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Owen Smith 'deeply worried' by prospect of Labour Party split

Published 03/08/2016

Labour leadership contender Owen Smith wants to tackle the minimum wage
Labour leadership contender Owen Smith wants to tackle the minimum wage

Labour leadership hopeful Owen Smith has said he is "deeply worried" the Labour Party is going to split.

Mr Smith, who is touring the country campaigning to oust Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, said the party is more divided than it was in the 1980s.

Speaking at the Open University in Milton Keynes, he said: "I am deeply, deeply worried that the Labour Party is going to split.

"I'm deeply worried because we are more divided, and we are more fractious, and the debate - discourse - within the party is less tolerant than it has ever been in my lifetime.

"It is worse than in the 1980s."

He insisted he was not part of a coup or plot against Mr Corbyn, but said he has "lost faith" in the leader's ability to hold the party together.

Mr Smith made the comments as his set out his stall to become Labour leader, pledging to tackle growing inequality and rebalance the economy if he is elected.

He warned that Mr Corbyn is presiding over a party "teetering on the brink of a precipice".

He said the party needs a leader who does not rely on "sloganising" and making speeches about being anti-austerity, but comes up with viable alternatives.

He told a crowd of around 150 Labour supporters: "I lost faith in him and I lost faith in his ability to hold us together.

"One of the great jobs of the Labour leader is to hold the Labour Party together and make us a powerful, united force in government or in opposition, and Jeremy hasn't done that.

"Worse, Jeremy has allowed this great schism in the party to emerge."

Answering a question on why he was talking to a room with just a couple of hundred supporters, whereas Mr Corbyn has addressed crowds of thousands, he admitted the odds are against him.

He said: "I am the underdog in this fight, there's no doubt about that. Jeremy has got a very large following, there is a lot of support for Jeremy, there are probably people in this room who support Jeremy.

"But I'll tell you the truth - I think the Labour Party is teetering on the brink of a precipice right now."

Mr Smith faced tough questions from Labour supporters, with one accusing him of fuelling division in the party by standing against Mr Corbyn.

The MP for Pontypridd insisted he is just as principled as his opponent, but simply understands the need to win power.

He said: "I'm incredibly clear about this, I am just as principled as Jeremy, I've got fire in my belly just the same as Jeremy, but I tell you what, unless you win it doesn't mean anything.

"Unless you win you are just shaking your fist."

While he predicted Labour could split if Mr Corbyn clings on to power despite the near universal opposition of his parliamentary party, Mr Smith insisted he would not leave the party.

He said he would serve from the backbenches as he has lost confidence in Mr Corbyn.

He said: "I'm not going to serve in the shadow cabinet with him because I do fundamentally feel that I've lost faith in him as the leader of the Labour Party."

He said that some on the left of the party would be content to form another grouping, while some on the right are "fatalistic" about the prospect of a split.

Contrasting himself with them, he said: "I am not a splitter, it is the Labour Party or nothing for me, and I will never be anything other than in the Labour Party, fighting for my values through the Labour Party."

He rebutted criticism that by standing he is fuelling Labour's civil war, insisting that polls showing Mr Corbyn lagging behind Theresa May should be a "wake-up call".

In the latest of a series of speeches across the country, Mr Smith laid out a radical programme of reform which he said would amount to the "biggest boost to living standards for a generation".

He promised a "triple-lock" that includes a pensions overhaul, changes to benefits and a higher minimum wage, which would guarantee struggling workers are better off.

Around 2.5 million people are expected to lose out by more than £2,000 under the new Universal Credit system, according to analysis by the Resolution Foundation think-tank.

Under his leadership, the party would fully reverse cuts to in-work benefits if it took power, the former shadow work and pensions secretary said.

He also promised a pay rise for five million workers by pushing the minimum wage up to £8.25 and forcing employers to give it to all adults on the payroll, not just the over-25s.

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