Remembering the Life and Work of John Smith

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Remembering the Life of John Smith

"In the Tory Britain, an angry and disillusioned people are in danger of losing faith in our future. They have too often seen their jobs destroyed, people made homeless, youngsters denied opportunity. They worry - and no wonder they worry - that our society is coming apart, that our very sense of community is being undermined. 

"And they worry that the crime on our streets and in our homes is spiralling out of control. In this Tory Britain, people see their income squeezed and their prospects reduced by recession after recession. In Tory Britain, people have stopped believing things will get better - they just hope they will not get any worse."

Today marks a quarter of a century since we lost John Smith, taken at the age of 55, on the brink of bringing Labour into office after nearly 20 years in the wilderness.  

His words, which I have taken from his last speech as Leader to Labour Conference in 1993, weren't just a statement of the devastation that Tory Britain brought to our communities then, but could also be seen as a prophecy of  the division that Tory Britain brings in 2019.

I was a young man when John Smith died. I knew him, as well as a junior staffer at the party headquarters could know the Leader. But ask anyone who worked with him, and we will tell you the relationship was more than one of dutiful subservience. We loved him. We had faith in him. We believed in him. 

Tomorrow night (Monday) I have the privilege of marking the 25th anniversary of his death by delivering a speech "Remembering the Life and Work of John Smith MP" to the Fabian Society. 

I shall look at the lessons we can learn from his life and work, and recall the final words of the speech he made the night before he died: 

"Please give us the opportunity to serve our country. That is all we ask."

It remains an unjust and terrible sadness for this country that he never got the opportunity to do so.


The only way is up

This time next weekend (all being well) I shall be recuperating from my climb up Mount Snowdon. I've been truly humbled by the numbers that have signed to join my party for the day.

The trek will be the first challenge in my Adventures4Health, working with members of the Outdoor Industries Association. I will also be canoeing Black Country canals, cycling 50 miles around London, and swimming the Serpentine over the next few months.

Along the way I will be raising money for four fantastic causes that are dear to my heart - JK Rowling's Lumos charity, the Cystic Fibrosis TrustThe Albion Foundation and SpecialEffect.  If you want to be there in spirit with me on the mountain, you can donate here.

I’ll also be using the year to consult and devise a plan that could be adopted by government to help everyone in our country, young and old, to keep physically active. 

Experienced mountaineers tell me the journey down is often far harder work than the journey up, which has left me in complete awe of 29-year-old Josh Beinn, who has found the speediest way to descend Wales's highest mountain - base-jumping. Perhaps, one for next year!



Woe is Stowe

The headmaster of Stowe School (boarding fees £38,091 a year) has bemoaned that access and participation plans have "successfully driven down the number of Oxbridge places being awarded to privately-educated pupils". 

(And don't get me started on his comments likening criticism of public schools to anti-semitic abuse.)


Shredded pledge 

On Wednesday in the House of Commons I quoted from a rare (unshredded) copy of the Tory manifesto from 2017. In it, the Tories promised to maintain free TV over licences for the over 75s. I made the point that in seeking to delegate responsibility for the free licence to the BBC, that promise now lay in tatters and 4.5 million older people are set to lose out.

I also had to hand new figures from Age UK showing 400,000 over 75s neither meet or speak to family and friends every week. Our oldest and most vulnerable are being betrayed by Tory austerity. 

In a significant victory for the campaign, the Commons expressed its unanimous belief on Wednesday that the Government should stand by its manifesto pledge to protect free TV licences for over-75s.

The Tories may have chosen not to contest the vote on the Opposition Day Debate, once again cocking-a-snook at parliamentary democracy, but I believe that we have won the moral argument. With all the Opposition parties, and the DUP, now lined up against scrapping the benefit, we may hold them to that manifesto pledge yet.

Please sign the petition and pass it on.


Roar for AI



This week I hosted the official launch in parliament of a new global wildlife charity The White Lion Foundation. You could argue I was straying a little from my Digital, Culture, Media and Sports brief here. But TWLF was kicking off with a talk on their use of Artificial Intelligence to combat poaching (which I reckon is covered by Digital). And the kids wanted me to help too!


Doctor knows best


A hugely significant report in the British Medical Journal echoed Labour's call for a new mandatory levy on gambling companies to fund addiction treatment. Yet this government continues to drag its feet, wilfully ignoring the recommendations of experts and even its own appointed regulator.


Not looking good on the dancefloor*

"It's just an irreplaceable venue". 

That's how music promoter Hayley Woods described gig venue The Harley to the Guardian. The Sheffield pub where the Arctic Monkeys played early shows is the latest victim of closures. Derby's Victoria Inn and Maze in Nottingham are among other casualties.

