he fifth anniverary of John Smith's death should be a moment
of reflection for the entire British centre-left. I have a
personal interest to declare. John Smith welcomed me to the
House of Commons in May 1994 after I won the by-election at
Rotherham to become the town's MP.
He came down for the official photo-call at St Stephen's
entrance and said "Denis, this will be a moment you will
remember for the rest of your life." It was but not for
the reasons that he, as a lover of Parliament and the Commons,
might imagine. Within a week Smith died after giving a speech
at a gala fund-raising dinner which he finished with the appeal
to be allowed to serve his country.
His untimely death denied him that wish. There have been
unseemly debates recently about the extent to which John Smith
would have led the Labour Party in a different fashion from
his successor, Tony Blair. My view is that there would have
been not a great deal of difference. It was Smith who named
Gordon Brown and Tony Blair to the key shadow posts in charge
of domestic policy.
He watched approvingly as Brown turned Labour's Achilles
heel - its traditional tax and spend ideology - into an asset
as Labour moved away from taxes on labour and towards taxes
on capital. Smith was a strong family man and while deeply
tolerant - I remember him leaving an important economic conference
of the Socialist International to dash back to vote to reduce
the age of consent for gays - was as clear as Tony Blair has
been on the working class disgust at the rise in criminality
and insecurity associated with the Tory years.
Above all Smith staked his career on forcing through the
democratisation of the Party to remove the cliques and claques
and fiefdoms and baronies of Old Labour. His commitment to
Europe at a time when it was deeply unpopular - Smith voted
behind Roy Jenkins in favour of Edward Heath's taking Britain
into Europe in 1971 and thus was in the opposite lobby to
most Labour MPs - showed him a man of principle.
The modernisation of Labour begun by Neil Kinnock was carried
forward by Smith and continued by Tony Blair though its completion
will require still further changes in the way the Party operates
and is financed and the way the country is governed.
Labour would have won in 1997 under John Smith though the
breakthrough into Tory heartlands and the size of the majority
owes much to the way Blair has politically modified perceptions
and allegiances in the media and in voting patterns.
If a discussion as to the relative merits of Smith and Blair
as vote-winners is irrelevant there is a wider question to
be asked : Is the extent of Labour's 1997 victory a unique
event and can one speak of New Labour exceptionalism peculiar
Alas, the evidence simply is not there. The modernisation
of Labour and its expansion to a big-tent party in which economic
and civil society could feel at home as much as traditional
left political society was necessary but not sufficient for
Although Labour won a huge majority of seats it did not win
a majority of votes - nearly three out of five voters preferred
other parties. Currently, Tony Blair at party meetings with
Labour MPs and in private discussions nags constantly about
the big Tory vote still latent in Britain. Just because he
has won a decisive battle he does not assume the enemy has
been destroyed. The complacent hostility of some Labour forces
against electoral modernisation and constitutional renewal
is deeply worrying.
What Labour benefited from was the significant shift away
from the right that has been marked in nearly every mature
democracy since the mid-1990s. We can now see two quite distinct
eras in post-war politics. The first which lasted from roughly
1945 to 1970 was the era of welfare capitalism. New Dealers
in the US, Butskellites in Britain, Christian Democrats in
mainland Europe and Social Democrats in Scandanavia supported
welfare state politics, state intervention in industry and
other measures to put right the mistakes which in the first
half of the 20th century had led to fascism and
The second era begun as an intellectual reaction in Chicago,
took off in the 1970s as policy proposals and was incarnated
by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. It might be called
the Chicago-Pinochet era as it was based on a relaxation of
control over capital and secured by authoritarian demantling
of trade unions and a relentless denial of society's right
to equal power with the economy's imperatives.
But this era which lasted from 1970 to the mid-1990s also
ran out of steam. The first sign of this was Clinton's victory
in 1992. Clinton ran on a programme that promised the American
people a national health service, an increase in minimum wages,
more rights for unions, and a recognition that blacks, women
and gays had to be fully incorporated into into American modernisation.
Although Clinton pandered to middle America and failed to
get through all his programme the American people made clear
that they wanted an end to the Chicago-Pinochet era.
Clintonism undoubtedly inspired the Labour Party under Smith.
In November 1992 I was attending the Labour Party's European
conference in Brighton and found myself in a cafeteria queue
behind Bill Morris, the TGWU leader. Morris had close contact
with American unions and was sensitive to the new social agenda
for minorities associated with Clinton.
Chatting to Morris and his very clever PA at the time, Joe
Irvine, I said that there was a lot more to Clinton than the
superficial coverage of him in the English media as "Slick
Willy" whose election victory was solely due to clever
I suggested that bringing over key Clinton advisers and theoreticians
to talk with Smith and his lieutenants would pay dividends.
Morris immediately grabbed the idea and after consultation
with Margaret Prosser agreed to sponsor a major conference
on Clintonomics. The TGWU ended up paying £50,000 for what
became a high profile political-media event early in 1993
at the QE2 centre in London.
I called up friends in the US like Stan Greenberg and Bob
Kuttner as well as trade unionists who had been at the heart
of the Clinton renewal of Democratic Party politics.
Philip Gould, the Labour pollster was called in to help organise
the conference and together with Kathryn Smith turned a seminar
into a grandstand event that dominated news headlines for
It showed that new political forces were being unleashed
worldwide. John Smith gave the event his full blessing and
Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair participated in
the conference and its side meetings.
It was a defining moment in the Labour Party under Smith
recovering its confidence after the disappointment of the
1992 defeat and in a sense by embracing Clinton - a clear
winner with a new agenda - Labour left the world of defeat
and started to regain confidence.
Blair's victory in 1997 offered the same service to a number
of European parties. Across Europe voters looked at Britain
and saw that voting for the party of the left was not a step
back to old politics but was a ticket to quit the discredited
The French socialists benefitted from the Blair effect when
the right-wing president, Jacques Chirac, called a surprise
election in June 1997 and found to his horror that a pragmatic,
calm socialist like Lionel Jospin was voted in as prime minister.
The next year it was Germany's term. I gave Labour's pledge
card to Oskar Lafontaine in January 1998 and was amazed to
see it copied in the federal election later than year. Gerhard
Schröder campaigned around the twin themes of modernisation
and the "neue Mitte" - middle Germany - and won
a much more decisive victory that polls all during 1998 ever
Italy ended up with Massimo d'Alema as prime minister - a
man who only a few years would have been unable to travel
to America as a card-carrying Communist.
Thus the linkage that flows Clinton-Blair-Jospin-Schröder-d'Alema.
Voters in a sense have been ahead of politicians. While the
latter have been cautious about the transition to a new era
of politics summed up by Lionel Jospin as "Yes to the
market economy, No to the market society" voters so far
have turned their backs decisively on the Chicago-Pinochet
parties of the right - Republicans in America, Tories in Britain,
Christian Democrats in Europe.
John Smith instinctively recognised this subterranean movement
of voters which is why he planted all the seeds of New Labour
in opposition and advanced the careers of those who would
carry forward the politics of modernisation.
Defining the new era we are in is very difficult as guardians
of the spirit of the age of both welfare capitalism and Chicago-Pinochet
capitalism demand that the clock be turned back.
Smith whether in arguing for Europe in the 1970s, or for
party modernisation in the 1990s knew that successful politics
is about defining tomorrow not moaning that yesterday has
disappeared. How well his lesson has been learnt will determine
the future of Labour in the 21st century.
Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham.