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8 May 2024

What Keir Starmer can learn from John Smith

Labour must beware of complacency, and the voters of Middle England.

By Andrew Marr

There is a sense that Labour is moving inevitably towards power. Its attacks on the Tories’ loss of economic competence are widely shared; and the Conservatives are still tearing themselves apart over Europe. Led by an avuncular but determined grey-haired lawyer, Labour’s performance in the local elections has made the Tories lose 500 seats and bomb in a by-election on the same day.

But, the commentators worry, is Labour radical enough? Its leader almost prides himself on the lack of flashy charisma. He used to be a big tax-and-spender but that didn’t go well, and these days he constantly emphasises economic growth. The Tories seem to be on the way out, but you never know…

Many readers will have spotted by now that I am not talking about 2024 and Keir Starmer but about the local elections of 1994, the last fought by John Smith, a week before he died of a heart attack, aged 55.

Smith’s leadership of the Labour Party is rarely discussed in analysing the Starmer project, perhaps because it was a brief one and overshadowed by the arrival of Tony Blair; but as we reflect on the dramatic local elections of this month, the Smith story provides useful echoes. On 9 May, the Mile End Institute, part of Queen Mary, University of London, is holding an event with the shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper to reflect on his legacy.

Today’s Starmer and yesterday’s Smith are different animals. John Smith was an ebullient, hard-drinking, intensely social man who came to parliamentary politics early in life and adored its gossipy, waspish clubbiness. Starmer, I think, despises the parliamentary point-scoring; Smith, honed on high-quality Scottish student debate, revelled in it.

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Politically, Smith had a long and self-confident tradition to lean on, which Starmer does not. He was an unconflicted right-wing Labour social democrat in the Jim Callaghan and Denis Healey tradition. In my conversations with him, however, I felt he never quite understood Middle England and was almost proud of it.

But in other ways, the parallels with Starmer are striking. Smith had built his political reputation on exploiting Conservative economic failure – in his case highlighted by the September 1992 sterling crisis, when the government was forced to withdraw the pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

After the financial crisis of 2007-08, and after Liz Truss’s calamitous “fiscal event” in 2022, “Black Wednesday” has rather faded in the country’s imagination. But it was hugely dramatic at the time and a potent signal of British economic weakness when the UK had a much higher inflation rate and much lower productivity than France and Germany.

Add to that the increasingly chaotic and bitter Tory leadership feuding over John Major’s negotiated Maastricht Treaty, also brilliantly exploited by Smith, and the similarities do not require a dayglo highlighter.

There is a cultural parallel too. Smith was contemptuous of left-wing radical chic, and implacably focused on the interests of working-class British voters. Like the Starmer team today, he was a believer in the trade unions. David Ward, who was Smith’s head of policy from 1988 until his death, has pointed out similarities with the Starmer-Reeves doctrine of growth and securonomics. Here is Smith talking to the Trades Union Congress in 1993: “Labour’s economic strategy will ensure that all instruments of macroeconomic management, whether it concerns interest rates, the exchange rates, or levels of borrowing, will be geared to growth and rising employment.”

The Smith narrative was brutally snapped by his death and replaced by the story of New Labour. Even before a heart attack claimed the Labour leader in 1994, Tony Blair had a presentiment that he was destined to replace Smith and drive forward the modernisation of the party. It has become almost a commonplace to assert that had Smith lived, public sector reforms would never have been pushed ahead so far, and nor would Britain have joined the US in the Iraq War.

Thus far you might see the Smith story as a gentle prediction of the Starmer one; an instinctively moderate, traditional Labourism that believed in state power, the strict rule of law, high moral standards and the cause of working-class Britons. Like Keir Starmer, John Smith was accused by many of being too cautious – committed, as critics complained back then, to the politics of “one more heave”. On the other hand, behind his front of bespectacled lawyerly respectability, Smith had a radical edge. Committed to devolution and freedom of information, he would have been ardent for reform of the House of Lords today.

I think that Smith, who I revered, would have been a more radical prime minister than his time as leader of the opposition suggested; I think the same will prove true of Starmer. But if there is a weakness in his story that Labour today needs to heed, it’s the danger of complacency, of assuming that because you are morally right, the British public will be with you. The most obvious example must be Smith’s 1992 “shadow budget” when shadow chancellor, which many believe cost Neil Kinnock that year’s general election, though Kinnock himself thinks that unfair. As an act of political theatre, what Smith pulled off that March was spectacular – a press conference that drew in the entire British media, with all the broadcasters, a glossy “red book” designed to mimic the official Budget brochure, and a pose on the steps of the Treasury itself, cheerfully brandishing it. The message was credibility and flair.

But because it came so late, there was no time to persuade the public of the Labour case before the Tory demolition started. As John Major later wrote, Smith’s Edinburgh advocate’s air of solidity masked big tax-and-spend proposals, including “£38bn of additional spending, paid for by more taxes for nearly everyone”. The arguments about whether this was to blame for the 1992 defeat go on. It wasn’t “nearly everyone”; but it is true that the Tories, under party chair Chris Patten, focused relentlessly on Labour spending promises and the tax consequences. Their Saatchi and Saatchi poster, “Labour’s tax bombshell: you’d pay £1,250 more tax under Labour”, is remembered as one of the most successful political adverts in modern British history.

The Conservatives always say Labour will spend more and tax more. They did it before John Smith and they have done it after John Smith. But many of those around Keir Starmer today were growing up politically in 1992 and have never forgotten either the shadow budget or the election that followed it.

John Smith’s grave is in one of the most beautiful places in the British Isles. He rests on the “holy island” of Iona, washed by pure water, with the smell of heather, thyme and Atlantic breezes all around. The message from beyond that grave is mostly reassuring for today’s Labour: after such storming results and with the party on the very lip of taking power again, the old virtues of seriousness, moderation, decency and respect are what the British public wants.

This is what John Smith knew. But there is a warning in the message as well. However decent and respectable you think you are; however much you feel sure of your values; do not assume ordinary voters are happy to pay you more for it. Middle Britain carries inside itself a curdled mixture of idealism – hope – and a certain bleak self-interest. I find the refusal of Rachel Reeves to move an inch towards more creative ways of finding money to restore the battered public realm intensely frustrating; but then I reflect back on the record of John Smith. As we digest Labour’s local election results, we should remember that there can be no reform without power, which in the UK means the consent of wary, middle-of-the-road English voters. Great parliamentary performances are never enough.

[See also: Why David Lammy is courting France]

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll