A team player at heart

Profile: Chris Smith; Is this the man to dismantle the welfare state? Stephen Castle on Labour's nice guy on Labour's welfare reformer
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The Independent Online
Chris Smith, the man in charge of Labour's reform of the welfare state, is supposed to be thinking the unthinkable. As the world knows, he has experience in saying the unsayable. He is Labour's only openly gay MP, and also almost universally popular with his fellow parliamentarians. One female colleague last week described him as the only member of the Shadow Cabinet who passed the compulsory holiday test - "if you had to spend a week's holiday with one of them, can you think of anyone who would be remotely bearable?"

Where the shadow social security secretary stands politically is another matter. He ought to be an archetypal Blairite: just two years older than Blair himself; educated at an upmarket Scottish school and Oxbridge; a practising Christian MP for Islington South, the bastion of new Labourism. Yet he is a close friend of Robin Cook and the two men have been at odds with arch-moderniser Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor, over suggestions that the payment of child benefit might be limited.

Last Tuesday's lecture on the welfare state - "surely," Mr Smith said, "it's time to get away from the sterile battle lines of public and private" - only added to the puzzle. Is he the man who will end Labour's love affair with Beveridge and the principle of universal provision, as the Guardian implied last week?

After rising effortlessly through the Labour ranks, Mr Smith now faces one of the toughest challenges in opposition: modernising the rickety, Heath-Robinson machinery of a welfare state after 17 years of Tory government. Chris Smith is in the ideological hot seat.

BORN in Barnet, north London, in 1951, Smith spent his first 10 years in Watford before his father, a civil servant, was transferred to the Scottish Office in Edinburgh. His mother was a teacher and both parents (now retired) are pillars of the Perthshire Liberal Democrat establishment. Mr Smith attended George Watson's College, then a direct grant school, now independent. He went on to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he took a double first in English. He worked hard, not only at his degree, but at student politics. Friends remember him as ambitious, determined to become a Labour MP, and astute at building alliances among the fractured left of university politics. He duly became chairman of the Labour club, then president of the Union in 1972.

This was the fag-end of the 1960s and student rebellion was still in the air. The young Chris Smith took part in sit-ins and occupations of a peculiarly Cambridge variety. At one, the vanguard of advancing students halted abruptly on the threshold of a university building as the front ranks stopped to roll up the William Morris carpet in their path. Like several other prominent Labour politicians who began their careers in supposedly radical student politics - Jack Straw is another example - he was noted for restraint, even primness, in his personal habits. Contemporaries say visitors to his rooms were more likely to be greeted by a Schubert quintet than Jimi Hendrix. If they were lucky, a glass of malt whisky would be on offer. Guests who wanted to smoke a joint were asked to go outside.

After two years' doctoral research on Coleridge and Wordsworth (he completed his PhD several years later) Smith spent nine months at Harvard on a Kennedy scholarship, and worked for the Arizona Congressman Morris Udall in his unsuccessful Democratic Party primary campaign against Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Smith returned to Britain to work as a strategist and campaigner for various housing charities and organisations. But his ambitions were political. Through a Cambridge friend he was introduced to the Labour group on Islington council in north London and stood for election in 1978. The rules had to be bent - he had not, technically, fulfilled the one-year residence criterion - but once a councillor he almost immediately became the group's chief whip. In 1981, as the party imploded over the formation of the SDP, Smith took over as chair of Islington housing committee. This was the heyday of Islington's socialist republic and Smith was one of the councillors who wanted to fly the red flag over the town hall when Labour regained control from the SDP. He also initiated a partial amnesty for squatters allowing them to stay in derelict houses until they were redeveloped.

The fission of the local Labour Party presented him with his first big break. The sitting MP, George Cunningham, defected to SDP and left the Labour nomination for Islington South vacant. Smith had already fought and lost the hopeless seat of Epsom and Ewell. Now, positioned between a hard left and a right-wing candidate, the skills of alliance-building came good; in the second ballot for the candidature he came through the middle to win. Then, when the Boundary Commission amalgamated the seat with Islington central, he was well-enough dug in to win a run-off against the candidate there. He just beat Cunningham in the 1983 general election; at the age of 31, he was an MP with a majority of 363.

Since his early twenties, Mr Smith had known he was gay. By 1984, a year into the Parliament, he decided the sensible thing to do was to come out. It happened almost by accident. Rugby borough council in Warwickshire threatened to remove sexual orientation from the list of areas protected under its equal opportunities policy, opening the way to discrimination against lesbians and gays. In November a rally was organised and Smith, who had defended gay rights, was asked to speak. As he walked into a large public hall to address about 1,000 protesters in the Midland market town, Smith decided this was the moment. From the platform he said: "My name is Chris Smith. I'm the Labour MP for Islington South and I'm gay." There was a five-minute standing ovation.

The move strengthened rather than weakened his position. His postbag was overwhelmingly positive and his parliamentary majority rose (bolstered by the collapse of the SDP). There had been rumblings on the left of the constituency party about deselection but coming out put a stop to that. Mr Smith, who has a partner he has lived with for more than eight years, knows not all MPs are in a similar position and opposes "outing". Colleagues admire his courage and skill in managing the issue, in speaking up regularly for gay rights but not getting himself pigeon-holed as a one-issue politician.

A spell in the Labour whip's office preceded his second big break. In 1987 Neil Kinnock invited him on to the front bench as part of John Smith's treasury team. This was the fast track to the Shadow Cabinet and created a politically important relationship with John Smith, the shadow chancellor. Not only did Chris Smith have an Edinburgh background, he also knew the Munros, the Scottish mountains his boss took to climbing after his first heart attack (Chris Smith had walked all 277 of them). Weekend expeditions cemented a good working relationship into a close friendship.

In 1992, after five competent years on the front bench, he was voted on to the Shadow Cabinet with the support of fellow Tribunites. Part of his popularity with colleagues results from his lack of obsession with politics. A wiry figure with greying hair, and a good, dry sense of humour, Smith has other interests: books, music (he is a board member of Sadler's Wells) and films as well as walking.

NOBODY doubts Chris Smith's intellectual prowess. But some wonder whether he is just too nice to stand up to the party's vested interests and suspect he lacks a killer instinct. The more charitable theory is that, unlike some new Labourites, he focuses on analysis and problem-solving rather than presentation. A team player, not a plotter, he has already proved his competence in two uncontroversial shadow cabinet portfolios, environment and national heritage.

Undoubtedly he was closer to the last leader than to the present one. Yet he declared early (and to some MPs' surprise) for Tony Blair in the leadership contest and has a good relationship with his boss. He was, for example, one of few MPs present at the party thrown for Blair's wife Cherie's 40th birthday. Nevertheless Smith has kept lines open to the left and can count himself as part of the crucial centre-left of the Shadow Cabinet.

Bold as he was in declaring himself gay, Chris Smith's political instincts are cautious. He may accept the public will not pay for a better welfare state through higher taxes but he is not the man to take an axe to the welfare state. His thinking is gradualist and small-scale: incentives to encourage people to move from welfare to work, and reform that keeps the basic state pension but adds a second-tier scheme mixing public and private provision. Cumulatively, though, they could have an impact. Whatever the detail, few doubt the Smith proposals will be thorough and intellectually coherent. The brain behind them would do well in government. One Labour veteran said last week: "At the very least, Chris will run for a full term of a Labour government as a cabinet minister in a big, second-tier department like social security, education or environment.

"And," he added, "I wouldn't say the same of two-thirds of the Shadow Cabinet."