Jeremy Corbyn has paid tribute to social justice activist and RAF veteran Harry Leslie Smith who has died aged 95, hailing him as “one of the giants whose shoulders we stand on”.
Mr Smith, from Barnsley in South Yorkshire, was a critic of austerity and championed human rights and the welfare state.
A post on his Twitter account, which has more than 250,000 followers, announced his death on Wednesday morning.
The tweet said: “At 3:39 this morning, my dad Harry Leslie Smith died. I am an orphan. #istandwithharry”.
Labour leader Mr Corbyn shared a video clip of Mr Smith speaking about the importance of the NHS, and wrote: “We will all miss Harry Leslie Smith – he was one of the giants whose shoulders we stand on.
“A World War Two veteran who dedicated his life to fighting for our National Health Service, a peaceful world and for countries to meet their moral responsibility by welcoming refugees.”
Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson tweeted: “Harry Leslie Smith will remain an inspiration to all in the Labour movement engaged in the fight for justice and fairness.
“The world is a far better place for his life, words and deeds; and a far sadder place with his loss. Farewell @Harryslaststand”
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband tweeted: “Very sad to hear of the death of Harry Leslie Smith. He was one of a kind who never wavered in his fight for equality and justice. We should all carry his passion, optimism and spirit forward.”
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth wrote on Twitter: “RIP Harry Leslie Smith will always remember this wonderful speech on the NHS you gave at Labour Conference.”
Mr Smith’s verified Twitter account links to a Facebook page called Harry’s Last Stand, which is the title of a book he wrote.
A post on that page, dated November 21, says: “My dad, Harry Leslie Smith is critically ill in hospital in Ontario Canada after a fall, yesterday morning. You can follow updates on his twitter feed @harryslaststand and the hash tag #IStandwithHarry This is his son, John.”
Mr Smith, an RAF veteran, survived the Great Depression and Second World War, and rose to prominence in 2013 after writing an article for the Guardian declaring that he would no longer wear a poppy.
The son of a coal miner, Mr Smith has spoken of growing up in the “barbarous” and “bleak” time of 1920s Barnsley, saying “it was an uncivilised time because public healthcare didn’t exist”, before warning that “we must never ever let the NHS free from our grasp because if we do your future will be my past”.
He suffered the loss of his sister Marion at the age of three from tuberculosis and would go on to support his family aged seven when he took up work as a barrow boy for a brewery in Bradford.
The then shadow health secretary Andy Burnham was moved to tears by Mr Smith at the 2014 Labour Party conference, where he received several standing ovations as he told his story.
He called voting for Labour and the creation of the health service after the 1945 general election one of the proudest moments of his life.
“People … who because of the welfare cuts and austerity measures are struggling once more make to ends meet, and whose futures I fear for,” Mr Smith said.
“Today we must be vigilant. We must never ever let the NHS free from our grasp because if we do, your future will be my past.
“My life is your history and we should keep it that way.”
The global financial crisis of 2008 prompted Mr Smith to take a “last stand” against what he saw as the excesses of capitalism and erosion of public services.
He became a sought-after commentator, writing for national newspapers from his left-wing perspective and his book, Harry’s Last Stand, was released to critical acclaim in 2014.
The pinned tweet on Mr Smith’s Twitter account is a link to a fund-raising page created on October 4 2017 for the purpose of raising money for a tour of refugee sites.
The tweet says: “I’m spending the last years of my life touring the #refugee hot spots of the world to find a solution to this crisis.”
The main post on the fundraising page says: “For close to one hundred years, I have witnessed humanity at its best and worst. And right now in this present age, mankind is in one of its most difficult stages.
“It’s why I need your help today, so that I can complete the last great challenge of my existence before old age consumes me.”
It adds: “So, before my time dwindles down to a few precious moments, I want to travel to as many refugee hot spots as possible in Europe, North America and possibly Australia to document this preventable tragedy that may lead us to another war as gruesome as the one I helped fight against Hitler over 70 years ago.”
In concludes: “I will make sure that this last great task of my life will be a fitting testament to my generation’s commitment to leaving the world a better place. Thank You, Harry.”