What if Labour's John Smith had become prime minister - Ian Swanson


Thousands of people thronged the streets of Edinburgh 30 years ago this week for the funeral of Labour leader John Smith, who had died eight days earlier from a heart attack at the age of 55.

His death came as a stunning blow not only to his family and friends and to his party, but to many ordinary people. He was succeeded by Tony Blair, who went on to win a landslide victory for Labour at the 1997 general election three years later.

John Smith in the Commons the year before his death. Picture: PA.
John Smith in the Commons the year before his death. Picture: PA.
John Smith in the Commons the year before his death. Picture: PA. | PA

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But few doubt that, had John Smith lived, he too would have beaten a John Major-led Tory party divided over Europe and distrusted by voters. Headlines the day after his death hailed Smith as “The best prime minister we never had” and “The man who would have led Britain”.

After he had taken over the reins following Labour’s disappointment at losing the 1992 general election, Smith - who lived with his family in Edinburgh - saw Labour go 20 points ahead in the opinion polls. The party was also more trusted on the economy and law and order, traditionally the Tories’ areas of strength.

Veteran political commentator Anthony Howard said Smith carried an aura like Harold Wilson in the run-up to his victory in the 1964 General election.  He had a reputation for integrity and was widely respected across the political spectrum.

When Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997 it was seen as the culmination of the internal battles he had fought and won in the party to create “New Labour”. Blair had, in a sense, finished off the reforms Neil Kinnock had started when he was leader. But in between these two came Smith’s two years in charge of the party.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

He recognised the need for change but was less keen on the confrontation Blair thought was essential to achieve it. Smith was sometimes criticised as being too cautious. He was firmly in Labour’s moderate camp, but nevertheless passionate about social justice and redistribution. And he was trusted by all sides in the party.

If Smith had led Labour into the 1997 election, he would almost certainly have become prime minister. And with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown key figures in his Cabinet, many of Labour’s achievements - like the national minimum wage - would have been achieved just the same, but perhaps without all the tensions created by New Labour.

And some of the biggest mistakes - like joining the US invasion of Iraq - may have been avoided.

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.