Death of John Smith: 25th Anniversary

Part of Acquired Brain Injury – in the House of Commons at 3:23 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Labour, Wolverhampton South East 3:23 pm, 9th May 2019

That is an eloquent reminder of how deeply his death was felt in the country.

A debate such as this is also a moment to consider what John Smith stood for and what he would make of today. When we think about what he stood for, we think of words such as decency and community, which for him was not just a word but something with real meaning—the basic building block of the good society—and we think about the term social justice. One of his main initiatives as Labour leader was to establish the Commission on Social Justice, chaired by Sir Gordon Borrie and staffed by a bright young man called David Miliband. That body was charged with coming up with a platform of ideas that would challenge poverty and inequality, promote social justice and opportunity and, crucially, do so with policies that were properly costed and not dependent on some mythical magic money tree. Responsibility was written through its remit, as well as ambition.

The reason why responsibility was so important was that John understood the importance of trust in politics—of winning the public’s trust—and the truth is that in the early 1990s Labour had a trust problem with the public. We had lost four elections. The trust issues related to things such as taxation, our perceived weakness on defence, and a doubt that we could be responsible in power. He wanted to take away any fears about backing Labour, so those issues of responsibility and trust were hugely important.

The Commission on Social Justice did not issue its final report until after John had died, but many of its recommendations were enacted by the Labour Government that followed. The highly respected Resolution Foundation has recently done some interesting research on the impact of those policies on, for example, child poverty. The research showed that during those years child poverty was reduced by significantly more than was thought at the time, and that—without being too partisan today—it has gone up by more than we first thought in the years since 2010. Those achievements on child poverty had a lot to do with the legacy of John Smith. It was about the difference between winning and losing elections and the difference between governing and protesting, and that difference was felt in the families of some of the poorest households in the country.

John Smith was a champion of the national minimum wage at a time when the cause was not fashionable and there was no consensus, even within the Labour movement. It is great that there is consensus now across the parties in favour of the national minimum wage, but it is one thing to accept consensus and another entirely to create it and John Smith played a great role in creating consensus on the national minimum wage.

John was also a party reformer. When I worked for him, he was engaged in a titanic battle with some of the major trade unions in the Labour party on the principle of one member, one vote. He had to face down accusations that if this reform went through, it would mean the end of the union link and a break in the relationship between the Labour party and the unions. That was not true, but it was what opponents of the reforms he was advocating maintained at the time. It took great bravery to carry that battle through. It was not a battle that he always relished, but it was one he was determined to win, and in the end, he did.

John was a passionate supporter of devolution. He believed that there should be a Scottish Parliament and he never believed that that should mean breaking up the United Kingdom. His belief in devolution sat alongside a belief that we have far more in common throughout the United Kingdom than anything that sets us apart.

John was an internationalist, a passionate pro-European who broke the party Whip to bring the United Kingdom into the European Community within months of being elected as a young and no doubt ambitious MP. The reason he was so passionately in favour of that was fired by social justice: he understood that in a world of international capital, there was a social justice benefit to be gained by controlling markets internationally, and that no country could do that on its own. He would have been very clear in his rejection today of the right-wing nationalism that has driven the Brexit agenda, but he would have been just as clear in his rejection of the ossified fantasy of socialism in one country that drives support for Brexit in some corners of the left, too.

John was a believer in strong defence, a supporter of the nuclear deterrent and a supporter of NATO. He understood the post-war Labour Government’s achievement in creating a system of collective defence. He would never have found himself parroting the lines of the country’s enemies or attacking NATO as an aggressive or expansionist organisation. That was his politics. That was his democratic socialism. The tradition that he represented was the internationalist social democratic tradition in the Labour party. Of course, those were different times. It was just after the end of the cold war, and South Africa was emerging from apartheid. There was a middle east peace process that people could really believe in, about which he was passionate.

I believe that the causes that called John Smith are still relevant today: the battle for social justice, the battle against poverty and inequality, the battle for community to mean something, the battle for the United Kingdom’s European identity, and the battle for strong defence and keeping people secure—for collective security. These things are all relevant today and, in line with his tradition, there are still people prepared to stand up and fight for them.