Labour Party conference: 91-year-old campaigner Harry Smith steals show with impassioned welfare defence


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A 91-year-old writer and campaigner was hailed as the Labour conference star speaker as he brought delegates to tears with recollections of poverty and premature death before the creation of the National Health Service.

Harry Leslie Smith won two standing ovations and was hugged by Andy Burnham, the shadow Health Secretary, as he delivered an impassioned defence of the welfare state.

Mr Smith said:  “I came into this world in the rough and ready year of 1923. I’m from Barnsley, and I can tell you that my childhood, like so many others from that era, was not like an episode from Downton Abbey.

“Instead, it was a barbarous time, it was a bleak time and it was an uncivilised time, because public health care didn't exist.”

Before the Second World War, he told the conference, hospitals and medical services had been for “the privileged few, because they were run by profit”.

He said: “My memories stretch back almost 100 years, and if I close my eyes, I can smell the poverty that oozes from the dusty tenement streets of my boyhood.”

Mr Smith said how his eldest sister, Marion, had wasted and died from tuberculosis at the age of 10 and was “dumped nameless into a pauper’s pit”. He also recalled the "anguished cries" of a woman dying from cancer who could not afford morphine.

He said that voting for a Labour Government – and the creation of the NHS - after his return from fighting in the war had been “the proudest day of my life”

He added: “Today we must be vigilant, we must be vocal, we must demand the NHS will always remain an institution for the people and by the people. We must never ever let the NHS free from our grasp because if we do your future will be my past.

I am not a politician, a member of the elite or a financial guru, but my life is your history – and we should keep it that way. So say it loud and say it clear in this hall and across this country, Mr Cameron keep your mitts off my NHS.”