John Smith: The lost Labour giant who could outspeak Harold Wilson - Barry Sheerman

Tributes have been paid in Parliament to John Smith, the then Labour leader, who died 25 years ago.
Tributes have been paid in Parliament to John Smith, the then Labour leader, who died 25 years ago.
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JOHN SMITH was a rumbustious character. He was larger than life and an amazingly vibrant speaker.

I remember the day the Conservative government was near collapse. It was Black Wednesday – we had come out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism and he filleted the Chancellor of Exchequer. He did him over in a way that only a brilliant speaker can do.

Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman was a key aide to Labour leader John Smith who died in 1994.

Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman was a key aide to Labour leader John Smith who died in 1994.

I used to be a university teacher when I worked for a living. Some university teachers who come here were probably very good lecturers, but cannot speak in the House of Commons; I may be among them.

But I know a lot of lawyers who come here and cannot keep the attention of the House. Their skills are about the courtroom, but they cannot do it in here. John Smith could do it in here – absolutely forensically and funnily. In a sense, it reminded me of Harold Wilson’s reputation.

John actually turned down Wilson’s first offer of a job, which was unheard of. Wilson offered him a job in the Scottish Office, but he refused because he did not want to be branded just as a Scottish politician.

Of course, Wilson was wonderful at interjections; he loved them. Whether in a public meeting or in the House, everybody knew that in his prime he was brilliant at repartee. John was even better – absolutely brilliant. People were told not to intervene on him because it was like offering human sacrifice in a debate. It was a rollercoaster working for John because he lived well and loved to party, but his work rate was enormous.

He had the common touch. When we took people in to see him, he always knew how to communicate with them, whatever their background. When he first met me, he said: “I don’t know what to make of you. You’re MP for Huddersfield, but you don’t have a Yorkshire accent. I don’t know where you’re from.” It was quite perceptive of him. But we worked well together.

John was looking at new ideas all the time. He and Giles Radice asked me to be, I think, the very first person to work in the Department for Education on the employment side, so that we could develop a proper youth policy that covered not just conventional education, but training, job opportunities and so much else.

I am a Co-operative MP, and John was deeply interested in co-operatives. The interest in the Co-operative Development Agency and all that was down to him. He was passionate about it, and chaired the international co-operative movement for some time. Whatever he looked at, he had the passion and ability to push on.

John was also what we always need in this Labour movement of ours – a talent spotter. I remember when he had been at the Beaconsfield by-election, he came bustling back into the Commons and said: “It was a hard day and we’re never going to win Beaconsfield, but there’s a brilliant new candidate there – Tony Blair, his name is. I think we’ve got to get him a safe seat somewhere.”

He was a talent spotter, even in terms of seeing new Members of Parliament coming in, identifying their skills and giving them a hand.

He was a bruiser, absolutely – you should not cross him. If you crossed him, politically or personally, he did not forget easily. When we had an attempt by Militant – a left-wing Trotskyist group – to take over the Labour Party, he led the fightback, with Roy Hattersley, Gerald Kaufman and other giants of the Labour Party who identified the problem and formed a new group called Solidarity.

Sadly, I was in my flat in the Barbican on that dreadful morning when someone rang me from John’s flat and said he had collapsed in the shower. By the time I got out into the reception area, John was being brought out on a stretcher, very ill indeed. It was a very sad moment. I had a feeling of lost, missed opportunity for this person who had such a range of talents, passion and moral purpose. He wanted to change the world for the better – and to do it now. He was intolerant of waiting too long before the changes in low pay and the minimum wage – all those things – could be achieved.

I remember John fondly and dearly. I hope we can keep that spirit alive. He was not a saint, but a passionate, moral man who wanted to make change. He also wanted to have good politics – yes, to have a good fight and really scupper someone in this place, but to go outside and have a civilised relationship afterwards.

The quality of John’s life and the sort of environment he engendered was something all of us can learn from. I have never spoken on any occasion about John Smith.

I loved him dearly. He had a huge influence on my life, and for his wife Elizabeth and his daughters we should say today how much we appreciated what he did in touching our lives.

Barry Sheerman is the Labour MP for Huddersfield. A key adviser to John Smith, he paid this Commons tribute to mark the 25th anniversary of the Labour leader’s death.