Leader’s speech, Blackpool 1992
John Smith (Labour)
This was Smith’s first conference speech as Party Leader and followed Labour’s third successive general election defeat on 9 April. The focus of this address was ‘Black Wednesday,’ the day on which the UK was forced out of the ERM. For Smith, these events proved conclusively that the Conservatives’ policies had failed and that they were ‘devalued’ as a government. Labour, in contrast, was committed to ‘active government,’ which means increased investment in training, efficient public services, the increased participation of women in the workforce, and the construction of a stronger European Community with Britain at its heart.
Comrades and friends, it is a great honour to have been elected Leader of the Labour Party and it is a proud occasion for me to address conference for the first time as your leader.
Not all of you were present at the special conference in July, so let me thank you now for placing your trust in me. It is an immense responsibility as we begin a new era for Labour.
At the outset let me make one thing clear: it is not my wish or my intention to lead for long a party of opposition. I was elected to lead a party of government and, with your help, that is what I will do. I take over this mantle of leadership from Neil Kinnock. Neil had the vision to see what needed to be done to carry Labour forward, he had the courage to take on the task and he had the determination and skill to see it through. No one else could have achieved that. Neil, the Labour movement owes you an incalculable debt of gratitude, and all of us owe the same debt of gratitude to Glenys, because if ever there was a complete partnership, this is it. We are all enriched by the warmth, the integrity, the personal effort and the dedication you have both shown over the past eight years. Neil and Glenys, we salute you today.
I want on this occasion to pay a tribute to everyone who worked so hard during the general election campaign – my colleagues in the shadow cabinet, fellow Members of Parliament, members of the NEC, the party’s staff all round the country, Labour candidates – men and women of outstanding ability and dedication – party agents, volunteers young and old, and of course our colleagues who organised so skilfully in Trade Unions for Labour. People did not just work hard; they gave all they had to give, physically, mentally, emotionally. So please accept our thanks, as well as the thanks of the entire labour movement. We were defeated, but we have nothing to be ashamed of, because you are exceptional people and the labour movement has good reason to be proud of you.
We fought a hard and honourable election campaign. We had a united and professionally organised party. There was a sense of energy and excitement, a sense of purpose which many had not experienced in the whole of their political lives, and we gained seats right across the country. Indeed, we were the only party to make gains, and we made many of them in spectacular style. So I am proud of the campaign we fought and I am particularly proud because we told the British people the truth. We told the truth about our policies and we told the truth about the condition of our country. The Tories did not, and all that has happened since 9 April has confirmed our worst fears and exposed their deceit.
I do not believe that the return of a government, last April was in any way a positive endorsement by the British people, nor do I accept that it was a vote of confidence. There was no enthusiasm for this government, no admiration for their performance, no sense that, after 13 years, they had delivered the goods, fulfilled their promises or proved themselves worthy of the nation’s trust. That vote on 9 April was a reluctant vote, and now, six months on, how many of those reluctant voters who gave John Major the benefit of the doubt are regretting their decision?
Two weeks ago, confronted with a sterling crisis of their own creation, we saw a government gripped by indecision, paralysed by fear, and a Prime Minister plodding on to disaster. John Major had only one policy – to wait and see, what happened. The result was total humiliation, not only for himself and his government but for Britain, the opt-out Prime Minister leading a do-nothing government off the European stage. So much for being at the heart of Europe.
We were promised a New Statesman and what have we got instead? The Spectator. The man who dreamt of toppling the Deutschmark carries the responsibility for the single most disastrous day in our post-war economic history. So our people are entitled to be angry. The cynical deceit of the Tory election campaign, the easy promise that all the economy needed was the reassurance of a Tory victory – all now exposed in the harsh light of the real world.
