What if … John Smith had lived?

At 8.05am on 12 May 1994 – exactly 20 years ago – John Smith died during an early morning bath in his Barbican flat. He had suffered a second, massive heart attack. Smith’s death aged only 55 robbed the Labour party and the country of a likely Prime Minister. The outpouring of public grief in the week after his death was both genuine and highly unusual from a British electorate that rarely holds its politicians in high esteem.


The tragic circumstances of Smith’s death inevitably make us ponder how the course of political history would have differed had he lived.


A Smith-led Labour party would surely have won the 1997 General Election, but probably not by the landslide margin that Tony Blair achieved.


Smith, who always held to the view that governments lost elections, rather than oppositions winning them, correctly sensed in his bones that the Conservatives were finished following ‘Black Wednesday’ on 16 September 1992, when John Major was forced, in effect, to devalue the pound. The Conservatives lost their long-standing lead on economic competence and never got it back.


Moreover, the Conservatives were bitterly divided over Europe, and had bled to death for nearly eighteen months while debating the Maastricht Treaty in the House of Commons.


And yet, Smith would not have won the 1997 election by as much as Tony Blair because his successor was able to tap into the aspirations of middle class voters south of the Watford Gap in a way that Smith, as a more old-fashioned Scottish Socialist, would not have done to the same extent.


The reason was Smith’s consistent belief that the better-off should pay proportionally more in income tax. Indeed, a Smith-led government rather than a Blair-Brown government would probably have set the top rate of income tax at 50p in the pound.  Blair, of course, categorically rejected the idea of a 50p rate, and reaped the electoral reward with Middle England.


Now, twenty years later, Ed Miliband seeks once more to reintroduce a higher rate of income tax. The lesson appears to be that Blair was right and Smith and Miliband are wrong: going into an election promising to increase taxes (as Smith did as Shadow Chancellor in 1992) may put off aspirant floating voters.


Another important effect of a narrower Smith victory in 1997 is that the Tories would have suffered a nasty defeat, but not a catastrophic one. Perhaps just over 200 Conservatives would have been spared, leaving the party with a sporting chance of winning the 2001 election. So, it is at least plausible to argue that a Smith victory in 1997 would not have destroyed the Tories for a generation in the way that Blair’s landslide did. In such circumstances Michael Portillo might have clung onto his Enfield Southgate constituency, and it is probable that in such circumstances he would have emerged as Tory leader. A Portillo-led Conservative party might have embarked on a very necessary modernisation of its policies and image at a much earlier stage, without going through three wasted leaders before they finally found a reformer in David Cameron.


It is also important to remember that John Smith wasn’t a saint. He had his fair share of failings. He wasn’t a modern politician in the sense of understanding that political messages need repeating over and over again if they are to hit home with an apathetic voting public. In fact, he often used to say to his advisers: ‘I given that speech once. Why do I need to do it again?’ The Scottish Advocate (barrister) in him was so used to returning case notes at the end of criminal trials in Edinburgh, that as a politician he always felt that he should move onto the next challenge.


Roy Hattersley used to joke that Smith never changed anything he ever believed in. This is true in the sense that he was so sure of his own progressive values, which had been passed down from on his father’s knee in the Highlands, that he didn’t see the need to articulate his message properly. Labour under Ed Miliband has the opposite problem: it is too defensive and unsure of its own values that it hasn’t yet articulated a narrative to voters about what Labour stands for.


Smith’s other main failing is that he tended to look down on the ‘dark arts’ of politics. Notably, Peter Mandelson – the arch proponent of ‘spin’ under both Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair – was cast into the outer darkness under Smith. Since Smith’s death, we’ve all learned to love Peter, or at least the importance of having a professionally-minded person with the level of nous of Peter in charge of Labour’s political campaigning.


When good men die at a relatively young age, we all mourn their loss. There is an inevitable a sense of what might have been. The Labour movement is especially reverential towards its fallen leaders. (Witness the same outpouring of genuine grief when Hugh Gaitskell died in January 1963). Many socialists like to think that things would have better under a Smith-led Government, but would they? Would Labour have really governed for 13 continuous years as they did under Tony Blair? Or would the Labour party have succumbed early on to its usual failings of economic incompetence and political disunity as the Tories bounced back?


Smith’s death 20 years ago this week was tragic, but at least he never had to suffer the damage done to a politician’s political reputation of having to take the tough decisions of government. Instead, he rests peacefully on the holy island of Iona, alongside ancient Scottish kings, revered and largely forgotten in equal measure.


Mark Stuart is the biographer of John Smith. A Life (Politico’s, 2005).







