John Smith: Twenty years on

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The Labour leader John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack, twenty years ago this Monday on May 12th 1994. Had he lived, he would now be seventy five. He would also, no doubt, be a former Prime Minister, rather than an Opposition leader whose tragic premature death prevented him from getting to the top.

Smith only led the Labour Party for two years. I don’t recall much popular excitement about his election as leader in July 1992. The contest against the perfectly decent left winger Bryan Gould (who subsequently returned to his native New Zealand) was a foregone conclusion and a dull affair.

There was also some feeling that after losing for the fourth time in a row in April 1992, Labour might never win again. After all, if Labour couldn’t win during a Tory recession when could it win? Surely the economy would have recovered by 1996 or 1997 ensuring yet another win for the Tories? Satirical show Have I Got News For You… meanwhile pointed out, Labour was electing the very man whose tax plans had arguably led to their recent defeat in the first place.

Such fears proved misplaced. Simply by electing Smith, Labour had made an important step towards recovery. In the month of Smith’s election as leader, Labour gained a poll lead over the Tories which it would maintain for the next decade. The April 1992 election result in fact turned out to be the last Tory win achieved even to this day, twenty two years later.

John Smith is sometimes accused of laziness and complacency: of being happy to let the Tories lose the election for themselves. In fact, during the Major years, this was the perfect tactic to adopt. Within months of their victory, the Major Government virtually disintegrated amidst a sea of divisions over Europe, sleaze allegations, and perhaps most damagingly the total economic incompetence exhibited by Prime Minister John Major and his Chancellor Norman Lamont on Black Wednesday in September 1992. Labour had double digit poll leads from the autumn onwards. Hopelessly divided and weak, torn apart by self inflicted wounds, the Major Government never recovered.

This is not to deny John Smith any credit for Labour’s recovery. Although he did not launch any “New Labour” style revolution, he was certainly not lazy either. For one thing, he proved the finest performer as Opposition leader in the Commons of the post-war era. Only Harold Wilson in 1963-64, William Hague in 1997-2001 or perhaps Tony Blair in 1994-97 have come close to matching him. “No wonder we live in a country where the Grand National doesn’t start and hotels fall into the sea!” he derided Major in 1993 (referring to two recent news events which, of course, the hapless John Major for once could not really be blamed for). More seriously, he attacked “the devalued Prime Minister of a devalued government” after Black Wednesday.

Then there was the One Member Oje Vote reform to end the union block vote in autumn 1993. Smith privately planned to resign if the party voted “no”.  They did not, partly thanks to  a spirited Conference defence of the OMOV proposals from John Prescott. As it turned out, this would ensure Prescott would defeat Smith’s Number Two Margaret Beckett in the Deputy Leadership contest the following year.

Ultimately, Smith’s strength was a self assurance which both his predecessors the terminally untelegenic Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock as well as his successors Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband all lacked. True, the party experienced a huge surge in support following Tony Blair’s election of leader and a decisive move to the right for the party. But, in retrospect, Labour was already clearly heading for victory under Smith. Maybe not the 179 seat majority achieved by New Labour but a substantial win nevertheless. There was no need for New Labour or the campaign to win over the Murdoch press. Labour had a 20% lead over the Tories in May 1994.

Counter factual history is a risky business. Would the Blair-Brown rivalry have taken new form in a Smith Cabinet? Would the Tories have fared well enough in 1997 for Michael Portillo to escape the humiliating loss of his seat and thus succeed Major instead of Hague?  Would Blair, Brown and Cameron still have become Prime Minister anyway? Would the Good Friday Agreement have still happened? The 2001 and 2005 Labour victories? Devolution? Kosovo? Afghanistan? Iraq?

We will, of course, never know these things. While I would not wish to romanticise Smith’s leadership (every Labour leader before or since has, after all, been accused of “betraying socialism”. Smith unfairly or not been accused of this just the same, had he lived) there seems little doubt that Smith would have led Britain into the 21st century had he survived.

His death remains a great tragedy. The question of what a Smith-led Britain would have turned out like remains a fascinating mystery, twenty years on.

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5 thoughts on “John Smith: Twenty years on

  1. I cant beleive it was 20 years ago !
    Not everyone , especially in the Labour Party , agreed he would have won. I also remember a Labour supporting journalist was hugely critical of Smith. Yes Alistair Campbell…not sure what became of him ?
    A Smith Government would surely have had a smaller majority and perhaps not lasted three terms. Im sure it would have had none of the control freak aspects that Blair had , expecially over devolution , which was conviction for Smith. As was Europe and it may be that Smith would have tried to get into the Single Currency..which may have been a make or break moment.
    He was a wonderful performer in the House of Commons.

    • I actually don’t agree with those who think Smith wouldn’t have won in 1997 (i know you weren’t actually saying that yourself!) I don’t really see how he could have failed to win. I suspect Labour might have won three times but as he would have been in his late sixties by 2005, I suspect he might very well have relinquished power by then.
      Blair, of course, tried to get us into the Euro too. Brown stopped him, largely for personal reasons. Would he have done the same to Smith? I suspect Brown would have respected Smith more than he did Blair, partly because of the age gap.

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