John Smith: Twenty-five years on

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The Labour leader John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack, twenty-five years ago this month, on May 12th 1994. Had he lived, he would now be eighty. He would also, no doubt, be remembered 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.

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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 General Election win achieved until 2015.

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 worst, 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 onward. 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 One 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 then entirely unforeseen Deputy Leadership contest the following year.

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

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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, Cameron and May still have become Prime Minister anyway? Would the Good Friday Agreement have still happened? The 2001 and 2005 Labour victories? Devolution? Kosovo? Afghanistan? Iraq? Brexit?

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, would doubtless been accused of this just the same, had he lived) there seems little doubt that John 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-five years on.

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