The future of the left since 1884

John Smith’s Fabian hustings speech (1992)

On the eve of the Fabian John Smith memorial lecture delivered by Tom Watson MP, we revisit John Smith's 1992 hustings speech to the Fabian Society.



Tonight I want to speak about the future of Labour, not about our past. We start on that future in the wake of our fourth election defeat. We will only succeed if we grasp the need to make radical changes. We need to offer a new and positive programme of policies that are relevant to Britain as it will be at the end of this century.

Most people today do not live in poverty. That does not mean that our commitment to tackle poverty is any less relevant. On the contrary, it is all the more important if we are to avoid a permanent underclass. But it does mean that we face a new challenge of designing a strategy for social justice and economic opportunity that will benefit the minority, while gaining the votes of the majority who must pay for it. I have proposed a Commission on Social Justice – a new Beveridge – to take a fresh look at tax and benefits and to build a consensus for change to a fairer system.

We live in a society which is increasingly individualist. People define their ambitions in terms of how they can improve their own skills and opportunities, how they can provide more security for their own family, how they can improve their own home. Labour must show we are on the side of the individual against vested interest, particularly on the side of the consumer against big business. Of course individual interests are often best served by common services such as a National Health Service and public education, but we will only keep public support for them if we show we are on the side of the individuals who use them, not the institutions who provide them.

Women want an equal part in that new society, and must be given new opportunities at work and in public life. We can start now by making sure women are properly represented at all levels in the Labour party and that women voters see women MPs and councillors given a high profile in our public campaigning. 

Britain is now one of the most centralised states in Europe. I was the Minister who worked on the devolution bills of the seventies and I believe the case for devolving power is even greater today. I am committed to ensuring a parliament for Scotland, an assembly for Wales and devolution to the regions of England. I believe Britain needs a renaissance of local government to restore local democracy as a creative force for meeting local needs and not just a passive agent for the delivery of national policies. And I believe Labour must embrace the case for Bill of Rights to protect the individual from central power.

Our policies must be relevant, not only to the Britain of today, but to the modern world. That means recognising that the world is a smaller, closer place in which actions in one nation can affect every other. When the rainforest is destroyed in Brazil, the climate in Britain is damaged. There is no future for Britain in isolationism. I believe our future is in Europe, but in taking a lend in Europe, in policies to stimulate growth and higher employment, a lead in widening the membership of the Community. The task, of course, is not just to understand the world, but to change it. The programme I am offering would make Britain fairer, more open, more rewarding, and more internationalist. 

The other task a leader must undertake is to complete the building of a membership democracy in the Labour party on the basis of one member one vote. There is no future for Labour as a membership party if our members find they are taken for granted. I believe that as a democratic party Labour must be led by a leader who is accessible and who listens to members as well as speaks for them.

Strengthening the Labour party’s democracy does not mean weakening our relationship with the trade union movement. Our values and principles are shared with the trade unions, as is our history. In modernising our systems of election and in reforming the block vote I believe we can build a new partnership with the trade union movement that will be stronger because it encourages the participation of individual union members and healthier because it is fairer between party and unions.

The people who pay the price for Labour’s defeat are the millions who looked to us to bring them hope. Hope of work, hope of a decent home of their own hope of a pension on which they could make ends meet. We must speak for them. But as leader of the opposition I would seek to speak not just for the minority who voted Labour, but for the majority who did not vote Conservative. In all our actions we must remember that our task is to persuade that majority who did not want a Conservative Government that next time they need a Labour Government.

I believe in the need to build economic strength and social justice together. The most vivid example of this link is education and training. It is no good now having a small managerial elite, because ceaseless innovation and information technology require that every employee in the company is adaptable and inventive. So education must go right down through the community. Our most precious resource is the skill of our people. I believe in the extraordinary potential of ordinary people, if it is released by imaginative government.

The key to successful redistribution is creating more wealth. It is easier to redistribute – which we must be compelled to do because of the inequalities of income and wealth which are still prevalent in our society – on arising curve of prosperity. You cannot redistribute on a declining curve because the politics of envy will kill it stone dead.

We need to modernise our antiquated constitution. It is over-centralised, insufficiently pluralistic and our parliament is founded on the illusion that it is an effective check on the executive. It is not. The longer I am there, the more I see how impotent it is. I am a passionate decentralist, and want to see power diffused in the way it is in Germany.

We have the great excitement of the Cold War having come to an end, and as the East-West problems fade, or at least change fundamentally their character, we must now address the North-South problems which are an affront to our conscience. There is too much poverty, too much misery, too much unemployment in the world. This must be high on our agenda.

Finally, we must modernise our party, to make it more effective, more democratic, to make it the most effective force in British politics. I am confident that we can win the next election, provided we believe in ourselves and in the values that brought us into politics.

First published as part of Labour’s choice: the Fabian debates (1992) available at the LSE Fabian Society digital archive.

The John Smith memorial lecture will take place at 19.30 on Monday 13 May 2019.

John Smith

John Smith was leader of the Labour party from 1992-94.

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