John Smith & Europe: Why Labour’s Lost Leader would Back a People’s Vote

The author sitting behind John Smith and Margret Beckett at a meeting of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet in February 1993.

“The opportunity to serve our country that is all we ask”. These were the words of John Smith in his last speech as leader of the Labour Party given at a European gala dinner on Thursday 11th May 1994. His final political act later that evening was a meeting with the guest of honour, Michel Rocard, former French Prime Minister and leader of the Socialist Party. They discussed the European Elections to be held that June. A week before Labour had done well in local elections winning a 40% share of the vote and Smith confidently predicted another strong performance. He was right. On 9th June 1994 Labour won 42.6% of votes cast, gaining 62 seats; it’s best ever results in European Parliament elections.

Tragically Smith never lived to see this outstanding success. For on the morning of 12th he died suddenly from a heart attack robbing the country of a great future Prime Minister. Smith’s frontline political career can be said to have begun and ended on the issue of Britain’s role in Europe. In 1971 as a novice backbencher Smith rebelled against the Labour Whip for the one and only time in his parliamentary career. He joined 69 Labour MPs voting in favour of membership of the European Community. And 22 years later, having risen to be leader of the Labour Party, Smith’s parliamentary skill and pro-European convictions came to the fore as the issue of Britain’s role in Europe again dominated the political agenda.

Harnessing all his political tenacity and wit Smith put John Major’s Conservative Government on the ropes over its European polices. First, in devastating parliamentary attacks on the UK’s humiliating forced exist from the exchange rate mechanism. ‘Black Wednesday’ 16th September 1992 not only devalued the Pound but also wrecked Tory claims to economic competence. And then in 1993, Labour inflicted parliamentary defeats against John Major’s opt out of the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty. Major’s administration survived only by tabling a confidence motion, but his credibility as Prime Minister was shredded as he became immersed in the Tory civil war over Europe that continues to this day.

There are important lessons from Smith’s handling of the European issue during his all to brief tenure as Labour leader. The party could have been as equally divided as the Tories. Dissidents led by former Cabinet Minister Peter Shore, including a notably rebellious backbencher Jeremy Corbyn, were irreconcilably opposed to Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU). But Smith minimised internal dispute by taking the unprecedented step of allowing the Parliamentary Labour Party, rather than the Shadow Cabinet, to determine its Maastricht policy stance ahead of the votes. This self-confident approach won a clear majority of Labour MPs for ratification. Crucially it left the Tories looking fatally divided and Labour clear in its support of a radical and progressive agenda for a reformed EU that put jobs and people first.

I worked for John Smith as his main policy advisor for six years until his death. I am in no doubt that he would be deeply saddened by Brexit, angered by the lies told during the referendum, and dismayed by Theresa May’s flawed withdrawal agreement. Based on countless hours of discussion I enjoyed with him about politics in general and Europe in particular, I think that today he would endorse exactly the position taken by his former Deputy Margaret Beckett. Reluctantly but unequivocally Margaret Beckett now believes that any version of the withdrawal agreement should be put to a confirmatory public vote. I listened to her superbly argued speeches in the ‘meaningful vote’ debates in the House of Commons, and without hesitation felt that John Smith would have agreed with every word.

John admired Margret’s hard-headed analysis of political issues and was impressed that her early opposition to Britain’s entry into the Common Market had transformed into pragmatic but not uncritical support of our membership of the EU. Smith was also proud to be a member of the GMB trade union and I think he would fully support Secretary General Tim Roache’s advocacy of a people’s vote on the well-established trade union principles that negotiated deals on pay and conditions need to be put back to the members for final approval.

Twenty five years on it is clear that John Smith’s leadership, and especially his skilful handling of European issues, played a significant role in keeping the Tories out of office for a generation. In the last opinion poll a few days before his death Labour support stood above 45%. He had earned the trust of both Labour Party members and the public by being clear on his policy commitments. There was no doubt or equivocation about his commitment to full employment, social justice, the national minimum wage, devolution, and, of course, his strong belief that Britain’s future belongs in Europe. And that is why I cannot imagine any possibility that John Smith could ever contemplate supporting any botched backroom deal to facilitate to Brexit and ‘bail out’ the Tories. John Smith was used to winning the argument on Europe. In my heart I am sure that he would be all fired up and ready to go…leading another campaign to persuade the people once again that Britain belongs in a Europe reformed and renewed.