Labour’s shock defeat in 1992 had a profound impact on the party and was the catalyst for future modernisation. But before the death of John Smith it did not look that way. In 1994 the Labour leadership thought they could achieve power by sitting back and watching the Tories implode. They thought ‘one more heave’ would be enough.
Just as Jeremy Corbyn snatched victory from the jaws of defeat last Summer, Neil Kinnock will be forever remembered as the man who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. In 1992 Kinnock blew the best chance Labour has ever had to win an election, against a tired government in the middle of a recession who had been 24pt behind in the polls due to the Poll Tax.
Kinnock’s defeat was not Labour’s worst, either in terms of number of seats or in the of share of the vote. Indeed in his 9 years as leader, he’d brought over 3 million voters back to the Labour fold. In comparison to 2017, Kinnock won more seats (271 compared to Corbyn’s 262) but received less of the vote share (34.4% to Corbyn’s 40%). Yet there was no triumph in his defeat. To have lost a fourth election in a row – against the backdrop of a recession, falling house prices and civil unrest over the poll tax – left many wondering whether the party could ever win again. Pundits began talking about electoral reform and an alliance with the Liberal Democrats being the only feasible method of putting Labour back in to power.
The leader chosen to take the fight to the Tories would be John Smith. Elected by a landslide in 1992, he was seen as the respectable face of ‘Kinnockism’, who could bring the statesman-like quality Kinnock so often lacked. Yet he was the epitome of Labour’s old guard, having been intertwined with the Kinnock project as Labour’s shadow chancellor from 1987 onwards. Of the shadow cabinet, he was the only one old enough to have served in government, as a minister in the dying days of the Callaghan era.
Some of the responsibility for the 1992 defeat must be shouldered by Smith. He had been a heavy influence on the campaign, from his Alternative Budget to the focus on NHS spending and his policy to increase taxes. The public had rejected Kinnock for his leadership qualities – but they had also rejected Smith’s economic proposals. In the immediate aftermath of defeat, Tony Blair’s analysis was that Smith had played to the party faithful with a tax on workers earning over 30k, and that it had a detrimental effect within the country. Blair would be the first to heed calls for greater modernisation and for a strategy to appeal to the elusive ‘Middle England’ vote.
Smith on the other hand was intent on pursuing the ‘one more heave’ strategy and in the aftermath of Black Wednesday felt that Labour’s time was about to come. ‘A chance to serve’ was all he asked. Blair argued that Smith was falling into the trap that befell all previous Labour prime ministers. The Tories were on their knees and electorally dead in the water. The press had turned on them, and Labour would be in a position to return to power at the next general election. But Blair wondered whether Labour would win a second and a third term? Would the party modernise enough to gain the support of the whole country – and to change radically enough to prevent the Tories from winning again? Smith wanted to put Labour in government, Blair wanted to make Labour the natural party of government. It was a big difference, and it was from here that the divide between the two began to grow.
Blair had sensed that the modernisation process had not happened fast enough after 1987. In the aftermath of the election defeat, Blair was the most senior shadow cabinet member to tour the TV studios arguing the case for deeper reform. In the Spring of 1992 he urged Gordon Brown to stand against Smith. He later wrote in his memoirs: “John was a great politician, a thoroughly good man, but he wasn’t a radical reformer, neither in style or substance.” Blair wanted Brown to stand as the next generation candidate. He believed Smith was the old guard, and he’d had the opportunity to challenge Kinnock in the late 80’s. He hadn’t, and this cautiousness, with the commitment to ‘One More Heave’, was a signal to Blair that his leadership would be “steady, serious and predictable”.
It is unlikely that Brown would have ever have considered standing against Smith due to the personal relationship between the two. It is also unlikely that Brown would have been able to beat Smith. The 1992 Sunday Times Panel Survey in the aftermath of the election, makes for fascinating reading. Of the Labour supporters asked the question ‘Who should be next leader?’ – 59% said Smith, 3% said Brown, 2% Robin Cook, 2% Roy Hattersley and incredibly – 0% for Tony Blair. There were 30% of people answering don’t know – but its clear that the modernisers had yet to hit both party and public consciousness.
Unbeknownst to Blair, Brown had already agreed to support Smith’s candidacy, in return for the shadow chancellorship. Nick Brown, who had been a key ally of both Blair and Brown, told them both that one should stand as the deputy leader. Nick Brown claimed to have sounded out the PLP and declared that it should be Brown – as he was much more popular than Blair within the party. Blair later wrote in his memoirs “I knew this was not true. It couldn’t be. From that moment I detached a little from Gordon. Just a fraction. Imperceptible to the eye of the observer, unaccompanied by any expression of distance or even by any diminishing of affection. It was a detachment, small in space, but definitive in consequence. The seed was sown on my future insistence, that I should be leader, not him”
Blair chose to shadow the home secretary to bolster his image as a Labour moderniser. By September 1992, it seemed the Major government was doomed after Black Wednesday and crashing out of the ERM. Smith and Brown had supported entry to the ERM but skilfully scored a hit on Major with an attack line: “the devalued prime minister of a devalued government”. The election defeat of 1992 had turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The 1992 party conference in Blackpool, far from resembling a wake following the defeat, was a triumphalist coronation for the new leader, who had enjoyed much success in attacking John Major.
From this, a deep romanticism about John Smith has blossomed. The argument is this: The foundations for Labour’s 1997 victory were laid before Smith’s death. A combination of declining Tory economic competence, a hopeless internal division over Maastricht and the rise of sleaze stories in the press was underpinned by an image of respectability in Smith. Labour just needed to sit back and let power fall into their hands.
