Labour's future, I think, for its life," Kim Howells, on his friend and predecessor as Labour MP for Pontypridd.

"He's nimble, he's a good Labour party dispatch box contributor. He's got a warmth to his character, he's quick to smile and quip, and he's quick-thinking. People like qualities like that," fellow South Wales Labour MP Nick Smith, speaking to the Guardian.

"It speaks well of him that he's gathered a good and loyal group of MPs around him. Many are part of the next generation of politicians, much more interested in dealing with the pressing problems of 2016 than in fighting old battles," Lisa Nandy, a Smith supporter, in the Guardian.

Three years earlier, while still a lobbyist at Pfizer, he had made his first, disastrous, attempt to become an MP in the previously rock-solid Labour seat of Blaenau Gwent.

The by-election had been triggered by the death of Independent MP Peter Law, who had won the seat from Labour after a row over women-only shortlists in 2005.

image captionOwen Smith's father, Dai, was a leading Welsh historian and BBC executive

Smith ran a slick campaign, leading his opponents to dub him "oily Smith". He was also mocked as "Viagra man" after his employer's most famous product.

He achieved a swing back to Labour, but the electorate had not yet forgiven the party and the seat was won by another Independent, Dai Davies.

In a defiant speech after losing the election, he echoed his political hero Nye Bevan, saying: "I agree with Dai that politics is about people, but it is also about power."

He said Labour had "given power to the people" of the Welsh valleys and it had to continue to "reach out to people", warning against becoming "introverted" and "isolated".

Friends say the experience of losing in Blaenau Gwent gave him a valuable early lesson in how Labour was losing touch with voters in its traditional heartlands - and the growing gap between the grassroots and the Westminster party elite.

'Tasteless analogy'

But statements he made at the time, in an interview with Wales Online, would come back to haunt him, as Jeremy Corbyn's supporters sought to portray him as not as solidly left-wing as he was now claiming.

On the involvement of private companies in delivering NHS services, he said at the time: "Where they can bring good ideas, where they can bring valuable services that the NHS is not able to deliver, and where they can work alongside but subservient to the NHS and without diminishing in any respect the public service ethos of the NHS, then I think that's fine. 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."

image copyrightPA

He also hailed PFI schemes, which he said had delivered new hospitals in Wales, and city academies, which he said had made "great inroads" in areas with failing schools.

"I'm not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances that get read into some of these things, and I think sometimes they are totally overblown," he told the site.

He did not apply to fight Blaenau Gwent again, but instead seized the chance to stand in his home town when Kim Howells, the MP there, decided to stand down.

Mr Smith held Pontypridd for Labour at the 2010 general election, but Mr Howell's 13,000 majority was reduced with a swing to the Liberal Democrats of more than 13%.

Shortly after his election, he had to apologise for comments in an online article in which he compared the coalition's spending cuts to "domestic violence" against the Liberal Democrats. Women's activists called it a "tasteless analogy".

In his maiden speech he attacked the coalition government's proposals for academies and "free schools".

He supported Ed Miliband in the Labour leadership contest and was rewarded with a junior shadow cabinet role, as deputy to Shadow Welsh Secretary Peter Hain.

A year later, he was moved to be number four in the team shadowing the Treasury and, a year after that, he was promoted into the shadow cabinet, with the Wales brief, following Peter Hain's retirement.

He promised that a future Labour government would give Wales the same financial powers as Scotland, subject to a referendum and agreement with the Welsh government on funding.

Welfare vote

In the 2015 leadership election, which saw Jeremy Corbyn swept to victory by Labour members, he backed Andy Burnham and, like Mr Burnham, abstained in a Commons vote on the government's controversial welfare bill, something he has since described as a "mistake".

"I argued in shadow cabinet we oughtn't to be abstaining on it and I was part of Andy Burnham's campaign telling Andy that we ought to be resigning on the issue," he told the BBC's Andrew Marr.

As shadow work and pensions secretary, he said he had opposed the bill "outright" and claimed to have got tax credit cuts and disability benefit cuts, which had also been opposed by a group of Tory backbenchers, overturned.

Like Mr Burnham, Smith opted to stay in the shadow cabinet when Jeremy Corbyn took over - refusing to follow other colleagues from the Ed Miliband era on to the back benches.

He was handed the crucial role of shadow work and pensions secretary, going up against Iain Duncan Smith in the Commons, in some memorably fiery encounters.

In March this year, he asked Mr Duncan Smith "how he sleeps at night" after imposing cuts to disability support.

He predicted that Mr Corbyn's election as leader would give Labour an army of new supporters in Wales - and he stayed loyal to the leader in December 2015's crunch vote on air strikes in Syria, which split the Parliamentary Party and set the scene for the chaos it now finds itself in.

'Unity' candidates

Smith had spoken about his leadership ambitions last year but friends insist he would not have challenged Mr Corbyn if it had not been for a series of events in the aftermath of the EU referendum result.

He was part of a delegation of like-minded Labour MPs, non-Blairites who had stayed loyal to Mr Corbyn but who were alarmed by the collapse in support for him after the EU referendum result. The MPs say they wanted to act as a bridge between Mr Corbyn and Labour MPs.

Smith claims shadow chancellor John McDonnell, when asked about the danger that the party could split, had replied: "If that's what it takes."

This was not the deciding factor for Smith, say his allies, and he still had to be encouraged to stand, but he was quick to repeat the quote on social media.

Others claim Smith had plotted all along to challenge Mr Corbyn and had been positioning himself as a left-wing candidate who could win over the Corbyn-loving grassroots.

Former shadow business secretary Angela Eagle - someone with a bigger public profile and a longer record as an MP than Smith - was first to stake a claim to that position, launching a bid to be Labour's first female leader.

Smith entered the race late, saying he had to deal with a family emergency, but was determined to seize his moment to present himself as the future face of the Labour Party and refused calls on him to stand down to give Ms Eagle a clear run.

We were then treated to the spectacle of two "unity" candidates battling it out in public for the right to challenge Mr Corbyn. It came down to a race between the two rival teams to see who could gain the most nominations from Labour MPs.

Owen Smith won that battle. But the battle he now has to convince Labour Party members that he is a better bet than Jeremy Corbyn, less than a year after they voted him into the top job by an overwhelming majority, will be immeasurably harder.

Related Topics

  • Owen Smith
  • Labour Party

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