But of course this was not just the work of weeks; it was the result of years of economic error compounded by mismanagement, and it has left the pound not top of the pile but as the one currency that no one wants to hold. The dole queues, poverty, repossessions, the collapse of industrial investment – a record which has sent our manufacturing industry to the breaker’s yard. There is no escape for John Major, no alibi. As Chief Secretary, as Chancellor and as Prime Minister, he has designed and delivered the disaster. It is all his own work.
In the debate in the House of Commons last week a Tory Member had the gall to ask me how much Labour’s programme for economic recovery would cost; this from a party which in one day, Black Wednesday, in the course of its failed attempt to prop up the pound, cost this nation £1,000 million. Just think what could be done constructively with £1,000 million. How many houses could be built, how many schools could be repaired, how many hospital wards could be opened with £1,000 million?
The events of the past weeks have proved once and for all that the Tories have failed. What we have seen is the devaluation not just of a currency but of a Prime Minister and an entire government. Yesterday their humiliation was complete. After a week of Downing Street press briefings blaming the Germans for sinking the pound and after the shameless attribution of blame to the Bundesbank by Mr Major in the House of Commons, yesterday the Chancellor, Mr Lamont, travelled to Brussels and finally apologised at a meeting of Community Finance Ministers, while still trying to give the impression that it was all the fault of the press.
It is surely bad enough that yet again this government’s economic strategy is in total disarray, but what is really unusual this time: is that they cannot even work out who is to blame. If ever there was a time for apologies to be made, it is certainly now, and it is not just Norman Lamont who should be apologising; it is the Prime Minister. He should apologise to the. British people for his betrayal of their trust.
What started out on Black Wednesday as a tragi-comedy has degenerated into Whitehall farce. John Major and Norman Lamont – the Laurel and Hardy of British politics. Another fine mess they got us into! And just look at that mess. In three days last week 3,000 jobs went at British Aerospace, 1,500 were lost at Ford and nearly 1,000 went at Rolls-Royce; and today we hear that the government is sacking 2,000 workers from its Defence Research Agency, with no thought at all of how such skills might be used elsewhere to strengthen our industrial future. With these crucial sectors in such deep decline, we have good reason to fear for our ability ever to repair the damage that this government has inflicted.
Have you noticed the way Tory Ministers steer well clear of the management techniques they want to apply to everyone else? They keep saying that the idle and incompetent must be weeded out and they call for performance-related pay. If the Prime Minister is so keen on these ideas, why does he not apply them to the Cabinet? I think the trouble is that he would not know where to start. Should he start on the idle or concentrate on the incompetent? Would he be able to tell which is which? Would there be any Ministers left? But if the Cabinet faced performance-related pay, they would be in real trouble. With the present crime wave, what, I wonder, would be the proper performance-related pay for the Home Secretary? With the current trade deficit, how much would the President of the Board of Trade deserve? Perhaps it is just as well he is not short of a bob or two himself. And with unemployment rising to three million, what could the Employment Secretary hope to get?
But I suppose it is no surprise that Mr Major does not introduce such a principle. After all, he would have to apply the same rule to himself and his Chancellor. The fact is that if this government were on performance-related pay, the taxpayer would not be paying them; they would be paying the taxpayer. So no wonder they will not practise what they preach.
I want to announce this afternoon a new policy. It is a citizen’s charter, designed, they usually say, to hold one particular group of service providers to account, forcing them to meet new standards of efficiency and giving customers rights of redress if they do not measure up. It is a citizen’s charter for the Cabinet. Perhaps we should call it ‘Majorwatch.’ From now on I and my colleagues on the front bench will be checking their every move. In the days and months ahead we will expose all their broken, promises, all their empty commitments, so that the British people can hold them to account.
I made my first contribution to Majorwatch in the debate in the House of Commons last Thursday, and it gives you some idea of what we are up against. Before, the election the Prime Minister promised that the Forestry Commission would not be privatised. After the election it was a different story. The explanation given by Downing Street for this U-turn, for breaking a pre-election pledge, was: The commitment given by the. Prime Minister on this matter was drafted incorrectly during the frenzied activity of the general election campaign. So there we have it – the frenzied activity of the general election campaign offered as a justification for any reversal of policy, any shift in the government’s position. So there is clearly no more devalued political currency than a Conservative election promise.
In the bleak aftermath of the early days after the election fashionable political commentators said that Labour was dead. They said that our vision of a fairer society had been conclusively rejected by the British people, and that the only future lay in abandoning our beliefs; even jettisoning our name. But they were wrong. Why? Let me tell you why. They were wrong not merely because the Tory dream has turned into a nightmare. They were wrong because they failed to understand the enduring values of our movement; they failed to, appreciate the underlying beliefs that inspire and guide us.
When the Labour Party was born at the end of the last century it was born, out of the desire of working people .to challenge the power of private capital and the tyranny of the ruling elite. It was born out of the determination of ordinary citizens to play their full part in society, to claim for themselves the opportunities enjoyed by others, opportunities of-individual advancement and fulfilment that had previously been denied to them. The Labour Party was a vehicle for their individual aspirations; it was a force for social justice and for change.
Our strength today lies in these same principles, in our belief that people should enjoy as a right of citizenship and not as a privilege of wealth the opportunity of a good education, the chance to find a decent job with decent pay, the opportunity to buy or rent a decent home, to have access to child-care and health care and security in their old age, to enjoy a clean environment, to walk the streets of their neighbourhood in safety and to have a real voice in the conduct of public affairs. And our strength lies in our knowledge that we are, each of us, members of one community, and it is our responsibility as citizens to work together for the good of that community as a whole, because we believe that the power of all of us together can advance the good of each individual.
These are the principles that inspire us. They are the bedrock of our movement, and we know in our heart that our values, the values of individual opportunity and social justice, are also the values of the British people.
This Conservative government has an idea about people that I must say I find totally objectionable. Fundamentally, they believe people are driven, purely by greed and self-interest. They believe all of us are motivated by a desire to accumulate wealth with no regard for others. They see us exclusively as consumers in a market place. Everything is up for grabs as long as you have the money. In this blinkered view of the world there is little room for community, little room for compassion, little room for helping others to share the benefits we enjoy. Their language is the language of self, of self-interest.
But I have too much faith in the British people to accept that view. I do not believe that the British people lack a sense of compassion, a sense of decency, a sense of honour. I believe they do care about others and that they are concerned about their country’s future, for people live in communities, not in isolation. I believe they want to be citizens of a country which shows care and responsibility for all its people and which does not pass by on the other side. And for those who claim that Labour lets its heart rule its head, I say they could not be more wrong. In modern civilised societies, social justice and economic strength go hand in hand.
It is a simple enough point and it is plain common sense: the more people there are out of work, the more people there are without homes, the more people there are in poverty, the heavier the burden on our economy. It costs the public exchequer £8,000 a year for every person who is unemployed and it costs £14,000 a year for every homeless family. And still the Tories say ‘We cannot afford Labour’s policies to revive our businesses and put our people back to work.’ Tory policies are not only heartless, they are also mindless, and it is no wonder there is a great longing for a better way forward.
Later this year, the Special Commission, on Social Justice, which I have proposed, will begin its work. More than a new policy initiative, the commission will be the first serious attempt since Beveridge to assess need and find new ways of dealing with our deep social problems. Income, wealth distribution; poverty, social welfare policy and taxation are all interlinked and have to be tackled together by us in a strategic and radical way.
Ina recent interview Mr Major was asked about poverty in Britain. Do you know what he said? He said ‘What poverty?’ ‘What poverty?’ said the man who, as Minister for Social Security, invented the Social Fund. ‘What poverty?’ said the man who took housing benefit away from three million people. Well, Mr Major may not know what poverty is, but he certainly knows how to create it
After 13 years of Tory government people begin to think that the condition of our country is all part of some inevitable social decline, but it is not so. It is the legacy of this government and it is not inevitable. There is a better way.
What is the role of government in modern society? We know what the Tories say about that. They want to leave everything to the market. Some of them are not even sure that society exists. For them it is more important to build a free market than a free society. They do not accept that governments have a responsibility to shape society, to offer opportunities and to provide for need. They believe governments should abdicate in favour of the market. But a society run only on the lines of a market is a society in which power is in the hands of the few who have economic strength, not the many who have democratic rights, and it is shaped to answer financial demand, not social need. It is a society that respects purchasing power, not individual rights.
In a revealing phrase Mr Major said he wanted to see what he called the ‘privatisation of choice’: note, not the extension of choice, not the improving of choice, but the privatisation of choice. Now what does that mean? Let me put it another way: if you want choice, you pay, or the other way round, no pay, no choice. Not a classless society but a heartless society, ruled by a government devoid of any sense of responsibility for its people.
Mr Major’s first comment as he finally emerged blinking from the air-raid shelter last week was to protest that it was not his fault. It was the markets that were irrational That is a case of the pot calling the kettle grey. And has it not occurred to him that it might just be a mistake to let these same markets, these irrational markets, determine all aspects of our national life?
For the past 13 years people have been obliged to live their lives at the mercy of this irrational force called the market. But we know to our cost that this approach has failed. The market must serve our needs, not we the needs of the market; and if the market system becomes an agent of speculation and stagnation instead of an engine for prosperity, then it is time for governments to act. For governments are not impotent. They have power at their disposal to shape events, to bring about change, to improve the lives of the people whose trust, after all, they carry. That is why it is so unacceptable, so unbearable to see the injustice in our country, the waste of human talent, the lack of hope, the loss of pride, because it is not inevitable.
We in Labour stand for active government – active government not absence of government; government taking responsibility, not pointing the finger at someone else; government caring about all the people, not just looking after its own; government acting to help industry, to create jobs, to boost the housing market, not sitting on its hands waiting for those green shoots to sprout. An active government is what Britain needs today, and it needs it urgently if we are ever to lift ourselves out of this downward spiral of decline.
I believe our people want government to take responsibility for the things that they as individuals just cannot provide – safe streets, an efficient transport system, a high standard of education, good health care, training for jobs, a strong economy – for without these things people are not free, nor do they have real choices.
Of course government should not run people’s lives for them, but it can help them live their own lives to the full; and government need not run companies or small businesses, but it must create the conditions for them to prosper. Good government, active government, lies at the very heart of a fair, prosperous and free society.
It is not difficult to see where action needs to be taken in Britain in 1992. We need action to get the economy moving again, with measures to stimulate investment, create jobs and boost the housing market. We need action for, families, action to build new homes, homes for rent as well as for sale, homes that people can afford, homes built to modern standards of energy efficiency, homes that get families out of the costly misery of bed and breakfast and get our building industry working once again.
We need action for young people, to give them the skills to do the jobs to win success, both for themselves and for Britain. A government that leaves training to the vagaries of the private sector puts school-leavers and workers at the mercy of people whose priority is profit and whose interests are short term. It is the responsibility of government to invest in the future of our workforce.
We need action to stop the turmoil in our schools. For far too long they have been used as an ideological battleground by the Tories. Children, teachers and parents have been pushed this way and that by one failed reform after another, and we must restore stability and confidence to our classrooms. We need action on the environment. Active government means standing up for the quality of people’s lives, and in our society that requires tougher regulations on waste disposal, making the polluters pay for the harm they inflict, and high standards of water and air quality.
It is the job of active government to make sure that the strategic assets of our country are preserved. One of Britain’s most important resources is our immense coal reserves. It was ready access to coal that put Britain at the front of the industrial revolution and it is the plentiful remaining reserves that give us an edge over most of our European competitors. Yet Britain’s present government is proposing to abandon half of all the pits that remain. That is vandalism. It is vandalism because it will destroy whole communities built around their role of providing the nation with coal. But it is also vandalism because it will destroy a national asset which could meet Britain’s long-term energy needs.
