Owen Smith interview: It would be "an incredible honour and privilege" to be Labour leader

The shadow work and pensions secretary reveals he'd like to lead his party in the future but says Jeremy Corbyn will still be in place in 2020. 

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No sooner has my interview with Owen Smith begun than it is interrupted. Jeremy Corbyn's reshuffle has just entered its 50th hour and Labour's chief whip Rosie Winterton is calling. After the promotion of Emily Thornberry to shadow defence secretary, Smith, the shadow work and pensions secretary, needs a new deputy. The following morning it is announced that opposition whip Angela Rayner has been given the post (she, however, has still not been replaced).

When Smith returns from the front room of his office, I ask him whether Corbyn was right to hold a reshuffle. He stonewalls: "You ain’t going to get nothing out of me about the reshuffle, other than to say ‘we’ve had a reshuffle, you sat in the stairwell for 30-odd hours and I feel sorry for you because in the end it turned out to be a bit of something of nothing.' What happened? Two people were moved, a couple of new people are going to be moved into some of the frontbench roles, a few frontbenchers resigned. Those sorts of things happen in politics in every era, in every party."

Smith, 45, the MP for Pontypridd since 2010 and the former shadow Welsh secretary, emphasises that he is a "combatant, not a commentator" (a point that the Tories' election strategist Lynton Crosby frequently made to Conservative MPs). "I don’t see that there is any value for me or for the Labour Party, or more importantly for the people the Labour Party seeks to serve, in us doing your job. It’s for you guys to commentate on these things, it’s for us to do our jobs and our jobs are being a strong opposition, scrutinising the government, taking them on, exposing their lies and developing an alternative policy platform for the Labour Party and the people we represent." 

He adds: "It’s going to go down as a very long reshuffle, there’s no doubt about that, and perhaps it could have been better done a little more swiftly, but I don’t think it’s going to go down as one of the most significant reshuffles." Unlike some of his shadow cabinet colleagues, Smith refuses to criticise the sacking of former shadow culture secretary Michael Dugher and former shadow Europe minister Pat McFadden. 

"I think that’s for the leader, to be quite honest, I really do. It’s not for me. He could sack me tomorrow and therefore that makes clear what my position is. I’m someone who serves in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, they were people who served on Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench, I think they’re both talented politicians, very talented, I think they’ve got a lot to give to the Labour Party, I’m sure they will do in future, they’re also friends of mine.

"Being sacked from any job is never a nice thing and I’m sure they’re both mightily cheesed off about it. Jeremy won and is within his rights to have a reshuffle and we’ve just got to move on. I know those two individuals who are both very experienced, mature, serious politicians will pick themselves up and move on and do what they come into politics for which is to improve the lives of their constituents and their communities." 

After a week in which Labour's internicine strife has overshadowed all else, Smith makes it clear that he wants to refocus attention on the Conservatives. He lambasts the "really rotten, right-wing ugly Tory government in place right now". 

"I think they are turning the clock back on many of the most fundamental, hard-fought reforms to employment law, to our democracy, to the nature of work, to the social security system, to the welfare state, to the NHS, fundamental building blocks of democratic, civilised society, Labour and Tories have helped build since the Second World War, arguably since the Liberal Budget of 1909 and they’re incredibly retrograde on all of those things.

"We’re going backwards on life expectancy in certain parts of the country, it’s the first time in 100 years we’ve seen some people living less long and that’s got to beg really fundamental questions about the sort of policies and the sort of government we need to put things right. I think the Tories just don’t get that, I think they are living in the past."

Though he welcomes the government's "embarrassing, humiliating" U-turn on tax credit cuts, he warns that many will suffer significant losses under the new Universal Credit system. "Osborne is a sneaky bugger, he really is. The reason he’s so sanguine about it, the reason he was able to, smirk a mile wide on his face, effect that U-turn is because he knew he was going to make all of those savings down the track through Universal Credit, picking the pockets of exactly the same people, the same sorts of families on the same sorts of low and middle wages, through Universal Credit."

He adds: "They gave the game away at Christmas when in the data dump they responded to their own social security advisory committee criticism of them on Universal Credit and the response was to say, 'well the answer is people will need to work an extra three or four hours a week to recoup the losses’.

"Now, those people, many of them, will be working full-time, a single mother working 35 hours a week with two kids in a full-time new national living wage job and they’re saying to that woman or that man you’ve got to get another job or you’ve got to get your boss to give you a better job in order for you to earn enough money to recoup the losses perhaps as much as £3,000. That’s just fantasy, two hundred hours a year somebody would need to work in order to do that, it’s either fantastical of them or corrupt of them to suggest that is possible." 

But rather than merely opposing, Smith, a former BBC producer and biotechnology director, recognises that Labour needs to propose. He announces that he will soon begin a review of social security policy for the party, which will examine "the nature of work in Britain, how our social security system needs to become much more dynamic and reflective of modern needs. One of the things that the Tories were right about was saying that Universal Credit should be more flexible to reflect the fact that people move in and out of jobs throughout their lives much more than they used to." 

