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Labour’s Lost Leader

As I recall it was a grey and dismal morning when the news broke that the Labour Party leader John Smith had had a heart attack at his London home early morning on 12th May 1994.

I was very actively involved in politics at a student level at the time – a Labour party member, a member of the National Organisation of Labour Students and a student union campaigner for my university’s student union at Keele. Like many Labour activists in the early 1990s I was bruised and battered by the 1992 election, one that Labour had been expecting – maybe naively – to walk; and was pleased when John Smith became the party’s leader in 1992, pleased because Smith seemed to be a man people trusted, a winner and someone who looked Prime Ministerial before he even got close to the job.

His heart attack and subsequent death that same day felt that yet again the Labour movement had been robbed of an opportunity by cruel circumstances. It shocked Westminster but it shocked those of us interested in politics outside of that bubble, and within the Labour movement more deeply.

There has been much musing in recent years about how Labour would have fared in the 1997 General election had Smith survived. Would Labour have won ? Would it have won by such a massive landslide? Would there have been successive Labour victories, all under the mantle of New Labour?

It’s been something that I’ve reflected on over the years, particularly as Labour went on to win three successive General Elections and all with larger majorities than John Major’s 1992 victory or Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979.

When you look back across the political history of the mid- to late-1990s it’s easy to see how victory was almost be assured for Labour and how much of that is down to how hopelessly divided John Major’s Conservative Party was at the time. The debacle of Black Wednesday in September 1992 saw the government lose all authority. The push for a greater integration in Europe, a subject that has continued to dominate British politics for well over fifty years now, led to seismic divisions within the Conservative ranks.

The economic effects of Black Wednesday also shattered the Conservative mantle of being the party of sensible economics. The failure of British membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism was a central plank of government policy. Billions were waste in trying to prop up the pound before it’s ignominious exit from the ERM, although, somewhat ironically, Sterling’s exit allowed the economic flexibility and lower interest rates that saw growth return to the economy in the longer term.

Taken together, the divisions on Europe and the loss of economic credibility for the government make it hard to see how John Smith could not have become Prime Minister in 1997. This is even more the case when one considers the litany of disasters that befell Major’s government outside of the Euro-economic sphere – BSE, defections from his own party and a never ending stream of scandals involving Conservative MPs. There is an old saying that Opposition parties don’t win elections, governments lose them.

But this is to ignore one crucial factor that DID happen in the mid-1990s and that happened as a direct result of Smith’s untimely death: the emergence of Tony Blair as Labour’s leader and New Labour.

John Smith was most certainly a reformist. He had been part of a progressive movement within Labour that pulled the party away from the Far Left and sought to distance itself from some of the more radical ideologies the party had previously supported. The abolition of the trade union block vote at the party conference in 1993 marks Smith out as someone who realised Labour needed to reform to be successful in power, but also to appear to be a modern political entity that represented the fairness and aspiration sought by the electorate.

But it is on this issue, and the issue of leadership more generally that would have determined whether Smith would have succeeded in a General Election. Reforming voting procedures in conference is one thing, but would John Smith have led the party through that Clause IV moment that Blair did, ending it’s commitment to whole scale nationalisation? In doing this Blair managed to pull off three things: he showed that the party was not wedded to an old and outdated economic view of the world; he showed that the party was capable of change and the kind of change that reflected the reality of the modern world; and he showed that he himself had the skills of leadership enough to take on and win some of the biggest power players within Labour’s own ranks. The Clause IV Moment, as it has come to be known, was a leadership moment.

I think it unlikely that John Smith would have even contemplated his own Clause IV Moment, never mind doing it. With Labour comfortably ahead in the polls at the time of his death, why rock the boat? Whereas Blair wanted to ensure every possible avenue of attack for the Tories and the media was cut off, I cannot help but feel that Smith would have been more cautious, particularly after the drubbing his Shadow Budget was given in the 1992 General Election campaign, and particularly given his style of leadership to that point.

It seems to me equally unlikely that the tax and spend instincts Smith held for many years would have changed in the run up to any election, particularly with Gordon Brown as his Shadow Chancellor. That would have opened another avenue of attack for the enemies of Labour as the economy recovered In that respect and I doubt the party would have been able to retain it’s economic credibility up to and throughout the General Election in 1997.

Smith was an incredibly effective performer in the House of Commons, teasing Chancellor Nigel Lawson about the fractious relationship with Margaret Thatcher by singing the theme tune to Neighbours; or berating John Major as the “man with the non-Midas touch” – but on other platforms he was less confident. To some degree Smith represented a continuation of the Kinnock years too – as indicated, he was in many voters eyes a safe pair of hands, almost like a bank manager. But he was not a radical break with the past, a past that would always come back to haunt Labour in public perception, reinforced by an essentially conservative media. That most definitely would have come into play at the ballot box in 1997.

Blair on the other hand offered a radical departure. He was a much more significant reformer of the party. Whole scale policy shifts that better reflected aspiration, a professional, business-like managerial style, and a respectability in Opposition that appealed massively across the United Kingdom and not just in Labour’s industrial heartlands, brought the kind of durable support for the party that I think would have eluded John Smith in the long run. Blair even teased the party about changing it’s name after winning the Clause IV vote but in effect that is just what he did via a slick marketing maneuver whereby Labour became New Labour.

The Labour Party that won in 1997 was very much in the image crafted by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson, the progressives on the right of the party. It was a very different political entity to the party in 1992 and a massively successful one. To quote Blair himself on entering Downing Street – “We have been elected as New Labour and we will govern as New Labour.”

No one can imagine John Smith making that pledge had he lived to get that far.

It’s questionable too whether the Tories would have undergone some of the outright mud-slinging by the media that saw them endure sleaze scandal after sleaze scandal if the press hadn’t the perception of a Labour Leader who was appealing to middle England and who appeared to be moving Labour away from it’s Left wing history. Blair’s famous – now infamous – courting of the Murdoch media and the press in general blunted one front of the political war on which Labour had continually been hammered, thereby making his (Blair’s) leadership significantly easier.

Ultimately, Labour’s success in 1997 was down to more than an economically and politically inept government – it was down to the party itself offering a radical and precise message, itself precisely managed and presented; and a leadership that compared far more favourably and far more identifiably with modern Britain than the government did. It was 25th April 1995, barely a year after the death of John Smith, when John Major challenged Blair at PMQs about the divisions on Europe within the Labour Party and Blair’s response best describes the reason behind his success. Pausing for the jeering from the Tory benches to stop, he simply says: “There is a difference – I lead my party, he follows his.”

It’s this reason I think Smith would have been at best a minority, one term Labour Prime Minister. Voters in 1997, comparing Tony Blair and John Major, reached a very different set of conclusions about who would be best for the country than they would have done had they been comparing John Smith and John Major. Smith lacked the radical edge Labour needed and although a reformist, he wasn’t a modernising enough leader within the Labour Party itself. Governments do lose elections, that is true. But that doesn’t mean the best strategy for Opposition is to simply sit on one’s hands and wait for the 35%.

Success – electoral success – requires leadership and leadership needs vision and direction and a willingness to change. Labour in 1994 might have looked peripherally like a government in waiting, but there remained much more to do to guarantee the degree of success it would later have and need to govern successfully. And in order to do that it needed a very different kind of leader.