This revisionism assumes that a Smith victory under ‘one more heave’ was a certainty. Yet throughout his supposed ‘honeymoon’ as leader, Smith was dogged by criticism for his cautious approach. He addressed the issue head on, in 1992, when he rejected the need for Labour to set out an alternative programme for government:
“I don’t believe you should rush forward and put everything in your shop window for next Wednesday. I think you’ve got to do the patient and careful work, taking some original thoughts, working them through in practical ways, and when you’re ready to do so, presenting them to the public in a way commands and maximises not only the support for the policies but for the party.”
This comment privately angered Neil Kinnock, who wanted the party to be bolder and had reservations about the ‘steady as she goes’ strategy. Kinnock was conscious that all Labour leaders have a difficult time with the press, and as the election approached, Smith would have been challenged on his previous commitment to tax and spend. Labour had often held strong mid-term poll leads only to see themselves capitulate with the finish line in sight.
In 1993 this would come under greater scrutiny. In the media assessment of his first 100 days as leader, many argued that Smith had not done enough to capitalise on Tory divisions – and his unwillingness to kill off the Tories over Maastricht raised questions about his leadership. The Daily Express wrote “The chaos in the Tory ranks which has been hitting the headlines in the past five weeks has obscured the awful state of the Labour Party and it shiny new leader…and even some of their own members are asking whether they really have a future at all – or will Britain go the way of nations where the political battlefield has been left to different strands of Conservatism?”.
While The Times accused Smith of “coasting” and being “dangerously complacent” lamenting that: “Since the government’s retreat over pit closures, Tory backbenchers have scented blood. Yet the real opposition is acting like it has lost its appetite for the chase.” He was criticised on both wings of the party for his reluctance to speak to the press. On the left, Clare Short bemoaned Smith’s “masterful inactivity” whilst on the right, Nick Raynsford warned against “simply relying on the incompetence and failure of the Tories, to deliver us a victory in 1996-97 will not be sufficient.”
In 1994 trouble was growing within the party. An insider claimed “Unease had started to run through the ranks. People were saying “What the hell are we doing?”. In April, the ex-political editor of the Daily Mirror penned an article in The Spectator, lamenting the pace of modernisation within the Smith camp. His name was Alistair Campbell:
“Labour are so used to enjoying the Tories troubles that they have stopped thinking about their own…If the current line is held to the election, the ducking and diving of Labour will be as big a turn off as the deceit and dissembling of Conservative ministers. When he was Shadow Chancellor, John Smith was convinced oppositions didn’t win elections, governments lost them. He may be right. But the government he faces at the next election may bear little relation to the one he faces now. The Labour Party on the other hand may look suspiciously like the one that lost the last election”
This was the first time that Campbell had opened up the Labour divisions in public. Smith’s supporters dismissed it, citing the ‘long game’ strategy. Smith’s 1993 biography Playing The Long Game only encouraged this perception. Whilst outsiders saw little change in the party policy, Smith had managed to change the internal structure. Peter Mandelson and Phillip Gould had been forced out and the reliance on focus groups and private polling had ended. But Smith had learnt little from Labour’s 1992 defeat. He expected Labour to capitalise on Tory division and economic decline, just as Foot had expected to do so in 1983 and Kinnock had expected to in 1992. When Giles Radice produced ‘Southern Discomfort’ – outlining the depth to which Labour support had eroded in the south, only one shadow cabinet member supported its findings and proposals. It was Tony Blair.
Nevertheless, there was some common ground for the two men. Blair had been a key supporter of John Smith’s OMOV proposals – reducing the power of the trade unions to elect the Labour leader. Blair was willing to take the case of reform to the unions – but lamented the fact that fellow shadow cabinet ministers were willing to openly push for the reforms. Gordon Brown in particular was quiet.
Labour had the Tories on the ropes. Kenneth Baker was overheard telling colleagues that John Major was ‘dead in the water’. With 3 years to go until the election, Labour were ahead in the opinion polls and in the week of John Smith’s death Labour were on of 47 % to the Tories 26%, and the Lib Dems 23 %. After his death, The Sun reported that ‘the next prime minister died yesterday’.
An official endorsement from the paper was still three years away though. Unresolved issues with the electorate remained. Tony Blair immediately challenged the party to ditch its most iconoclastic policy; the Clause 4 commitment to public ownership. Under Smith, Labour would not have looked to take firms into public ownership, but with the clause in place, critics could have always labelled the accusation at Labour. In his first conference speech as leader, Blair told his colleagues:
This is a modern party living in an age of change. It requires a modern constitution that says what we are in terms the public cannot misunderstand and the Tories cannot misrepresent
‘One more heave’ it certainly was not. In 1994 Tony Blair’s challenge was not just to make Labour electable again, but to convince the country that they could be trusted with that power. Outside 10 Downing Street on May 1st 1997 he promised to ‘govern as New Labour’ – conscious of the need to reassure the country that the party had indeed changed. He succeeded in his goal of making Labour ‘the natural party of government’ winning the elusive second and third terms that evade all Labour leaders.
24 years on and the Tories are in an even bigger crisis than the summer of 1994. The divisions over Europe threaten a vote of no confidence that could see an autumn General Election called. Since the last one, the Tories have lost McLoughlin, Green, Fallon, Patel, Greening, Rudd, Johnson, Davis as well as countless junior ministers. It has amounted to a 4pt Labour poll lead. ‘One more heave’ will not be enough.