Last week, Lewisham Councillor Alan Smith resigned from the Labour Party to sit as an Independent after 21 years as a member of the council’s Labour Group and 32 years as a Labour Party member. In a public statement, Smith, who served two terms as Lewisham’s deputy mayor under the highly respected Sir Steve Bullock, said that although he would continue to support the borough’s Labour administration and its three Labour MPs, he could no longer support the party while it is led by Jeremy Corbyn. Smith cited Corbyn’s reluctance to tackle antisemitism, his failure to change policy direction despite a long series of poor election results and his “rubbishing of the achievements of the last Labour government”. These things, in Smith’s view, were marks of a “weak leader” of a party he no longer wished to be part of.
Strong words. Yet they do not convey the full breadth of Smith’s despair about the mentality of Corbynism and its penetration of Labour’s soul, not least in his south London borough. Announcing his decision to the Labour Group, Smith, 68, made a longer and far more personal statement. In this, he spoke with passion about his background and how it had led him to join Labour because at that time it was, as he put it, a party that sought to govern in order to “help those people who need help most – people like the younger me”. And he expressed a few firm views to some members of the Labour Group he was about to leave.
“Few members of the Group know much about me,” he began. “I choose not to preface every statement I make with a potted history of the things I claim to have achieved, so many of you see me only as the way I am now: male, pale and middle-class. So now it’s time to put some records straight.”
Much of what Smith then said is deeply personal and I will not presume to usher it all into the public domain. What I can report is that his life story began in a two-bedroom council house in Birmingham which he shared with five other members of his family, including a father with a “violent temperament”. Though he passed his 11-plus, he was demoted to a secondary modern school because he was considered “difficult”.
Despite this, he secured a pile of high grade O-levels. But his school career ended there – his father’s anger saw to that – and in 1967, at the age of 16, Smith left home to live in “a dump of a bedsit” and got a job as an apprentice toolmaker. It was after that that he moved to London. In the capital, he fell victim to a Notting Hill rental scam and slept in squats, cars and doorways while hanging on to a job fitting car tyres and exhausts. He told the Labour Group: “When you witter on about abuse and homelessness and fairness, forgive me for not joining in. You, for the most part, have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Smith moved to Lewisham in 1972 and for 18 years worked as a mechanic for two local firms, before the second of them went bust. That’s when he joined the Labour Party. It was 1990, the year of Black Monday and rocketing interest rates under a Conservative government. It was also the year Smith’s house was repossessed. Getting back on his feet would have been harder without Lewisham’s Labour council. It helped meet the cost of a course Smith joined at Lewisham College. His new skills got him new jobs in a new field of employment, and he ended up as a senior design engineer. He gave that up to become Bullock’s deputy, taking a significant pay cut in the process.
It was a powerful account of hardship and misfortune, the contribution to them of Conservatism and the practical part played by Labour in overcoming them. Smith said he thinks the current Lewisham Council continues to uphold the ideals of internationalism, social justice and “equality of opportunity regardless of gender, race or education” that drew him to it. He praised Bullock’s successor as Lewisham Mayor, Damien Egan, for making a good start in dealing with what he called “the most appalling impoverishment of local government I have seen”. Yet he was also critical of the Labour Group for endlessly discussing “pet concerns” and “pointless motions” while showing “little inclination to deal with the problems of the people we represent”.
Smith characterised this as “a sad reflection of the behaviour of the party leadership”, and in so doing reflected the feelings of hundreds of Labour councillors and thousands of Labour members across London and the rest of Britain, many of whom wrestle daily with dilemmas over whether to stay and fight to rescue their party from the fantasists, conspiracists and hectoring know-nothings who have so disastrously seized control of it, or whether to leave it because they can stomach no more and hope to make a point by doing so.
Lewisham has become one of the capital’s more febrile battlegrounds in this ruinous internecine war between, on one side, Labour’s surviving practical progressives struggling to implement policies in line with proper priorities and, on the other, the calamitous combination of ideological zealots and well-meaning innocents bent on impeding and purging them. The choice of Janet Daby to succeed Heidi Alexander as MP for Lewisham East last year was a victory for the former, but some Labour councillors anticipate moves by Corbynites and non-Labour allies to deselect them in the future. Meanwhile, a wider Corbynite mindset has fed protest politics and media campaigns to scupper housing schemes in Deptford and South Bermondsey.
Councillor Alan Smith has long personified a Labour Party of London local government motivated by public service, characterised by know-how and rooted in personal experience. His departure from Labour is but the latest evidence of its dire condition in too many of the capital’s boroughs.
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