Llew Smith obituary

Labour MP in the Welsh radical tradition with a clear view of the causes important to his constituents

The former Labour MP Llew Smith, who has died aged 77 of cancer, accepted the daunting task of walking in the footsteps of giants when he was first elected to represent the constituency of Blaenau Gwent, south Wales, in 1992. He was sent to Westminster that year with the largest and safest majority of any Labour seat in the UK: his 79% share of the vote was the highest share of any party, in any seat, anywhere, in that general election.

This astonishing inheritance, bequeathed to him by his predecessors, Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot, who had successively represented the area for more than half a century, was a measure of their distinguished contribution to the Labour party, which had carved the name of the constituency into the political history of socialism. Blaenau Gwent includes much of what was the former constituency of Ebbw Vale as well as parts of Tredegar and Abertillery.

Smith had already established a reputation as an uncompromising leftwinger and something of a class warrior in the European Parliament, to which he had been elected in 1984, again with a record majority, as the MEP for South East Wales. He went on to serve a total of 10 years, two full terms, in Strasbourg, but once selected in 1990 to succeed Foot, his attentions thereafter were more directed towards national politics and the House of Commons.

He had first emerged in public life in Wales as a vehement opponent of any devolution of parliamentary power away from the national parliament, either to Europe or to Cardiff. The issue remained a mainspring of his radical politics, bringing him into endless conflict with the emergent aspirational politics of Tony Blair’s leadership of “New Labour”. He claimed to have been threatened with expulsion from the Parliamentary Labour party in 1997, shortly after Blair became prime minister, had he continued to campaign against the establishment of a Welsh Assembly, in a row which was then seized on by the Conservative opposition as a useful means of embarrassing the Labour government.

Smith was a member of CND, opposed both the Gulf and Iraq wars, and repeatedly voted against his own government, defending this by asserting the need to be able to answer for his actions when he looked at himself in a mirror. It was remarked in the Labour whips’ office that the topography of his constituency (“blaenau” means “upland” in Welsh) coincided with the moral high ground almost constantly occupied by the MP for the seat.

He was a member of the socialist Campaign group and espoused an unswerving commitment to a panoply of leftwing causes in a manner that more mainstream party radicals regarded as self-indulgent. This meant that while he remained popular with the electorate, his opposition to any party policy that conflicted with his own idealism meant that his parliamentary effectiveness was limited to a series of heroic gestures.

Born in Newbridge, Monmouthshire, he was the son of Ernest and Cissie Smith. His father had moved from England to work as a miner in South Wales, and having been obliged to retire early as a result of the lung disease, pneumoconiosis, from which he would later die, had determined that his own son would not work underground.

Llew went to Greenfield secondary modern school, Newbridge, and then worked as a labourer in a glassworks and in the building industry, and as a computer operator for British Steel. He became what he called “a second-chance student” at Coleg Harlech, the adult education college in Gwynedd, before securing a BSc and an MSc in industrial relations at the University of Wales, Cardiff. From 1969 until his election to Europe he was the Workers Education Authority tutor-organiser for South Wales in succession to Neil Kinnock.

He joined the Labour party in 1966, became chairman of Abertillery constituency party and was selected to fight the seat in 1982 when the existing Labour MP defected to the new Social Democratic Party. That seat was abolished as a result of boundary changes the following year and Smith was selected for Europe.

His departure from Westminster at the 2005 election, a decision prompted by his announced disillusionment with the Blair government, produced an extraordinary denouement to Smith’s career. With classic political misjudgment the Labour party imposed an all-female shortlist in Blaenau Gwent, thus offending the democratic sensitivities both of the local party and, subsequently, the electorate.

The favoured Labour candidate to succeed Smith had been the popular Welsh Assembly member Peter Law, who successfully stood as an Independent, overturning the massive Labour vote. However, Law died within a year, and the ensuing byelection was won by Dai Davies, the former Labour agent for the constituency, who also stood as an Independent. Nick Smith won the seat back for Labour in 2010.

Llew Smith met Pam (Pamela) Williams at college, and they married in 1969. In retirement they collaborated on a project about the political history of Christmas cards. After his wife’s death in 2008, Smith staged an exhibition of their joint work, Politics, Protest and the Christmas Card, at the People’s History Museum, Manchester (2010), and subsequently published their collection in a book, Glad Tidings of Struggle and Strife (2012).

He is survived by their three children, Matthew, Benjamin and Eleanor.

Llew (Llewellyn) Thomas Smith, politician, born 16 April 1944; died 26 May 2021


Julia Langdon

The GuardianTramp

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