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Owen Smith: Labour 'sleepwalking towards electoral disaster'

Published 16/09/2016

Owen Smith is to address activists in London
Owen Smith is to address activists in London

Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith has warned the party is "sleepwalking towards an electoral disaster" which could tear it apart if Jeremy Corbyn is returned as leader.

With five days until the polls close, Mr Smith accused Mr Corbyn's hard left supporters in Momentum of seeking to gain control of the party "by fair means or foul" through a campaign of bullying and intimidation.

Comparing the group to Militant Tendency in the 1980s, he said it had become a "party within a party" with plans to deselect 170 MPs who had "dared" to disagree with them.

Mr Smith also warned it was a mistake for Labour to reject the legacy of Tony Blair - who led the party to victory in three general elections - and attacked shadow chancellor John McDonnell, one of Mr Corbyn's closest allies, for seeking "some fabled revolution".

"The real intention is just as it has always been. To take control of the Labour Party, bit by bit, seat by seat, by fair means or foul, and to drag us away from the centre left of politics, where our values and our voters reside, to the hard left they represent, and which the country rejects," he said in a speech to supporters in Westminster.

"The last two months have made it crystal clear that the very future of Labour is at stake. Just as we had to fight Militant in the 1980s, we have to fight to save the party we love today. We know because the phony war and phony rhetoric has been swept aside in these last few weeks, as their true intentions have been revealed.

"It's part of a culture of bullying and intimidation that says to Labour MPs and Labour members that they have to shut up and get in line or get out. Exactly the same tactics used by Militant in the 1980s.

"There is nothing comradely about setting up party within a party. Still less in trying to use our movement as a host body, seeking to occupy it, hollow it out, until it's outlived its usefulness, when you throw it aside like a dead husk."

Asked afterwards if the party could split if Mr Corbyn is re-elected on September 24, he said: "I think there is a very real danger that the party is sleepwalking towards an electoral disaster and potentially a split."

Mr Smith, who has previously faced claims there is little to differentiate him from the current leader in terms of policy, insisted his centre left agenda is very different from the hard left policies of Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell.

"I am a Keynesian, not a Marxist like our current shadow chancellor, and prudent borrowing and government partnership with business to grow our economy is the answer, not a longed-for crisis in capitalism that destroys pay cheques and pensions en route to some fabled revolution," he said.

He said Labour has to remain a "broad-based" party if it is to regain power, and hit back at supporters of Mr Corbyn who sought to vilify Mr Blair.

"The tragedy is not just in the misunderstanding of the country - who elected Tony Blair three times, because they thought he was someone with the ideas and the leadership qualities to change the country for the better, and were proved right by the change we delivered after 1997," he said.

"The biggest tragedy is in the misunderstanding of our own party, the willingness to narrow ourselves as a movement, to turn in on ourselves."

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