(AFP) – Owen Smith is barely known outside Westminster and his base in Wales, but moderates in Britain’s opposition Labour party are pinning their hopes on him to unseat socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The bespectacled Welsh lawmaker, a former lobbyist and BBC producer, has positioned himself on the left of the party despite backing the war in Iraq and voting Monday to renew Britain’s nuclear deterrent.
Smith, 46, was also forced to deny he supports partial privatisation of the cherished state-run health service, after comments he made while working as a lobbyist for pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer.
Corbyn, an anti-war campaigner who is sharply to the left of most Labour MPs, was only elected last September but has been battling for his job since the Brexit vote in last month’s EU referendum.
Smith, who is Corbyn’s sole challenger as candidate nominations close on Wednesday, has paid tribute to Corbyn “for helping Labour discover its radical roots”.
“But we do need a new generation of Labour men and women to take this party forward, to get us ready for government once more,” he said, promising to unite the party.
Smith says he is “just as radical as Jeremy Corbyn”, and has promised major investment in infrastructure and housing, and wants to raise the top rate of income tax.
He has also said it would be “tempting” to hold a second EU referendum, on the terms of the exit package.
– ‘I am normal’ –
Critics dismiss Smith as “Blairite-lite”, an unfavourable comparison with former centrist Labour party leader Tony Blair.
Born in 1970, the son of prominent Labour historian Dai Smith, he joined the party at the age of 16, attributing his political awakening to the 1984 miners’ strike.
He has been described as a member of the “Taffia” — the Welsh political and media establishment — but insists he is just an ordinary person.
“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,” he said.
After university, he worked for the BBC for ten years, first in Wales and then in London.
In an incident he admits is “deeply embarrassing”, he was asked to obtain a police comment for a story and called the emergency helpline 999 rather than the press office, prompting an official complaint from Scotland Yard.
After leaving the BBC he worked as a special advisor to Paul Murphy, then minister for Wales and later for Northern Ireland.
In 2005 Smith joined Pfizer as head of policy and government relations, and in 2010 he won the safe Welsh Labour seat of Pontypridd, previously held by a friend of his father’s.
He served as Welsh spokesman under former Labour leader Ed Miliband and under Corbyn was made work and pensions spokesman — loyally defending his boss against his critics.
Smith said he decided to challenge Corbyn after seeing a “dramatic collapse of faith” in him since the Brexit vote.