What Labour can learn from Smith — John Smith

A young Tony Blair looks admiringly at John Smith, the best Prime Minister we never had.

In an article from May 2014, entitled John Smith would have led us to a decent world, John McTernan — Blair’s Director of Political Operations from 2005 to 2007 and certainly no fan of Corbyn — wrote:

“The public are frustrated by modern politics not because they think it doesn’t matter, but because they know it does. The complaints about how politicians talk and act are, in the end, a demand for a different type of politics, one whose core value would be termed “decency”. Working for that would be a fitting memorial for a man who had so much to give.”

When Smith became leader of the Labour Party in July 1992 he introduced the ‘one member one vote’ system for electing the Party leader but otherwise wanted to minimise conflict within the Labour Party, which was still smarting from the general election defeat under Kinnock. He wanted to heal divisions and focus instead on the unpopularity of the Tory Government. McTernan stated John Smith and Labour were heading for “certain victory” in the 1997 general election.

It’s hard to disagree with anything McTernan says in his article. However, one thing many on the Left disagree with McTernan about is the strongly held belief that regardless of his lack of managerial experience, Jeremy Corbyn is indeed a decent man who passionately wants a better deal for the poor, the sick, the marginalised and disengaged.

Feeling nostalgic, I looked up the leader’s speech given by John Smith to the Party, in Brighton, in 1993, his last before his untimely death.

I was struck by how so much of it could easily be mistaken for one of Corbyn’s speeches given at any point since he became Leader of the Labour Party. Yet while Smith was almost universally adored by the Left and was deemed to be heading for ‘certain victory’, Corbyn, saying almost identical things in an eerily similar context, is despised by many within Labour and deemed ‘unelectable’.

That Corbyn and his supporters are now regularly demonised with the labels ‘hard’ or ‘far’ left, not just by the Conservatives and almost the entire mainstream media but also by detractors within the Labour movement, shows just how far away from Smith’s ideals Labour has travelled since 1993.

This piece is not primarily intended to compare the different qualities and attributes of these two Labour leaders but instead is designed to show firstly, just how far to the right Labour lurched in the New Labour years, and secondly to suggest that Labour can — and must — unite around a set of shared values and policies that articulate a clear alternative to ‘austerity’ and which challenge neoliberal orthodoxy in order to inspire the electorate and help make Labour electable at the next general election, whenever it may be.

Smith’s 1993 speech started by emphasising the urgency and importance of forging nothing short of a ‘new world’, characterised by ‘peace and progress’ and ‘economic justice’ and which foregrounded “Labour’s proud history of international action”.

Just like Corbyn today, Smith had no qualms about stressing the necessity to “maintain the momentum of disarmament, both nuclear and conventional”, adding “We must work to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and agree a comprehensive test ban treaty.”

Today, Corbyn is perceived - not least by Hillary Benn, many others in the PLP and the entire mainstream media - to be ‘weak’ on defence and foreign policy. However, Smith’s stance was well received by the PLP and the wider public and he was more than happy to clearly state Labour’s “commitment to a strong United Nations (which) must be the foundation stone of our foreign policy”.

His forward and outward-looking demeanour, like Corbyn’s, is bold and refreshing from today’s perspective and his deep concern for global postcolonial and environmental issues shine through, standing in stark contrast to the ‘little Englander’ mentality that characterises so much recent Tory and UKIP rhetoric:

“We must set a new agenda of international economic justice that can release millions of people in the developing world from their lives of debt, disease and poverty. And we must also face the new challenge to the security of our planet, protecting and enhancing the world environment, in the recognition that we are the sole guardians of a world we have borrowed from future generations.”

On the domestic front he pulled no punches in telling it as it was (and unfortunately how it remains today), repeatedly calling out the Tories for missing the opportunity to “rebuild, to re-equip and to restore the strength and vitality of a country that once was famed as the workshop of the world”, blaming “fourteen years of casino economics” for the dismal state of the nation, the dangers of which culminated in the catastrophic events of 2008 and the lessons from which appear to have been willfully disregarded by the Tories and the rest of the establishment to this day.

In fact, many of the economic similarities between then and now are uncanny:

“a multi-billion pound deficit in both our public finances and our overseas trade; record levels of homelessness…..a gap between rich and poor wider than in Victorian times”.

With 24 hour rolling news and social media, it’s easy to get caught up in the present and to lose sight of the wider ongoing and underlying structural problems which are rarely mentioned in mainstream public and commercial news and political commentary.

Again and again, the words of Smith in his leader’s speech are the words the British people need to hear today from the leader of a unified Labour Party:

“people in Britain today are angry: not just disappointed, not just disillusioned, but angry. They are angry at the state of Britain; angry at the total absence of leadership; angry at the absence of vision; angry at the hypocrisy and double standards; and they are angry at the incessant incompetence of a Government they no longer respect and increasingly despise. And are they not — and are we not — entitled to be angry….. angry at the cruel denial of opportunity to our young people; angry at the callous acceptance of injustice; angry at Government without purpose, and politics without principle?”

