A 91-year-old Second World War veteran has upstaged Ed Miliband at the Labour Party conference with a passionate and tear-jerking speech on the health service.
Harry Smith moved audience members to tears as he made a passionate case for the NHS and warned David Cameron: “Keep your mitts off my NHS.”
Mr Smith received a number of standing ovations as he detailed his life in a “barbarous, bleak and uncivilised” Barnsley slum where he listened to the screams of a woman dying of cancer because she could not afford the medicine to dull the pain.
His eight-minute speech came after a poorly received 66-minute keynote by the Labour leader on Tuesday, which was roundly condemned after it emerged he forgot to mention the deficit.
Political pundits were hailing Mr Smith’s speech as a lesson to Mr Miliband in delivery, saying he had managed to make a powerful case for the NHS in a way the leader had failed to.
Labour politicians, including the shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, wept openly as he described how his sister had to be buried in a paupers’ pit after dying of tuberculosis at the age of 10.
He said the family watched as she faded away, unable to help because they “just didn’t have the dosh to keep her comfortable”.
Mr Smith said that eventually she was sent to die in a workhouse infirmary because her mother could no longer care for her.
Mr Smith told the conference: “In my heart, I can still feel my mum and dad’s desperation as they were trying to keep our family safe and healthy in the slum we called home.
“Common disease controlled our neighbourhood and snuffed out life like a cold breath on a warm candlelit flame.”
He said he was born in 1923 to a life that was nothing like an episode of Downton Abbey, where hospitals and doctors were for the privileged few.
But he said while his heart was with the children of his generation who did not make it, it was also with the people of the present who were struggling because of welfare cuts and austerity measures.
He finished: “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.
“So say it loud and say in clear in this hall and across this country, Mr Cameron, keep your mitts my NHS.”