But we now have in this country a government so beholden to the vested interests it has created – the private water monopolies, the private energy monopolies, the, deregulated transport concerns – that they are too weak to set and enforce the standards that the people want. That is why we are calling for an environmental protection agency to tell the people the truth about the water they drink, the food they eat and the air they breathe.
An active government means providing efficient and caring public services. That is why we are committed to a National Health Service that is free at the time you need it. We will never abandon that principle, because it is the only way to ensure that all patients get the treatment they need, not the treatment they can afford; and it is the only way to ensure, that the people who work in the Health Service can concentrate on providing the treatment that gives the best results, not the treatment that gets the biggest commercial return.
People of pension age make up almost half of all National Health Service patients. They are the generation who created the National Health Service and who paid for it all through their working lives. Surely it is the job of government to make sure that the National Health. Service can now serve them and any member of our society who needs the support of a modern health service.
Active government means strengthening the rights of people at work. Labour believes we need to establish a framework of rights for employees as part of a fair system of industrial relations. We also believe that the rights pf workers are best advanced through the work of free and active trade unions, with whom we in our party are proud to be linked.
I have long been committed to a minimum wage which gives people a fair reward for their labour, for low pay leads to low aspirations, low standards and low productivity. We want Britain to be able to stand alongside her European partners and say: ‘We are proud of our workforce and we treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve.’
It is the role of active government to ensure that everyone can contribute to our country’s public life, not just half the population. We need women to participate fully in all fields of work if we are ever to respond successfully to our country’s needs. I have to say that this is as true in politics as in any other field. But if we are to change attitudes, we must have women in place to change them; and if we are to have women in place, we must make it possible for them to be there. Child care provision, flexible working hours, job-sharing, are practical and necessary measures for women – and for men too – who should not have to choose between family life and outside employment.
We believe that active government must also mean democratic government, with people having a real say in their community’s affairs, having more, not less, control over the decisions that affect their lives. That is why we want to strengthen local democracy and decentralise power. That is why we need a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly and devolution of power to the regions of England.
We need a Freedom of Information Act to break down the barriers of secrecy that surround government institutions. Knowledge is power. We want to share that power with the people and we should start by sharing knowledge with them.
We need to push back the barriers of prejudice that restrict the choice and waste the talents of so many in our society. It is not enough to make discrimination illegal. An active government must positively promote opportunities for all our citizens in every aspect of public life.
I look around Britain today and I see millions of families who, instead of feeling that they are moving forwards, are struggling to stay in the same place, struggling to make the household budget balance, struggling to keep a job, run a business or keep a roof over their head, struggling to make sure their children get a decent education and a solid start to their working lives.
The British people deserve better than this. We are a nation rich in talent and in skills, men and women who are eager to work hard and to succeed, men and women who want to play their full part in the life of our nation, and young people full of energy and aspirations. All these people ask is the opportunity to prove their worth; and it is up to government to unlock the extraordinary potential of our ordinary people. For the people of Britain deserve good government, and for that they need active government, a government that will stand up for them, a government that will meet its responsibilities so that they in turn can meet theirs.
But of course the responsibility of active government extends far beyond our national boundaries. Earlier I spoke about our duty as citizens to work together for the good of the whole community, in the knowledge that the power of all can advance the good of each. That basic tenet of democratic socialism applies not just to us as individuals but equally to Britain as a country on the world stage. I have always believed that Britain’s future lies in Europe and that we must take a confident and leading role in the European Community. That has been my firm conviction throughout my political life, and the events of the last few weeks have done nothing but reinforce it.
But we cannot expect to influence either the major political and economic events of our own continent or the direction of global affairs if Britain is pushed to the periphery and relegated to the second division of Europe. We are not advocates of a European super state, we never have been, but we are determined to play our part, working closely with our sister socialist parties, in maintaining the momentum for closer co-operation, to build a stronger European community, to extend social justice, to preserve the environment and to deepen our democracy. That is why we are advocates for change and progress in the European Community.