While his speech contained some legitimately angry rhetoric, it also had strategy components from which Labour today can learn a great deal:

“What Labour stands for is investment: long term investment in the productive capacity of our economy; investment in people and their skills; investment in technology and innovation; investment in our regions and in the infrastructure that underpins our nation’s prosperity. Ours is a strategy that looks to the future. It is a strategy that embraces the changes taking place in the industrial world: a strategy for a modern labour force, where women are equal partners both at home and at work. And it is a strategy that puts the skills and the talents of all our people at the very heart of our economic programme.”

In a Corbynesque flourish, Smith emphasised that

“wealth creation is not the exclusive preserve of a privileged few but requires — indeed it depends upon — the active involvement of the whole community. We reject the absurd double standard which encourages massive rewards for those at the top whilst everyone else has to suffer pay cuts, longer hours, and fewer and fewer employment rights. It is the old Tory trick — one special rule for their elite, another for all the rest”.

Turning to the Tory destruction of public services — the parallels with Jeremy Hunt’s dismantling of our beloved NHS are clear — he admonishes Ken Clarke for telling nurses and other public sector workers

“that they will not get any pay increase at all this year — unless, of course, they become more productive. What utter nonsense is this? How does a nurse become more productive? Does she juggle two bed pans at the same time? And is a fire-fighter expected to put out fires in two different places at one and the same time?”

In a bid to distance themselves from the Major Government, the Tories attempted to rebrand themselves as ‘one nation Conservatives’ or ‘compassionate Conservatives’, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Tories haven’t changed their spots one jot over the years. As Smith noted, they will

“always finds ways of hitting low-waged people hardest, whilst the very rich seem to get bigger and bigger pay rises all the time. Because that is the double standard practised by this Government. That is their choice. That is the sickening hypocrisy of their trickle-down economics. And that is the reality of a Government that cares more about lining the pockets of its rich friends than it does about the real needs of individuals and families in our country today.”

What Smith wanted to deliver for those who work, Labour needs to deliver at the next general election, namely:

“a Labour Government that will restore to every working man and woman the dignity, the respect, and the rights to which they are entitled……We will give the same legal rights to every worker, part-time or full-time, temporary or permanent. We will give every working man and woman the right to protection against unfair dismissal, and access to health and safety protection. And every worker will have the right to join a trade union and have the right to union recognition.”

The ‘Living Wage’ is widely thought of as a relatively new innovation but this is incorrect. Smith stated “Our choice is founded on a very simple principle — when people work for a living, they should be paid a living wage”.

Concerning broader economic policy, Smith emphasised what Labour

“as democratic socialists, have always believed, that it is the duty of Government to match unmet needs with unused resources. For surely it must be blindingly obvious to anyone in this country……that there is much work waiting to be done: work needing to be done to improve our schools, our hospitals, our transport system, and to improve and invest in our environment. All this work is waiting to be done, and crying out to be done now.”

Richard Branson’s recent ‘intervention’ into the labour leadership election contest is instructive. Smith picked up the theme of Tory economic incompetence by focusing on the catastrophic rail and other proposed privatisations. Then, as now:

“We know that there is barely a single person in this country outside Downing Street who thinks it is a good idea to privatise British Rail…. And what is all this designed to achieve? A system which will undoubtedly provide fewer services, which it is already clear will force substantial fare increases, and which sadly threatens the very existence of many rural lines…. Some responsibilities are the responsibilities of the nation and nobody else. You cannot privatise a national rail network and expect it to stay intact”.

Tory neoliberal policies were still in their relative infancy in 1993 and New Labour continued to support neoliberalism both as an economic rationale and as a political ideology throughout its three terms. New Labour believed it could remoralise society through market (de)regulation with its ‘Third Way’ politics but economic interests always trumped morality and many in New Labour became “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” . More recently, in 2014 ex-shadow business secretary echoed this view when he remarked, “I don’t have a problem with people making a lot of money”. However, Smith made a passionate case for an alternative, an alternative largely excluded from the Labour narrative until Corbyn threw his hat in the ring:

“this Government seems to think that the only thing that can possibly motivate people is greed, and if not greed, then fear. The concept of pride in public service for its own sake is utterly beyond the understanding of this Tory Government. But we know there is a different set of values. We know there are millions of people in this country who choose to work for the sake of the public good, because they want to deliver a service, because they want to help their community. We see these values at work every day, in schools, in hospitals, in community centres and in homes for the elderly: people who spend their lives helping others; fire-fighters who risk their lives saving others….. Every person in this hall this afternoon knows somebody who does a job of work, not for greed, not purely for profit, but for the satisfaction of helping and caring for other people. And not a word of thanks do they get from this Government, not a word of praise, nor any recognition of the value of their effort. All they get is a constant barrage of attack. They see their work devalued, their jobs threatened by cuts, their status and their conditions undermined. And they see their wages frozen, cut in real terms by a Government that have no idea of how ordinary people live or how hard they work.”