One of the distinctive policy pledges Corbyn has made since becoming leader is to abolish the household benefit cap of £20,000 (£23,000 in London). But Smith maintains that it should be reformed, rather than scrapped. "We’re in favour of there being a measure that would guarantee that you couldn’t have unlimited benefits for one household, I think there has got to be some means of doing that." He adds, however, that "It's becoming increasingly evident, in my view, that the current cap that we’ve got doesn’t work, doesn’t reflect what they originally said, isn’t getting people back into jobs, isn’t saving money and therefore we’ve got to be confident enough to say if this thing isn’t working why should we simply row in behind it?" 

Smith continues: "We’re the party of labour, we want people to do the right thing, to be responsible, to work. We want strong communities where people work. I come from south Wales, it’s a community built on hard bloody work in the pits and in the steelworks. Don’t tell me that I don’t understand the value of work and don’t tell me that I don’t understand the debilitating effect of large communities not having work because I’ve seen both in my lifetime up close, so I absolutely want people to be in work but I cannot allow Labour to be cowed into not making our arguments, our deep, deep intellectual arguments for solidarity, for collectivism, for mutual pooling of our resources to look after one another and that’s what the social security system is for."

He implies that his predecessors in the post, Rachel Reeves and Liam Byrne, failed to provide robust enough opposition to the Conservatives' welfare cuts and narrative. "We’ve got to avoid, as we’ve sometimes been sucked into in the past, in my view, making Tory arguments or accepting rather the arguments that they make. Their frame is a lie, their suggestion that the system is fundamentally broken, their suggestion that people are always on the make, that everybody is defrauding the system, it’s just a lie. We can’t allow ourselves to be trapped by that into making more narrow or less progressive arguments ourselves. We’ve got to be bigger than that, people want a Labour Party that’s going to be able to speak to them with a bit of hope and that means we’ve got to make arguments for a better economy and a better social security system and I think we can do that." 

The most significant move of the reshuffle was the appointment of Thornberry to defence, paving the way for Labour to become a unilateralist party for the first time since 1989. When I ask Smith whether he, like Thornberry, opposes Trident renewal, he hesitates: "I suppose I’m one of those people who is sceptical about ..."

After pausing for thought, he says: "I think I’m someone who’s essentially a multilateralist. I’m Bevanite on lots of things, I’m a Bevanite on this. I don’t believe that we will make the world a safer place by unilaterally disarming. As I’ve said before, I would long for a world in which we didn’t have nuclear weapons and didn’t need to hold nuclear weapons. I’m not convinced that at present we would make the world a safer place by unilaterally disarming and I’m not convinced that we would necessarily encourage other countries to undertake unilateral disarmament. It’s with a heavy heart that I say that but that feels to me to be the realpolitik of it." 

Smith does not say whether shadow cabinet members should be given a free vote on the issue when the Commons decides on renewal ("we will need to cross that bridge when we get to it") but notes that Corbyn "set a precedent" by allowing one on intervention in Syria.

Unlike some of his frontbench colleagues, Smith does not equivocate when I ask him whether Corbyn should lead Labour into the 2020 general election. "Jeremy is going to lead us into the election, he’s the leader of the Labour Party ... He’s said very, very clearly that he wants to take us into the next election, he won a stonking great majority. Jeremy is going to be taking us into the election in 2020. End of." 

In recent months, Smith has been spoken of by MPs as a possible successor to Corbyn if Labour loses. There is a widespread view that the next leader will at least need to be from the party's soft left (as Smith is) to be acceptable to the party membership. "Owen's playing a smart game," one shadow cabinet minister said recently of his refusal to attack Corbyn. He is admired by colleagues for his assured media performances and forensic grasp of detail ("a class act" was how shadow minister Jonathan Ashworth recently described him). 

When I ask Smith whether he would one day stand for the leadership, he is unusually forthcoming. "I don’t think there’s any vacancy right now. But I think any politician who comes into this to want to try and change the world for the better, starting with their own patch and working outwards, I think they’re either in the wrong game or fibbing if they don’t say, 'if you had the opportunity to be in charge and put in place your vision for a better Britain would you take it?' Yeh, of course, it would be an incredible honour and privilege to be able to do that." 

He emphasises, however that "there’s no vacancy, I can’t see that there’s going to be a vacancy. Jeremy’s the leader of the party, he’s got a massive job of work to unite us and take us forward and win us the election. I’m going to do everything I can to help him do that." 

But by signalling his interest in the leadership, Smith has laid down a marker for the future. In 1983, it was Neil Kinnock who Labour turned to after its landslide defeat under Michael Foot. Should it suffer a similar fate in 2020 (as MPs fear), could a soft left Welshman once again rise to the top? 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.