Last Sunday was the 25th Anniversary of the death of my friend and former Labour Party Leader, John Smith. At the time I was Chair of the Labour Party, having been a member of the National Executive for 11 years.
On the evening before his death, I had been with him at a major fundraising dinner as part of the European election campaign which was in full swing in May 1994.
John was a committed Europhile. He had broken the party whip when Labour was in opposition in the early 1970s to vote with Ted Heath to pass the legislation to facilitate Britain's entry in to the European Union. All these years later and here we are, once again in the middle of what many believed would not take place – another European Union election .
The mantle of Labour Party leader passed later that summer into the hands of Tony Blair and I was a beneficiary of Labour’s victory in 1997 when I was proud to enter the cabinet as the Education and Employment Secretary. What united John Smith and Tony Blair was not only a will to win but also an understanding of two profound truths which complement rather than contradict one another.
One is that we live in a global economy, in an ever more interdependent world we need to understand and then work with. In other words, to appreciate the extent of the power and the limitations that still exists for the UK. Sadly, this unexpected election campaign is shedding very little light on how, whether in or out of the European Union, Britain will conduct itself in developing alliances, making friends and above all participating in global institutions tackling global challenges.
The second and reverse challenge is how to take into our own hands, wherever we can, our destiny. In other words, to build from the bottom. The adage: ‘think global, act local’. The ability to discern what can be done at a very local level, what can only be achieved nationally and what is outside the power of any relatively small nation, confined by its boundaries as well as what William Blake described as ‘the mind forged manacles’, confining thinking and creativity.
This Friday morning (May 17) a gathering will take place at Bramall Lane organised under the auspices of the Sheffield City Partnership Board of which I am pleased to be the Independent Chair. In previous years we’ve had events under the heading ‘State of Sheffield’ but this year, building on the publication of our work on sustainable and inclusive growth from last October, the event is more about listening, building from the bottom, and sharing what is working well.
We have the most phenomenal talent in this city. Individuals, church groups, charity and community organisations, educational institutions, research facilities and businesses delivering the most astonishing achievements. We rarely sing about them, even more rarely do we share and build that critical mass which would be greater than the sum of the individual parts. We’re inclined to hide our light under a bushel which is why alongside an appreciation of how much we have to learn and where appropriate plagiarise from elsewhere, we also need to sing about what we do best. Creativity, innovation and Yorkshire grit are built into our pysche. We need to make best use of it by harnessing our ambition, parading our talent and persuading others it offers the best quality of life of any city in Europe.
However, there are lessons for all of us in the votes of those electors who turned out two weeks ago. Here in Sheffield, in a reminder of results from 20 years ago, voters demonstrated frustration. The majority party, Labour, did materially worse in the polls than other comparable urban areas of England. Brexit apart, this must give food for thought. One observation I make, in the spirit of coming together and with some temerity as former city leader, it is important for the council leadership to be more engaged and visible, as they are the democratic element of partnership.
The enormity of nine years of eye-watering cuts in public service investment and the reduction in what the city has to spend on key services is way beyond anything I experienced in the 1980s. Literally trying to maintain the most basic services and make sure the most vulnerable are supported, has taken all the time, will and capacity of everyone.
However, the strength of civil society and the mobilization of the goodwill of the people can achieve real progress. One thing is certain, individually we can only do a limited amount to save and promote what we hold dear. Together we stand a chance of making a real difference.