Smith was fearless in critiquing free market ideology in a way that is almost taboo now, and he predicted the crises we currently face with academisation and the privatisation of the NHS in particular and the slashing of other public services and local authority funding more generally:

“This Tory Government are deluded by the bizarre notion that the free market is intrinsically good and the public sector is intrinsically bad. So they try to sell everything off to the private sector, and the things they cannot sell, they try to run according to free market rules. But schools are not businesses and neither are hospitals. Head teachers are not entrepreneurs and doctors are not accountants, nor should they be forced to act like them. They should all be allowed to get on with the job they are trained to do — to teach the children and to heal the sick.”

“We in the Labour Party believe in the value of public service. We are a Party that believes in the public good. And to the nurses and the teachers and the midwives and the fire-­fighters, and to everyone who works so hard to deliver decent services to the people of this country we say that we are proud of what you do. We recognise your vital contribution to the life of our communities, and we abhor the disgraceful attempt by this Conservative Government to make you pay the price of their miserable failure.”

The ’revolving door’ between senior ministers, large corporations and their lobbying organisations (that Private Eye rightly has so much to say about) was deemed worthy of mention too when Smith asked:

“what is the nation to think when they see so many former Cabinet ministers popping up on the boards of companies they themselves helped to privatise? Ministers one after the other are taking that slippery sleazy slide from the Cabinet room to the boardroom; cashing in on their own privatisation plans.”

On curtailing local responsibility and accountability, Smith reflected on the Tories’ preference for power over democracy:

“This is a Government that cares less about democracy than about power, that cares less about people than political dogma, that cares less about fairness and justice than about defending its own interests and the interests of its own rich benefactors.”

Another initiative currently being discussed was proposed by Smith back in 1993, namely the need for

“a new constitution for a new century: a new and modern conception of citizenship, which recognises the importance of the community acting together to advance individual freedom; a revitalised democracy which protects the fundamental rights of each and every citizen, regardless of race, colour, gender or creed; a system of government that is open, accountable and close to the people it is elected to serve” and which would go “right to the heart of what is wrong with the Government of Britain today — a Government that is arrogant, centralised, and unresponsive to people.”

The Tories have recently confirmed their intention to scrap the Human Rights Act.

And so, now, in 2016, it seems we’re pretty much back to where we were all those years ago, almost as if ‘New Labour’ had never happened.

It strikes me that pretty much everyone who does — and might — support Labour now, would support everything articulated and proposed by John Smith back in 1993. The common ground is there and the desire to achieve progressive change is once again growing. Whether it is Corbyn, Owen Smith are some yet to emerge new leader who delivers it is important, but for now, not as important as agreeing and articulating the shape and look of the alternative to Tory rule in a clear and unified way which inspires the population to recognise and then embrace the possibility of a better future under a Labour government.

See if you can discern whether these next quotes are the words of the ‘unelectable terrorist sympathiser’ Jeremy Corbyn or the ‘highly electable, decent, political giant’ John Smith:

“No wonder people feel disillusioned with politics. No wonder they feel dismayed and disappointed. And no wonder they feel disgusted with a Government that has proved itself time and time again unfit to run this country.”

“Our choice — Labour’s choice — is to build a democracy founded on pluralism, participation, and justice: a politics that springs from the roots of democratic socialism and from the writings of Tom Paine, the struggle for votes for women, and trade union campaigns for the rights of people at work. And we in the Labour Party — unlike any other Party — see the vital link between rights in the workplace and rights at the ballot box. For surely we need both, if we are to create a society of free and self-confident citizens.”

“In Labour’s Britain, we will stop the rot and start once again to build a country where strong communities help each one of us to live a fulfilling life, in which racism has no place and no quarter. This is the choice we set out before the British people — the Tory Britain of today, or Labour’s Britain of tomorrow? And where the Tories have clearly failed, Labour must succeed.”

“I am deeply conscious of the huge challenges we face, of the vital choices we will have to make, for we will inherit an enfeebled economy and a demoralised society. But we will face these challenges. We will make these choices, with confidence in our ideals and pride in our values. So we must be bold in our ambitions: bold in our determination to get our country back to work; bold in our unyielding commitment to social justice; bold in our vision of a truly free and democratic society.”

“For I tell you this: there is no other force, no other power, no other party, that can turn this country round. It is up to us, all of us, together. This is our time of opportunity: the time to summon up all our commitment; the time to gather round us all our strength. And, united in our common purpose, it is the time to lead our country forward to the great tasks that lie ahead.”

These are John Smith’s words but they could quite easily be Corbyn’s, or for that matter, Owen Smith’s: Labour finally appears to be reconnecting with its core values and principles and people all over the country and the world are genuinely excited by that.

I’m not going to dwell on the implications of John Smith’s most unfortunate and untimely death. He is, and will remain, much loved and sorely missed.

I want to end by making a plea to all Labour supporters and especially the PLP: Regardless of who wins the Labour leadership election, get behind them, please: We urgently need a unified, strong and decent opposition with a clear narrative, a bold vision and effective policies. Let’s try and heal divisions, focus on the terrible things the Tories continue to get away with and get to work on forging that new world, a world characterised by peace and by economic, environmental and social justice for the many, not the few. This would be a truly ‘fitting memorial’ to John Smith, and it is what the country, and the world, desperately needs.


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