My dad was 91 when he attended and spoke at a Labour Party conference for the first and only time, in 2014. If you’d had told him at 81 that 10 years’ later, he’d be a cherished grandfather of the Labour Party, he’d have said, “pull the other one.”
Harry Leslie Smith was a socialist and he loved the Labour Party, but he just didn’t muck about with politics; over a long life, he’d too often seen the hopes of ordinary people dashed by a political system that favours power over the common good.
But the Iraq War, the 2009 banking crash and David Cameron’s ideologically driven austerity made him mad as hell – and like Howard Beale in the movie Network, he wasn’t going to take it any more.
So, when he turned 88, he took to protesting the decimation of the welfare state that his generation had built after the Second World War. He became something like an elderly version of Greta Thunberg, with the preservation of the NHS as a public institution as his cause.
He joined social media and began writing laser-sharp tweets about the greed of the 1 per cent and the trauma of growing up working-class and desperately poor in Great Depression-ravaged Yorkshire.
He knew what life was like for people before the NHS, and he wasn’t going to let the rich or the politically entitled forget about it. He wrote essays in newspapers and penned the book Harry’s Last Stand. Thanks to that work, he was asked to speak at the Labour Party conference in 2014, even though he was a political unknown and an outsider to those who pull the levers of left-wing politics.
I don’t think the hundreds who had come to hear him speak on the need to keep the NHS in the public’s hands were expecting to be motivated and energised by an old man born five years after the First World War. Before his speech, the atmosphere was as flat as a bottle of ginger ale left open for too long, Ed Miliband’s gaffe-laden speech having failed to inspire. But after they heard dad’s first few sentences, the delegates in the room fell silent. Many became tearful as he spoke about how and why his generation struggled to create a Britain for the many, not the few.
By the time he finished his speech with his stirring call to arms, “Mr Cameron, keep your mitts off my NHS”, the conference became charged. An electric determination appeared to set in among Labour party members to hold to their ideals and fight for social justice and a better Britain for all.
It seemed that after the shame of the Iraq War, the party was returning to its roots. As The Independent front page said of my father’s speech, “Labour has finally found its voice again.” It helped activists in the party explain why they wanted to untether themselves from the Blair and Brown era and instead combine the ethos of the 1945 Labour government with 21st century sensibilities.
Over the years, many Labour party members came to my dad to thank him for that speech, telling him that his words changed their lives and made them understand that the struggle for social democracy is a lifelong pursuit. My dad was touched by the praise – but the speech also irrevocably changed his own life.
Before it, he was just Harry, an old pensioner who loved flowers, shandies and carpet bowling. But afterwards, he was the world’s oldest rebel, an inspiration for people desperate for hope and idealism in an era of cynical opportunism. My father took it all with good humour, but still felt a responsibility to soldier on as a beacon for a more decent society, no matter the physical toll it took on his ageing body.
“John,” he’d say, “I am old, so the knacker’s van is coming from me whether I am tucked up in my bed or on the road, roaring against Cameron and his lot. So I may as well go out doing some good rather than twiddling my thumbs.”
It’s why he happily took to campaigning across Britain for Labour in the 2015 general election. He understood both politicians and members alike saw in him the reflection of their own families’ struggles before the creation of the welfare state.
It was remarkable to watch my father use all his energy and enthusiasm during that election to get the vote out for Labour. And when the party fell short of its dreams of forming government, he didn’t despair; speaking to heartbroken Labour youth at an election night party, he just said, “we will get them next time”.
He used all his energy to fight for Remain in 2016 and for Labour in the 2017 general election. If he wasn’t speaking in praise and defence of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, he was travelling to refugee hotspots trying to highlight the plight of the people stuck there, explaining how he feared the world was returning to the cruelty and danger of the 1930s.
At the end of his life, my dad was clear about one thing: he wasn’t a politician, just an old man who’d lived under more bad, incompetent, greedy or myopic politicians than most. He saw in Corbyn both Labour’s glorious past, but also a politician who had a chance to put Britain back in the hands of the 99 per cent.
My dad never returned to another Labour Party conference after 2014, but he watched every year on television. And I know what he’d have thought this year: he’d have wanted to see the party rally to fight against an untenable, devastating Brexit.
I know he would have stood with Labour’s now entrenched policy of having no policy on Brexit until after the election. But I also know he wouldn’t have been happy with this decision.
Brexit will prevent Labour from building a society that is just, where all citizens can afford a decent standard of living free of want, illness and ignorance, and which has the strength to tackle the climate emergency like his generation battled Hitler.
This is no time to see which way the wind is blowing. Brexit was foisted on this nation by those who seek to excessively profit from our misery, and it has become an existential crisis. That’s why, no matter his reservations about the EU, he would have quietly wished Labour members had voted differently at conference, and campaigned in the next election for Remain. His fear would have been that Brexit is like Russia to an invading army: too big to tackle without defeat
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