Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Economy and society
Science and culture

Smith's legacy

John Smith knew that successful politics is about defining tomorrow not moaning about yesterday. Denis MacShane marks Smith's contribution to Labour's march into the millennium.

The 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 to Britain?

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 victory.

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 communism.

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 spin doctors.

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 three days.

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 Chicago-Pinochet era.

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 predicted.

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.