For Europe cannot stand still. We can either move forward or retreat into isolationism. On 1 January the single market will begin. Europe will be a community for business, but still not a community for people, and that is something we in the Labour Party cannot accept. It is why we have strongly supported the Social Chapter, which provides the framework for a social dimension in Europe. It is also why we believe the Community must take joint action on the real economy at the heart of its economic policy, making growth and jobs the benchmark of success.
We demand that the Community strengthen its democracy. Too many of its institutions are too remote and not accountable enough to the people they represent. The principle of subsidiarity – making decisions at the closest practicable level to the people – must be given real force. We have argued for a more open and effective Council of Ministers, closer scrutiny of the work of the Commission and more power to the European Parliament.
Mr Major, struggling to patch together his crumbling European policy and his stumbling EC Presidency, will no doubt talk a lot about subsidiarity and the democratic deficit over the next few weeks and months. I for one will only believe Mr Major’s new commitment to subsidiarity when he puts it into practice at home. That which he recommends for Europe should also be applied at home in. Britain. If it is good for Europe, why is it not good enough for Britain?
But of course our commitment .to Europe should strengthen, not weaken, ours obligations to a wider world. Right at the heart of our policies should be strong and consistent support for the United Nations. I have always believed that that is the best means of principled and collective international action. I want to see the powers of the UN strengthened and I want to see it broaden its agenda to tackle the economic and social issues which call out for a global approach just as desperately as do the environment, poverty and peacekeeping.
The new challenges to international stability come from poverty in the Third World, worldwide environmental decline and regional conflicts and unrest. In the former Yugoslavia we see the tragic consequences in terms of human suffering of ethnic intolerance and civil war. Labour not only supports the UN’s peace-keeping role; we argue strongly for the strengthening of the mandatory sanctions and an increase in humanitarian aid.
At a time when the hearts of our people have been moved by the suffering in Somalia and elsewhere in Africa, what does our government do? It threatens a massive reduction in Britain’s already shamefully low budget for overseas aid. To seek to inflict the results: of their economic incompetence upon millions of people living in poverty in the developing world is not just callous, it is morally repugnant.
Labour knows that we cannot afford to allow the downward spiral of poverty, debt, protectionism and instability to continue. As a world community, we simply cannot afford it. So we must .work to make Britain a strong and confident country again, so that she can play her rightful part in shaping the world of, the future, a strong and confident country within Europe, within the United Nations, within the Commonwealth. Everywhere where Britain has influence we must strive unceasingly for co-operation and for new and imaginative solutions to our problems.
We live in a time of great pessimism, not just in our own country but throughout the world. As the fear of nuclear annihilation recedes, it is not being replaced by optimism but by new fears, fears of environmental catastrophe, of economic disintegration, of racism and fascism, of new ethnic and religious tensions, and the fear that we do not have the means or the will to deal with what lies ahead. People want answers, but they feel there are none. They want action, but they see none.
More than anything else today Britain needs leadership, leadership to take the long view of problems and to act to solve them, to anticipate future tensions and to act to avoid them, to restore hope; leadership to make people feel their voice is being heard, their needs no longer being ignored.
Labour is going to provide that leadership. In the years that remain of this discredited government Labour will be a fighting opposition. We will relentlessly challenge every attempt by this government to inflict further damage on the fabric of our society or to limit the chances of our people. But at the same time, in every week of every month, we will be working and preparing for government. For there is a void at the heart of our public life in Britain, a vacuum left by 13 years of Conservative rule. It is up to Labour now, to all of us working together, to fill that void, to fill it with a new programme that responds to the real needs of our communities, with leadership that speaks for the real interests of our people and with a vision that will restore hope and create confidence in our country’s great future.