Hilda Smith MBE

One of our oldest members, Hilda Smith, a leading UK co-operator and Welsh campaigner for frail older people, died on 27 March, aged 94. She was a strong woman from Burnley, Lancashire, who constantly fought for the things that she believed in and who valued co-operation as a practical form of socialism.

Hilda Smith

Hilda tirelessly campaigned on behalf of frail and vulnerable people, for a salaried and a democratic health service. The key issue for Hilda was putting users/ citizens at the heart of policy-making, and in the evaluation of services.

She was involved in campaigns covering abortion law reform, family planning, pre- conception nutrition, food policy, nursery education, free school meals, ‘meals on wheels’, lunch clubs, places to exercise in inclement weather, intermediate care, medication, health education, respite care, professional healthcare regulation, workforce planning and the crucial role of local authorities in delivering well-being.

This was reflected in her work as a Borough and County Councillor, on Regional and District Health authorities, four Community Health Councils and Government advisory groups.  She was full of practical ideas and contributed to conferences, representations to governments. Hilda undertook policy work with the National Council of Women, the Fabians, Socialist Health Association, Wales Assembly of Women, the Fawcett Society, the Welsh Food Alliance and Wales Progressive Co-operators.

She worked towards practical solutions, with a smile, vision, energy and quiet determination. A few successful examples include the promotion of Chertsey Health Education Centre and Beechcroft – Woking Community Hospital. She set up Woking stroke club run for and by its members and produced a comprehensive ‘Health Care for Women’ policy document (1977) for the National Joint Committee of Working Women – later published by Virago.

Hilda took it for granted that women had a special contribution to make in politics. In 1990 she received a Shadow Ministry for Women award for “her lifetime, particularly within the Co-operative Movement, fighting for equality for women and for their full representation at all levels of the Labour Movement”.

She was active in the consumer, feminist, co-operative and labour movements for over 50 years and she was well respected for her infectious enthusiasm and practical ideas to bring about equality and social justice.

Hilda was very proud to have been a part time student of Arnold Bonner at the Co-operative College and to have been given every opportunity by the Co-operative Womens Guild. Subsequently, she was, championed disability issues, attended Hillcroft College, trained as a social worker and worked in the Old Kent Road. She was actively supported in all she did by her late husband Harry Smith.

From 1960, she served as a Board member of the successful former Woking Co-operative Society and supported the merger with Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society (RACS). She later served on its Political Purposes Committee (PPC) for 20 years and on the Co-op Party NEC.

She was constantly underestimated by the rather stodgy male-dominated set- up in Woolwich. Under her chairmanship, the PPC pioneered popular regular conferences for members, submitted evidence to Government Committees of enquiry and frequently took packed coach loads of Co-operators to Labour Party Conferences.

Hilda was skilled in identifying issues requiring action, and initiating conference resolutions and pamphlets at national and regional levels. Members’ money was quickly switched from ‘free conference alcohol’ to excellent Co-operative fringe events, as part of a Co-operative education programme.

She first joined the Co-op Party and, subsequently, the Labour Party. Hilda initiated the tradition of a crèche at Labour Party conferences and provided the emerging Industrial Common Ownership Movement with office accommodation. As a peace activist she cooked dinners for Greenham Common campaigners, and made sure the RACS supplied several dozen sets of thermal underwear to keep protesters warm during a bitter winter.

In 1963, much to the annoyance of the RACS Political Secretary, she made sure that Woking Co-op Party could co-exist alongside RACS’s direct affiliation with the Labour Party, which set the pattern for future mergers in South East England.

RACS used its unique link with the Labour Party to do all it could to progress Co-operation. Hilda was certain they had a greater influence on the Labour Party and Government than the Co-operative Party.

She initiated a practical local Co-op Development Agency (CDA) resolution passed at the 1976 Labour Party Conference. Prior to moving this resolution, she attended a national CDA seminar at the Co-op College. She discovered  “the faint hearts in retail co-op societies and weak leadership of the Co-op Party…(and) to my dismay that little had been done beyond theorising to formulate actual proposals for implementation that could be submitted to Government departments”.

In following up the resolution with practical action, she worked closely with her son David Smith, then Director of the EC funded South Wales Anti Poverty Action Centre, in establishing four local CDA’s, the national ‘Care and Repair’ housing movement and work on age issues.

The powerful National Joint Committee of Working Women (NJC) was important in uniting political, trade union and consumer wings of the Labour Movement. Some of her most important work was undertaken through representing the RACS on the NJC and a plethora of policy sub- committees (1967-1987). For Hilda, this was an excellent channel for transporting feminist and co-operative ideas about womens’ participation in politics, employment and their domestic life into the Labour Party and Government, with easy access and good working relationships with the Prime Minister and senior ministers.

Her meticulously-kept NJC papers and encouragement led Labour historian Christine Collette to take a fresh look in her book, the ‘Newer Eve’, at what was called the ‘second wave of feminism’ when the Fawcett Society and ‘Women in the Media’ group were marginal or unknown.

The NJC influenced the Equal Pay Act, passed in 1970 with its provisions taking effect in 1975. The introduction of the Employment Protection (1975) and Sex Discrimination (1975) legislation by the 1974-1976 Wilson Government, completed statutory protection for women.

Hilda championed new and neglected issues for the NJC and in 1982 produced a food policy statement. Concerns foreshadowed many issues of the twenty first century, including diet, catering standards, the Common Agricultural Policy, VAT, nutritional labelling and, of course, the quality of school dinners. She concluded that a “National Food Policy is required. Norway has had one for two decades. A Labour Government must make this a priority; the benefits will be enormous”. This foreshadowed her involvement with the London Food Commission (1980’s), initiating the Welsh Food Alliance (1999) and its work with the Food Standards Agency.

Retiring to Wales from Woking in 1986, she studied Gerontology at Kings College London, managed a small hotel and worked in strong partnership with her son David, continuing to be a very active campaigner as the Health Convenor for the Fawcett Society and with the Older Feminist Network. She established the Newport U3A, the Welsh Food Alliance, the Welsh Progressive Co-operators and the social co-operative movement in Wales.

As an active member of the Welsh Government’s Older Persons Advisory Committee, she made a large contribution to Ageing Policy in Wales focused upon nutrition, medication, food, social care and public health issues. As a former nurse, social worker, Regional and District Health Authority member, Hilda was a force to be reckoned with. Awarded the MBE in the 2013 honours list for ‘services to ‘Vulnerable and Older people’, she was sadly unable to receive it from the Queen.

With masses of experience of public bodies, Hilda Smith always focused upon practical solutions and public participation. She believed that organised people power could make a difference. She lived a remarkable life and her body is being donated for medical research because, following a TB operation, she was told she would be living on borrowed time and lived another 63 years.

A celebration and thanksgiving for her life takes place at Canton Uniting Church, Cardiff on Thursday 2nd May 2013, 2.30pm. http://bit.ly/hildasmithMBE

Hilda leaves two sons – Peter and David, three grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.