Baroness Smith: 2019 was "rock bottom" for Labour
Baroness Smith of Basildon is something of a Labour Party legend.
Having joined the movement more than 40 years ago, she’s been around during some momentous highs and historic lows. A peer since 2010, the party’s leader in the House of Lords was appointed a government whip in 2001, a Parliamentary Private Secretary in 2007 and a minister of state for the cabinet office in 2009. She’s been in politics through 10 party leaders, 10 general elections and two Labour prime ministers.
Smith was first elected to Parliament as the MP for Basildon in December 1997 through an all-women shortlist. The baroness held on to the constituency until 2010, when she lost her seat to the Conservatives. But not even the disappointment of being voted out of office after 13 years compared to the feelings of alarm and concern she experienced during the Jeremy Corbyn era.
And it wasn’t until the 2019 election that Smith experienced the gut-wrenching feeling of her party having “hit rock bottom”.
“The year 2019 was just so awful. It wasn’t just that we did badly in terms of votes in the election, our morale and sense of worth as a party was low,” Smith says.
“Keir [Starmer] took over during what was the most difficult time for any leader to take over. We set him a challenge, the scale of which is pretty much unprecedented in British political history.”
After a tumultuous few years that saw Labour experience the high of a membership boom coupled with the low of being referred to the Equality and Human Rights Commission for its treatment of Jewish members, Smith is confident that in 2021 the party is back on track.
Despite some initial doubts, the Baroness is convinced Starmer has the talent and drive to steer Labour in the right direction, one that will appeal to the plethora of voters who turned their backs on the party during the Corbyn years.
“What strikes you about Keir is that there’s nothing flashy or dramatic about him. If you compare him with the Prime Minister, which is where the comparison should be, there’s nothing shambolic about him. He’s organised, he’s thoughtful and he’s honest,” Smith says.
Placing the past firmly behind her, an optimistic Smith would now like to see Labour develop clear policies that demonstrate the party can be “trusted and valued”.
“There are huge issues and Covid-19 has obviously been a dominant force on everything. So, with all those issues, we have to carve out how we could’ve done things differently, but also show our vision as a future. What would a Labour Britain look like?”
For Smith, the 2019 manifesto featured some “fantastic” policies, but she felt the public struggled to understand the party’s priorities, a crucial facet of effective political communication. Smith raises Tony Blair’s 1997 pledge cards as an exemplar.
“We’ll have this many new police cars, this many new nurses. There’s got to be an honesty about the difference you’ll make. I think we’ve got to be very specific in the different policy areas of what we will do, how much it will cost and how we’ll pay for it.”
On her home turf of the deep red halls of the House of Lords, Smith is proud to lead a team of “normal, unshowy” peers. Despite their ever-shrinking size in relation to Conservatives and crossbenchers, Smith thinks the group is “probably the most experienced legislative team in Parliament”. Where numbers aren’t enough, the team “win support across the House by the sheer force of our argument”.
“As thing’s come forward, we’re quite forensic and that’s how we’ll continue,” Smith says.
Just as Labour’s leader in the Lords values most of the work of the second chamber, so too does she appreciate the importance and excitement of Conference. Smith has a bank of memories from years’ worth of them – some attended as a delegate, a councillor, MP and now as a peer.
“There are people you only see once a year at conference and they’re lifelong friends. It’s just lovely to see them.
With that being said, you won’t catch Smith performing karaoke at any late-night parties.
“I remember the days when I could stay up till three o’clock in the morning and be up bright and early the next morning. Those days are gone.”
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