John Smith – Remembering A Great Labour Leader

John Smith, who sadly died thirty years ago, is paradoxically a past Labour leader who is both highly revered but also often overlooked. He held the leadership for just under two years (from July 1992 to May 1994) but in that period committed the Labour Party to radical modernisation of Britain’s governance and democracy. It was Smith who pushed decisively for Scottish and Welsh devolution, for freedom of information, and the national minimum wage. These have become among the most influential achievements of Tony Blair’s Labour Government elected in 1997.   

Smith was a man sure in his beliefs, informed by a Presbyterian faith, imbued by an upbringing in Scotland’s Western Highlands, and strongly committed to principles of social justice. His forensic skills as a criminal barrister were combined with great natural wit and debating prowess that made him a master of the House of Commons. Smith’s ambition was to lead a country that would “harness the extraordinary potential of ordinary people”. He was inspired by a vision of active government and democratic citizenship; and opposed to a society dominated by entitled elites or opaque market forces. 

Smith’s leadership has sometimes been described as cautious or even complacent. I think this is inaccurate and unfair. Smith was cat-like, capable of bold jumps but wanting to be sure of his footing. His agenda of constitutional reform remains the most radical and comprehensive made by any Labour Leader. He strongly felt this was his unfinished business, having played a leading role in the unsuccessful devolution proposals for Scotland and Wales during the Callaghan Government.  Smith also believed that – facing a Tory Government led by John Major mired in sleaze and scandal – constitutional reform could be attractive to voters – if presented as a new deal for democracy, an empowered citizenship, and standards in public life. 

In March 1993 Smith brought his ideas together in a speech to Charter 88, the human rights campaign led by Anthony Barnett. Warning that Britain had become an elective dictatorship, Smith argued that “we must replace the out-of-date idea of an all-powerful nation state with a new and dynamic framework of government”. He spoke of “a worrying loss of confidence in Parliament” and “mounting sense of disenchantment and cynicism about our political system”. Smith said it was “no answer to say leave it to Whitehall” and called for a new deal between the people and the state that would put “the citizen centre stage”. 

Smith was an intensely proud Scot, but also British and European and wanted our democratic life to encompass all these multiple identities. That was why he was determined to devolve power by establishing the Scottish Parliament & Welsh Assembly. He wanted Britain to become a modern European state which empowered “municipal, regional, national and European decision-making”. He called for incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law and was scathing about Whitehall’s obsession with secrecy, pledging to introduce a Freedom of Information Act. He also called for similar laws against corporate cover-ups so that “the cobwebs of unnecessary secrecy around the British Boardroom are blown away”. Anthony Barnett has written that Smith’s speech “transformed Labour from a constitutionally conversative party into a radical, reformist one”.

The Charter 88 speech was, however, cautious about electoral reform. Smith’s reticence was in part because the Labour Party was then awaiting the final report of a Working Party on Electoral Systems, chaired by Professor Raymond Plant. One month later the report was released and recommended scrapping first past the post (FPTP), proposing varying forms of PR for the European Parliament, the Scottish Assembly, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. In response, Smith accepted the recommendations for Europe and Scotland. But for elections to the House of Commons, he was unconvinced and pledged to hold a referendum; a commitment which was included in Labour’s 1997 General Election manifesto but which unfortunately was not held by Tony Blair who was unpersuaded of the case for PR.  

As John Smith’s Head of Policy at the time I was in the mildly awkward position of being a long-time supporter of PR working for a leader who was very cautious about the issue. I had numerous conversations with Smith about electoral reform and invariably he would acknowledge the principles of fairness that underpin the case for PR. His reticence was mainly practical. He simply couldn’t imagine how most of his fellow fifty Labour MPs from Scotland would support ending FPTP which worked so clearly in their favour. I sometimes wonder how  his view might have changed given that over the last 14 years the Scottish Nationalist Party has been the overwhelming beneficiary of ‘winner takes all’ elections to the House of Commons. 

Thirty years after Smith’s untimely death, the passage of time inevitably distances us from his achievements as Labour Leader. But when he died Labour was polling consistently 20 points ahead of the Tories. He had led a united attacking opposition against John Major’s Government as it suffered the humiliations of the pound’s devaluation on ‘Black Wednesday’ and bitter internal divisions over the Maastricht Treaty on the European Union. Smith also modernised Labour’s internal democracy by reforming the trade union influence in leader and candidate selections. He established the Commission on Social Justice and firmly established the minimum wage as a Labour commitment for government. 

All this was accomplished in twenty two months and was building a strong platform for Smith to lead Labour back to power. Just one month after he died Labour won a landslide in the elections to the European Parliament that prefigured Tony Blair’s victory in 1997. In my inevitably biased opinion Smith was a great leader with a legacy that the Labour Party should remember with gratitude and pride.

David Ward was John Smith’s Head of Policy and is the Secretary of the Weald of Kent Labour Party. 

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