On Tuesday 8th March, the University of York Labour Club hosted Harry Leslie Smith. Smith is a veteran of the Second World War and an activist for the poor and for social democracy. He has written four books on subjects such as the Great Depression, the Second World War and austerity. Smith has also written columns in the Guardian. He was named the club’s Honorary President at the BAGM in November 2015.
Harry Leslie Smith thanked the Executive and Jake Strong, the outgoing Speaker’s Officer for the club, for inviting him to speak. He said he was humbled to be the club’s Honorary President.
Smith started by telling us about his childhood. He was born in Barnsley, a mining town in 1923, where living conditions were fit only for livestock. The Great Depression had put tens of thousands of people out of work and thus plunged them into poverty. Smith became involved in child labour at the age of 7. The austerity policies of the government at the time ruined ordinary people’s lives, especially for the young. The people were told that if they obeyed the government their lives would improve, but Smith didn’t stand for this and was determined to change his future. He would not be condemned to a life of “empty purpose.” It became clear to Smith that unrestrained capitalism was a huge threat to democratic principles.
Smith joined the RAF during the Second World War. He believed that Nazism was as much of a threat to democracy as unrestrained capitalism. After the tragedy of the war, Smith’s generation resolved to create a more equal and fair world. They voted en masse in the General Election. They voted for the future, justice, democracy, rights for trade unions and the rights of everyone to work. They voted for Clement Attlee.
Despite opposition from the media and the middle classes, Attlee refused to compromise and brought into effect the welfare state, which improved the lives of the British people. Smith adamantly believes that the only way to stop his past being the young generations’ future is for a Labour government to refuse to compromise and to bring the spirit of Attlee into the twenty-first century. He thinks that the young Labour Party members have a crucial role to play in this.
Smith was very clear that David Cameron’s government has ruined the Britain that Clement Attlee’s government built. He claimed that the current government is treating the poor and vulnerable with disdain and is exploiting the fears of refugees and terrorism in order to push through measures that help the 1% at the expense of the 99%. Cameron is destroying the welfare state, but in Smith’s view we must return to the principles of socio-economic justice in order to save the NHS. If Britain continues down its current path then Smith’s past will repeat itself.
Smith especially condemned the government’s approach to the refugee crisis. He thinks that the government’s plan to send the refugees back to the places they are fleeing from will “bite us in the rear end” as this decision will just lead to resentment and hatred from the citizens of those countries. He completely disagreed with the plan to hand the issue over to Turkey because Erdogan isn’t respected by his own people. Therefore, we have no reason to trust him with the refugees. Smith will be going to Turkey and Greece in the next few weeks to witness the horrors of the refugee camps there.
After 45 minutes of talking, Smith took questions from the floor. The first question asked what more Corbyn could do to ensure a Labour victory, specifically in relation to the media. Smith answered by stating that everyone in the Labour movement must work collectively to ensure that they get the people they know out to vote. Linked to this, compulsory voting should be introduced because sometimes people need to be forced to do what is good for them. Also, Britain needs a new electoral system where everyone’s votes are equal and this needs to happen by 2020.
The next question focused on the reasons why Labour lost votes among older people in the 2015 election. Smith was not sure specifically, he thought maybe concerns about pensions. But he was very clear that the party, and its campaigners, must impress upon the general populace that a Labour government is run for the people by the people.
Another question inquired about the lack of unity within the party since Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the leadership election last September. Smith responded that the issue is that there is more than one Labour Party and nobody wants to give up their power or positions. They are not coming up with alternatives to Corbyn as they are too focused on themselves. Smith said politicians need to think more about the whole country rather than their own constituents, otherwise they will move away from the idea of democracy.
Smith was asked why Britain should stay in the EU. He believes that we should definitely stay because the only way to fix the system is from the inside. Without the EU, the world would just become a group of individual states working for themselves and not the general good. Currently the EU is in a poor state because of the lack of social democratic governments in Europe. Something that can be mitigated by improved political education in schools. Smith specifically talked about mock parliaments where students were taught the duties and responsibilities of politicians, why they should vote and what voting for each party really means. The young need to be taught that the life they currently have is not how others lived and could easily change in the future.
The final question to Smith was on dealing with the root of the problems in Syria. In Smith’s view, the most important thing was for Putin to stop bombing and that all countries partaking in airstrikes had to be in agreement on the reasons why they are choosing this course of action.
Smith then made some concluding remarks. Britain is a great country with great people and great leaders. We all need to work together to bring about change and get ourselves out of a rut.
At the end of the talk, three members of UYLC were invited to the front to present the money the club had raised to give to SASH, a youth homelessness charity in York, on behalf of Harry Leslie Smith. Sophie Jorgensen-Rideout, the current Chair of the club, shaved her head and Callum Shannon and Stephen Harper, former Chair and former Secretary, had their chests waxed – to which Smith responded, “That’s brave!” Between the three of them, they raised over £900 in just over a week. Smith was very impressed and grateful to the club for raising this amount of money and donating it to such a brilliant cause.
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