Death of John Smith: 25th Anniversary

Part of Acquired Brain Injury – in the House of Commons at 3:33 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield 3:33 pm, 9th May 2019

I certainly do not disagree with that. He seemed to operate brilliantly at every level. He had the common touch. When we took people in to see him, he always knew how to communicate with them, whatever their background. As I said in an intervention, he would sometimes give people a steely look. When he first met me, he said, “I don’t know what to make of you. You’re MP for Huddersfield, but you don’t have a Yorkshire accent. I don’t know where you’re from,” which was quite perceptive of him. But we worked well together.

John was looking at new ideas all the time. He and Giles Radice asked me to be, I think, the very first person to work in the Department for Education on the employment side, so that we could develop a proper youth policy that covered not just conventional education, but training, job opportunities and so much else. I am a Co-operative Member of Parliament, and John was deeply interested in co-operatives. The interest in the Co-operative Development Agency and all that was down to him. He was passionate about it, and chaired the international co-operative movement for some time. Whatever he looked at, he had the passion and ability to push on.

John was also what we always need in this Labour movement of ours—a talent spotter. I remember when he had been at the Beaconsfield by-election, he came bustling back into the Commons and said, “It was a hard day and we’re never going to win Beaconsfield, but there’s a brilliant new candidate there—Tony Blair, his name is. I think we’ve got to get him a safe seat somewhere.” He was a talent spotter, even in terms of seeing new Members of Parliament coming in, identifying their skills and giving them a hand.

He was a bruiser, absolutely—you should not cross him. If you crossed him, politically or personally, he did not forget easily. When we had an attempt by Militant—a left-wing Trotskyist group—to take over the Labour party, he led the fightback, with Roy Hattersley, Gerald Kaufman and other giants of the Labour party who identified the problem and formed a new group called Solidarity. I think that our Chief Whip would probably have painful memories of the battles of those days. When that triumvirate said, “We’re not going to take this,” John Smith was central to the fight to keep the Labour party as a central, democratic socialist party. We all owe him for the fact that he did that.

I think there was a bit of a myth after John died that he was almost a saint. John Smith was not a saint, I can tell you. He was not a bad man, but he loved life. He and Elizabeth were a great host and hostess at a party. We would never forget the lovely feeling of inclusion that the Smiths gave whenever they entertained.

When John become ill—when he had his heart attack—many of us were absolutely terrified. We were really, really concerned. We knew that we had to support him. There was a sort of little mafia. We used to co-ordinate to make sure that he got home at a reasonable time—that he did not stay in the House precincts too late and got his taxi back to the Barbican, where he lived on the 35th floor. I took on something of a role, because he lived in No. 352 and I lived in No. 92. Gwyneth Dunwoody lived in No. 112, so there was a kind of political and parliamentary presence. It was sometimes a very good excuse for me to say to John, “I’m going home—shall we share a cab?”, which we sometimes did.

Sadly, I was in my flat in the Barbican on that dreadful morning when someone rang me from John’s flat and said that he had collapsed in the shower. By the time I got out into the reception area, John was being brought out on a stretcher, very ill indeed. It was a very sad moment. I had a feeling of lost, missed opportunity for this person who had such a range of talents, passion and moral purpose. He wanted to change the world for the better—and to do it now. He was intolerant of waiting too long before the changes in low pay and the minimum wage—all those things—could be achieved.

I remember John fondly and dearly. I hope we can keep that spirit alive. He was not a saint, but a passionate, moral man who wanted to make change. He also wanted to have good politics—yes, to have a good fight and really scupper someone in this place, but to go outside and have a civilised relationship afterwards.

The quality of John’s life and the sort of environment he engendered was something all of us can learn from. I have never spoken on any occasion about John Smith. I loved him dearly. He had a huge influence on my life, and for Elizabeth and his daughters we should say today how much we appreciated what he did in touching our lives.