Hugh Gaitskell: what is the Labour leader’s legacy?

Hugh Gaitskell by Judy Cassab

Hugh Gaitskell by Judy Cassab

It’s now exactly fifty years since Hugh Gaitskell, Leader of the Labour Party from 1955 to 1963, died of a mysterious illness.

The Labour Party tends to revere those leading lights that have been prematurely taken away from it. Since their respective deaths in 1963 and 1994, both Hugh Gaitskell and John Smith have now almost achieved sainthood. But, fifty years on, what is Gaitskell’s long-term legacy?

Probably Gaitskell’s most important contribution is ‘Butskellism’, a term coined in The Economist in 1956 by merging his name with that of Rab Butler, a leading Conservative. Gaitskell and Butler served as successive Chancellors of the Exchequer in the early 1950s, and both shared similar views on a ‘mixed economy’, a strong welfare state, and maintaining full employment. That post-war consensus would last, more or less until 1979 when Mrs Thatcher came to power.

Throughout his life, Gaitskell remained a committed social democrat. He led an ardent group of followers inside the Labour Party – people like Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers – who eventually formed the breakaway SDP in 1981. In 1994, Tony Blair would take up many of the views of Gaitskell’s acolytes in a sort of ‘SDP Mark II’.

Indeed, Gaitskell shared with Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock a certain way of running the Labour Party: all three leaders tended to express their love for it by grabbing it by the scruff of the neck. Such a strident style of leadership is in marked contrast to a host of other Labour leaders – including Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Michael Foot and John Smith – who balanced competing forces, seeking compromise.

Gaitskell was a conviction politician, always prepared to fight for his political beliefs. His brave stand against Anthony Eden’s military intervention in Suez in 1956 because it lacked the support of the United Nations, marked him out early on as a man of principle.

Then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Gaitskell provoked two great debates – over nuclear disarmament and European integration – both of which showed that he was prepared to take a stand on the key issues of the day, even at the expense of making enemies from within his own party.

‘There are some of us’, he told delegates at the 1960 Labour Conference in Scarborough ‘who will fight, fight and fight again to save the Party we love.’ Gaitskell had the courage to make the pro-nuclear case at the height of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s influence. He lost the vote in 1960, but demonstrated true grit by reversing the decision the following year. Despite the Party’s ‘wobble’ over defence under Michael Foot in the early 1980s, the likelihood of the present Labour frontbench unilaterally renouncing Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is far-fetched. Labour MPs eventually became fed up of being on the ‘wrong’ side of the argument, and Gaitskell showed them the way.

However, Gaitskell parted company with many of his social democratic followers on the issue of Europe. He was wedded to the idea of parliamentary sovereignty, famously telling the 1962 Labour Party Conference in Brighton that European integration would mean ‘the end of a thousand years of history’. Today, Labour is much more pro-European in outlook, although Ed Miliband’s advisers are trying to wrestle with the problem that the British people are far less keen on the European project than party activists. As Miliband contemplates whether or not to come out in favour of a referendum on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, perhaps the modern day Labour Party would do well to heed Gaitskell’s words of warning.

Unfortunately, Gaitskell’s legacy was also as a loser. At the 1959 general election, Labour fought a highly professionalized campaign. Gaitskell appeared on television with Tony Benn and Woodrow Wyatt, pioneering the use of party political broadcasts. But, rather like Neil Kinnock, who also fought a media-based campaign in the 1987 general election, Gaitskell went down to a shattering landslide defeat at the hands of the Conservatives. Although he remained as Labour leader, his standing never fully recovered.

Probably the cruellest aspect of Gaitskell’s death in January 1963 is that it paved the way for Harold Wilson – a more ruthless, calculating and ultimately more successful politician – to assume the Labour leadership. Famously, Wilson went on to win four out of the five general elections he fought. Tragically, John Smith’s death in 1994 also paved the way for another more charismatic Labour leader to emerge, Tony Blair becoming the most successful Labour leader in history, winning three successive elections.

Both Gaitskell and Smith’s deaths therefore raise intriguing political ‘what ifs’. Political pundits are left endlessly to speculate whether, had Gaitskell lived, he would have beaten Macmillan in 1964, and had Smith lived, whether he would have defeated John Major in 1997.

The veteran Labour politician Tony Benn, a notable survivor from the Gaitskell era, divides politicians into signposts, who show the way, and weathercocks who are buffeted by events. Whether we agree with Gaitskell’s views or not, he was definitely a signpost. Fifty years on from his death, perhaps his lasting legacy is to encourage other politicians to lead from the front.

Mark Stuart is a Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham. He has written a number of political biographies, including John Smith: a Life.