Death of John Smith: 25th Anniversary

Part of Acquired Brain Injury – in the House of Commons at 4:36 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 4:36 pm, 9th May 2019

I share the last sentiments expressed by Neil Gray. We remember the man.

I thank my hon. Friend Ian Murray for securing this debate, because John Smith is still a towering figure for many of us. The words spoken today on both sides of the House are tribute to the high regard in which John Smith is held not simply by those who knew him but by those who are, in some ways, heirs to what he stood for.

Stephen Kerr is right in saying that Conservative Members claim John Smith as a fellow parliamentarian, which is right and proper. And it is right that the Scots in this Chamber claim John as a Scot, and they should be proud that John was such a proud Scot. We, of course, claim him as Labour, because John was Labour. Whatever John Smith was in his life, he stood for the values and principles on which the Labour party was founded and he took them forward so ably.

It is almost axiomatic that John’s moral view of the world was that social justice was at the heart of what he stood for in politics and of what he believed the Labour party had to stand for. That is an eternal message for my party, and politics across the world needs people who will challenge injustice on behalf of those who cannot speak up for themselves—we have heard those words repeated on numerous occasions—and that is the hallmark of what John Smith was all about.

John Smith was, in many ways, a model Member of Parliament from a Chief Whip’s point of view. Madam Deputy Speaker, as a former Chief Whip you will know the value of such discipline. The present Labour Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend Mr Brown, will not be dismayed if I point out, as others have done, that although John Smith broke the Whip on only one occasion, he did so on a matter of fundamental principle—his passionate belief that Britain is a necessary part of a larger structure, the then European Economic Community. He could not, therefore, go along with the mainstream of Labour votes at the time.

I therefore use this opportunity to quote another leader of the Labour party who is known for having broken the Labour Whip once or twice, the present Leader of the Opposition. He has asked me to read these words into the record:

“John Smith was Labour to his core. His politics were those of a genuine social democrat—he promoted equality, supported trade unionism, and believed in a kinder, more caring society.

Not only that, but he was an exceptionally decent and inclusive Leader of the Labour Party. I joined the Labour Party in the 1960s, and of all the Labour leaders I knew, John was the one I admired the most.

I will never forget his speech to the Labour Party Conference in 1993…promising the same legal rights to every worker from day one of their employment, part-time or full-time, temporary or permanent.

It has taken too long, but the next Labour government will deliver on John’s commitment.

His death was a tragedy, not just for his own family and friends, but also for the Labour Party, and the country as a whole.”

What lies within those words is sometimes missed. It has been said today that John Smith was moderate and right-of-centre in Labour party terms. Actually, that is not a strictly accurate interpretation of what he was about; he was more radical than people believe. The fact is that he was comfortable with Labour’s traditions—comfortable talking about employment rights and advocating them, as I heard him do many times in this Chamber when he was shadow Secretary of State for Employment during the passage of Norman Tebbit’s draconian anti trade union Bill. John Smith was a passionate defender of the rights of people in the workplace. He was sponsored by the Amalgamated Society of Boilermakers, along with my good friend Gerald Kaufman—perhaps the two most unlikely boilermakers ever to hit this place. Nevertheless, they were committed to the principles of that union and what trade unionism was about in the Britain of that time, and that remains relevant to the United Kingdom of today.

As has been mentioned, John could also claim significance in the debate about the minimum wage. I was on the shadow employment team for a time during that period: we were told by the Government that the minimum wage would cost 1 million jobs, which was then hiked to 2 million jobs. It did not cost those jobs, of course—it was part of creating a fairer society. The interesting point is that while John Smith was leader the issue was massively controversial, even within the Labour party. Some of our major trade unions at the time were saying that it would erode wages for their own members. That argument was strenuously put forward, but John Smith was one of those who said that that argument could not prevail. People were on derisory wages that have been forgotten now. Hairdressers were sometimes on wages so outrageous that it was impossible for them to support their families. Fighting for that kind of social justice was radical, and the hallmark of the then Leader of the Opposition.

John had enormous intellectual gifts as a parliamentarian. Almost every friend and colleague I have spoken to about him has a memory of John’s decision-making capacity. He would come to quick and robust conclusions about what was right and proper, sometimes on issues that mattered but did not necessarily have a strong policy bent. Lord Foulkes—then George Foulkes, shadow Foreign Minister—travelled with John Smith to China. They had many engagements with the Chinese Deputy Prime Minister, who would raise questions of policy. John would turn to George, who told me he would stammer out some quick response about what he hoped the policy was. John instantly turned it into something that sounded credible and competent, and was accepted by the Chinese Deputy Prime Minister as the voice of a party ready for government.

I saw John Smith in a similar light when he took on controversial policies. The promotion of comprehensive education was an issue in the ’90s just as it is today. John was easily persuaded that social justice was on the side of taking forward that reforming step. That was controversial, but he was prepared to take on controversy if he believed it was the right thing to do.

As a politician, John was gifted and formidable in this place. Reference was made to the YouTube videos that David Ward has made available. David will be glad to know that I watched one of them—it is some years since we have seen each other, so I am delighted to see him in the Under-Gallery—and it was interesting to see how full the Chamber was when John Smith spoke. He was one of those people: everyone would be encouraged to come in to listen to him—to his bulldozer drive against the Government of the day, his forensic skills, his strong intellectual ability and, of course, his devastating wit. Sometimes, that devastating wit was most telling of all. The then Prime Minister John Major had apparently written a chapter in a book about football called “We’ll Support You Evermore”; as John Smith said at the time, it was obviously not a Tory party publication. I would venture to say, without introducing too much bitter politics into the debate, that we could make the same claim today.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East will not be unhappy if I recall the fact that although people talk about John being a kind man—and he was; he was very forgiving and prepared to heal the enmities, or at least some of them, that existed in his time—he was also very caustic when he wanted to be. My right hon. Friend was at the Dispatch Box as a junior shadow Treasury Minister being harangued by Government Members, three of whom stood up to challenge him to give way on some point. Gordon Brown was on my right hon. Friend’s right, giving him a stream of statistics and a robust intellectual defence of the Labour case; John Smith turned to my right hon. Friend and said, “Just pick the most stupid.” That was not reported in the Hansard of the day.

I wish to turn for a few moments to John Smith as a family man. Those of us who met and know Elizabeth—she is Baroness Smith, but Elizabeth is probably a kinder way to refer to her—know that she is still intensely proud all these years on, just as John’s daughters, Sarah, Jane and Catherine, are intensely proud of their father. John was a family man, although as Elizabeth said to me, as he was in political life, he was a family man in very short spurts. They still enormously value the family holidays and family time they had on the island of Iona. It was so important, not only for John as a human being, getting himself away from being the man of politics, but for John as a man more widely, with his family being part of something wider for that wider human being.

In John’s memory, the John Smith Trust continues to do incredibly valuable and powerful work, particularly in central Asia. John was passionately committed not simply to social justice but to the principles of good government that have been carried forward in the determination to train a generation of political leaders in central Asia in particular. They bear his name as fellows of the John Smith Trust. That is a remarkable signal to us all.

The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts said that John Smith was a humble man; I am not quite sure that I entirely agree with that description, because one of the good things about John’s background—not only his family background but his time at the University of Glasgow debating society and all the rest—was that he had confidence in himself, his politics and his belief system. He had confidence in his humanity, which is important. So he was not a humble man, but he was a simple man. A simple man is probably the most vividly fitting description when we think of the place that John chose for his burial on Iona: a very simple grave and memorial. Something very simple for a very decent man who graced this place, graced our politics and graced those who knew him.