High business rates are partly to blame for the demise of grass roots music venues which have given many bands their breaks. Others are effectively on life-support. In February this year, I urged Theresa May to back campaigns by UK Music and the Music Venue Trust to extend business rate relief. A report by MPs across parties has now supported this call. Without government action, many talented musicians starting out could be deprived of a future. And this country's music scene will be all the poorer.



A breach of duty

Devastating closure plans by Essex County Council could see the number of libraries slashed from 74 to just 30. They will cause huge social and cultural damage to communities, while saving what - at £2m - is a relatively small sum for the council.

Little wonder hundreds have staged protests and more than 50,000 people have signed a petition. Cutting library services will leave our communities poorer and inequality entrenched.

I believe the plans may be in breach of the council's statutory duty and have written to Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright urging him to launch an inquiry.


School's out

Here’s a strong suggestion to Epic Games, the publishers of Fortnite, from a lifelong video gamer. Please release your new battle passes on non-school days, so it's not the talk of every playground in the country. Millions of parents and teachers will thank you.


The criminal mind

An Amazon company (worth $1 billion) that sells video security doorbells is hiring a senior journalist to run a team of crime reporters. Presumably to scare the living daylights out of people (aka prospective customers). The depth of corporate cynicism that seeks to spread fear and paranoia for profit is breathtaking.


Embrace an android

"There's a strong misconception that people who lack digital literacy aren't capable of fulfilling technical jobs. We had to say, no actually, these workers are completely capable of using these technologies."

Video game teaches women how to operate robots about to take their garment jobs.




Burying the truth, pollarding the future

A couple of weeks ago I relayed how many claims of afforestation around the world are false as the trees are quickly cut down and do nothing to help climate change and protect biodiversity. Now read this...  

In 2015 Richard Thompson, a British marine biologist, and his graduate students at Plymouth University buried a collection of bags labelled as biodegradable in the school’s garden.

Three years later, when the bags were dug up, they not only had remained intact, they still could carry almost 5lbs of groceries. 

On the upside I have been reading William Bryant Logan's “Sprout Lands: Tending the Endless Gift of Trees”. I never thought a book about tree pruning would be so fascinating.  It has taught me that pollarding and coppicing take skill and that tree pruning practices helped humans survive from the end of the last Ice Age to the Industrial Revolution.

It’s inspired me to hook up with “guerrilla geographer” Daniel Raven-Ellison who wants to make London the first ever national park city. 


Redrawing the menu

A landmark study of 2.8m patients shows the direct links between obesity, disease - notably Type 2 diabetes - and early death. It is a massive wake-up call for health professionals, policymakers and the food industry.

The cost of treating Type 2 diabetes is costing our NHS £10billion a year and rising fast. We can no longer view junk food diets as a lifestyle choice, when for many millions of the less well off - devoid of the household cash necessary to choose the healthy option - they are clearly not.

That is why I am setting up a commission into how we can halt the rise in Type 2 diabetes. And I’m looking forward to meeting the delegates to the Public Health Collaboration Conference today at the Royal College of General Practitioners to seek their ideas as to how we put longevity and wellbeing at the heart of health policy. 



Stages of inequality

Actors with parents in privileged professions like law have had a head start for decades. They're more than four time more likely to be employed than those from a working-class background. And nothing much has changed. That's the verdict of a new report on social class and inequalities in the creative industries.

Money helps as Line of Duty star and working class actor Vicky McClure commented to Stylist magazine. That includes finding the train fare to travel hundreds of miles to London to audition. The lack of opportunities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is an issue Equity is championing. Indeed, the union has now highlighted its concerns in a letter to RADA. The drama school does hold tests for would-be actors internationally and in the English regions, but not in other UK countries.

As Equity points out, travel costs are among a number of factors deterring applicants from diverse backgrounds. That and the fees demanded for the 'privilege' of competing for a place at RADA and other drama schools.




Gok Wan hosting. Ken Hom judging. Breathtaking Asian food. I was at The Golden Chopstick Awards last week and all I can say is that this was one of the best awards night I have ever attended. Congratulations to all the winners

One of the judges on the panel was my good friend Sonny Leong who is the driving force behind Chinese for Labour. He has convinced me of the need for us to improve political representation for the UK’s South Asian community on the Labour benches in Parliament.


A badge of honour



Blue Peter was the show to watch in my childhood. And the programme continues to endure having just appointed its eighth editor. Ellen Evans is also the first female one since Biddy Baxter whose tenure lasted from 1965 to 1988. 

Her memories of the programme as a young viewer include sending in milk bottle tops and entering a competition to design part of the Liverpool Festival Gardens. No doubt Ellen has a coveted Blue Peter badge, something that's still not ticked off on my own bucket list.



Billy gets the blues

If you’re at Glastonbury this year, there is one act you must put on your list... 

Fantastic Negrito on Sunday night in the Leftfield tent, curated by Billy Bragg. I absolutely guarantee you will not be disappointed.