John Smith gave Labour back its confidence – that mattered

by Kevin Meagher

You probably need to have clocked-up a half-century to remember what the shock loss of the April 1992 general election felt like. Labour was desolate. An unprecedented fourth election defeat in a row.

Already thirteen years out of power, with the prospect of another five drifting aimlessly in the political wilderness. (Depressed by the result and indignant that I was marginally too young to vote, I officially joined the party the next day).

Some thought it really was now curtains. Labour couldn’t win the south. The famous ‘C2s’ – skilled manual workers – were still refusing to switch. While memories of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1978-79 were still hurting the party a political generation later.

Many accused Neil Kinnock of ‘snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.’ Some also blamed his shadow chancellor, John Smith, for his pre-election ‘shadow budget,’ which promised to hike the higher rate of tax from 40p to 50p and frightened off middle-class switchers.

Nevertheless, Smith would emerge as Kinnock’s successor, following a low-fi, Buggins turn, leadership contest against the pro-Keynesian, Eurosceptic shadow cabinet minister, Bryan Gould. It failed to excite a moribund party and Smith walked it, winning by 91%-9%.

Both Tony Blair and Tony Benn voted for him, which tells its own tale. Smith was less tribal and more conciliatory that anything we have seen in Labour politics since. Yet many on the party’s right still worried that he was too cautious and unambitious. He lacked reforming zeal, went the criticism, and thought ‘one more heave’ would get Labour across the winning line next time.

Alaistair Campbell, then of the Daily Mirror, said the division at the top of the party was a contest between ‘frantics’ and ‘long gamers.’ The latter believed that Labour had ‘time on its side,’ while the former worried that ‘the party does not know what it is for, other than to oppose the government.’

In his biography ‘John Smith: A Life’ author Andy McSmith, described the difference in style between Kinnock and Smith thus:

‘…in contrast to Neil Kinnock, Smith was not the man to involve himself in inter-party controversy where he believed it could be honourably avoided. It was an eighteenth-century Scot, Sir James McIntosh, who coined an epigram about the “wise and masterly inactivity” of the House of Commons. Such was Smith’s style of leadership.’

In contrast, young modernisers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (outed by Campbell as ‘frantics’) went over to the US to observe Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign at close quarters, picking up ideas that would later assist New Labour’s 1997 landslide victory.

Even now, Smith gets a bad press on his record as a reformer. Yet he was prepared to take calculated risks and did so by facing down many of Labour’s affiliated unions in his bid to end the bloc vote – the ludicrous situation where union chiefs cast votes on behalf of millions of their members.

It was one of those obscure technical issues that was really a proxy battle about who’s in charge. Andy McSmith records that Smith had told his closest advisers to ‘prepare themselves for the possibility that they could be out of work’ if the changes did not go though.

Defeat would be ‘so damaging to his personal authority that there would be no point in carrying on.’ In the end, Smith got his way – narrowly – helped along at a crucial point by a bravura platform speech from John Prescott.

But perhaps the most emblematic aspect of John Smith’s leadership can be seen in the enduring brilliance of his parliamentary performances. These mattered more back then in a world without social media, or, indeed, the internet. Crucial, too, because Parliament mattered then in a way that it has not done so since.

Smith used his appearances at the dispatch box to set the seal on depicting John Major as a hapless loser at the mercy of events. Perhaps this more than anything led to the Tories defeat in 1997.

It helped that as well as being fluent and funny, Smith’s demeanour and intonation lent him natural authority. Searing and sarcastic when he needed to be, his performances linger in the memory.

While exuding competency, surely the most fundamental attribute we could want in a prime minister, there were real politics lying underneath. Smith was a proper social democrat.

His ethical, or Christian socialism (a concept that has largely disappeared following Smith’s death) was deep-rooted. He would have been a just and effective prime minister, less given to the faddism that bedevilled Tony Blair or the vindictiveness that undermined Gordon Brown.

It is hard to imagine this fastidious barrister meekly following the Americans into the Iraq War, or such a committed egalitarian being ‘intensely relaxed’ about people becoming filthy rich, as Peter Mandelson famously was.

A forthcoming book of essays about Smith, edited by Dr. Kevin Hickson from Liverpool University, is subtitled ‘Old Labour’s Last Hurrah?’ I am not sure that’s a fair depiction. Smith was clearly from what we would now term the ‘old Labour right’ of the party, but he was certainly no dinosaur.

Given his leadership lasted just 22 months, we can project endlessly onto him and develop all sorts of ‘sliding doors’ scenarios. Still, it’s worth saying that while he wouldn’t have won as massively as Blair did in 1997, it seems unimaginable that John Smith would not have become prime minister.

Measuring a hypothetical first term Smith government against the real first term Blair government might not throw up too many differences between them, (partly because Blair inherited so much of his early programme from the late 1980s policy review).

It is likely, however, that a Smith premiership would have been much shorter and that he would have passed the baton to his protégé and natural successor, Gordon Brown. Perhaps Tony Blair would have then taken over subsequently? It feels like that might have been a better sequence of events.

Alas, Smith’s early death brought the rivalry between these two Labour titans to a head much earlier, seeding the psychodrama between Blair and Brown that would come to dominate Labour politics for the next 15 years.

The night before he died, thirty years ago today, saw Smith deliver a barnstorming performance at a Labour fundraiser. McSmith records that his last joke was ‘What should you do if a pin flies last you? Watch out, because John Major was nearby with a grenade in his mouth.’

The loss of John Smith sent British politics into a rare moment of collective mourning, with the Daily Mirror’s front page asking if he was ‘the best prime minister we never had.’

Margaret Beckett, Smith’s deputy, paid tribute in the Houe of Commons as she and many other MPs tried desperately to keep their emotions in check. Beckett quoted Smith from the evening before. ‘The opportunity to serve our country, that is all we ask.’

Ultimately, Smith’s legacy as Labour leader was limited by his tragic death, cut off in his prime. Yet his two-year leadership picked up the party at its lowest ebb and gave Labour back its self-belief following the 1992 defeat.

But confidence matters in politics and all future success is founded on it.

Kevin Meagher is the associate editor of Labour Uncut

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