John Smith made mistakes, but at least he was trusted

In comparison with him, the Millbank Tendency characters have yet to develop backbones

Ken Livingstone
Wednesday 12 May 1999 00:02 BST

IT IS an indication of how dramatically British politics has changed that it seems scarcely believable that it is only five years since John Smith died. Labour had just made huge gains in the May council elections and we had opened a 20-point lead over the Tories in opinion polls. The night before he died he spoke at a Labour fund raising rally in central London and when he ended his powerful speech with the words "all we ask is to be given the chance to serve our nation" there was nobody in the audience who doubted they were looking at the next prime minister of Britain.

The country's affection for John Smith had grown slowly but, by the time of his death, people's trust in him was such that many of us began to think he might become the first Labour prime minister to win a second full term of office. The outpouring of grief at his death indicated how confident people had become that here was a leader who could be trusted to govern wisely. Perhaps more than any other politician since Hugh Gaitskell, John Smith embodied the best of Labour's traditions and values.

Even those of us on the left who had not voted for him when he defeated Bryan Gould for the Labour leadership, after our defeat in 1992, had been won over in the following two years. After all the bitterness and self- laceration that had become the hallmark of Neil Kinnock's leadership, the Labour Party was in John's own words "at one with itself".

John's commitment to restore fair trade union rights at work united the party and the unions as dramatically as Harold Wilson had done 30 years previously with his "white heat of technology" speech.

In the first months of his leadership, when I and the usual suspects set up the Campaign to Defend the Welfare State, he immediately defused the issue with a private press briefing firmly spelling out that the welfare state was safe in his hands, and that he remained committed to universal benefits.

I first met John Smith when I was leader of the Labour GLC and we were due to appear in a television programme together. He took me out to lunch so we could talk over the issues and avoid the interviewer being able to exploit any differences in our positions. That took all of 15 minutes. The rest of the meal was devoted to good food and drink and an exchange of all our best gossip about our political colleagues. Indeed John Smith is the only party leader that I have ever gone out and got drunk with, though I must say he never seemed to be the worse for wear on these occasions.

John's great skill was that although he came from the traditional right of the party he never involved himself in the various right-wing factions and caucuses, so much so that many on the hard right of the party were suspicious about his loyalties. He took great pride in the achievements of post-war Labour governments, and had he lived I am sure he would not have stood for the systematic rubbishing of Labour's past.

It is easy to imagine his robust response had any Labour Party spin doctor insist he mouth the vacuous slogan "there must be no return to taxing for taxing's sake", as if some past demented Labour Chancellor had been banging taxes up just for the sheer hell of it!

Of course, John Smith made mistakes, and two in particular changed the course of Labour history. In the year following Labour's disastrous 1987 general election result, Neil Kinnock's grasp on the Labour leadership went from bad to worse. Following Neil's decision not to back the nurses' industrial action, when opinion polls showed that even a majority of Tories supported their case, Tony Benn decided to make a challenge for the Labour leadership.

All of us, including Tony, knew that Neil would easily be re-elected unless John Smith threw his hat into the ring. After talking to each member of the 45-strong Campaign Group of MPs, I went to see John Smith to tell him the result.

He was amazed to discover that whilst the vast majority of members would vote for Tony Benn on the first ballot, they would all either switch to John Smith or abstain in a run-off between Smith and Kinnock. There was not a single vote for Neil Kinnock amongst the members of the Campaign Group. Taken with the solid block of right-wing MPs and trade unions John Smith would almost certainly have won the Labour leadership had he been prepared to move against Neil.

I argued strongly with him that the Labour Party could most probably never win an election while Neil remained our leader and he had a duty to the millions who desperately needed a Labour government to take up the challenge. Nothing I said could budge him and indeed a few days later he became the chair of Neil's re-election campaign.

Many will find such loyalty admirable. I do not agree. Our first duty to the party is to win power so that we can make the changes that so many in society depend on to improve the quality of their lives. The broken- backed Tory government was able to limp its way through from 1992 to 1997.

John Smith's other great mistake was his Shadow Budget at the beginning of the 1992 general election. Whilst the tax changes he proposed were boldly redistributive and fair, John's refusal to raise the ceiling at which National Insurance contributions began meant that many middle income earners in the south-east would have faced a tax rise while Britain was still in a painful recession. I think he had failed to take sufficient account of the regional disparity in incomes that had mushroomed in the Thatcher years. At the time the average income in Scotland in the North was pounds 15,000 whilst in London it was pounds 21,000.

John Smith always feared that it might have been his Shadow Budget which cost us the 1992 election. I suspect that we could have won the election with the Shadow Budget if John had been the leader of the party. I, for one, have no doubt that John Smith would have won a landslide victory in the 1997 election. All the gimmicks, focus groups, and other New Labour razzamatazz were simply an attempt to win for New Labour from the British people the sort of trust which, for John Smith, came naturally.

It is this inconvenient reality which is behind the whispering campaign of the Millbank Tendency that Labour could never have won with John Smith as leader -- although none ever have the courage to say it openly. But clever as they may think themselves to be, I have to say that, in comparison with John Smith, these characters have yet to develop backbones.

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