Reflections: Neil Kinnock with Peter Hennessy

LeftCentral Review 

Image © Simon Speed

As with last week’s broadcast featuring Norman Tebbit, Professor Hennessy proves he is an accomplished interviewer. In yesterday’s programme, the former Labour Leader and European Commissioner, Neil Kinnock looked back on his political life and times. Hennessey`s approach is to allow each guest time to consider the pivotal events that they lived through and often shaped. It was interesting, though not unexpected, that Arthur Scargill should feature so significantly. The 1984 strike a dominant theme during yesterday’s programme, Kinnock became leader in October 1983, the year long strike began in the spring of 1984; his leadership heralding what he described as his “mid-life crisis”. The former Labour Leader represented a Welsh mining constituency, so the realities of the dispute were literally on his doorstep and could hardly be ignored. That said, one wonders if Professor Hennessy might provide Arthur Scargill with a similar platform in the future, allowing the former NUM leader the right of reply through the medium of a non-adversarial forum.

Norman Tebbit and Neil Kinnock both appear to still view the former NUM leader as `the enemy within` (although Kinnock criticised Scargill`s tactics not his substantive argument). There are of course two sides to this story and we are only hearing one jaundiced perspective expressed. The looming thirty-year anniversary of the 1984 dispute may be an opportunity for such an interview. And it is hoped that if it takes place, it`s conducted in the same spirit as previous editions of Reflections.

Norman Tebbit last week mentioned how much he admired Bevin; this was more of a surprise than Neil Kinnock reminding us that his political hero is Bevan, described as the poet of politics. We were told that Nye, forevermore linked to the creation of the NHS, was also a significant Housing Minister. The programme focussed on the poetry but also the “plumbing of politics”. Neil Kinnock is considered even amongst his critics a brilliant orator. There was no mention of his `A thousand generation of Kinnock`s speech (which inspired Joe Biden in the 1980s) but Hennessy did draw attention to the 1983 statement warning people “not to be ordinary” if the Tories won the election.

These are all great speeches but there was no mention of his oratory at the Sheffield rally in 1992. When an election victory looked likely, only for Labour to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, through a brazen display of triumphalism, it`s actually a great speech but the fundamentally decent social democratic message (which sounds remarkably radical today) was lost through USA style razzmatazz, it still makes for painful viewing. Although Labour`s defeat in 1992 may have had more to do with Major`s canny campaigning strategy of utilising a soapbox as he humbly campaigned across the UK (while Kinnock was flown into Sheffield in an executive helicopter).

Labour of course under Kinnock didn’t win in 1992 but they did surmount the challenge from the Liberal Democrats whose vote fell to 18% with a massively reduced list of MPs securing seats. A pyrrhic victory, coming second in a First Past The Post electoral system means nothing. Kinnock went off to become a European Commissioner – his early hostility to Europe lightly dealt with during the broadcast. Although, Kinnock was also up against a vicious tabloid newspaper campaign in 1992 which helped shape a hostile narrative against him and his agenda.

Of course policy deficiencies in Labour`s programme in 1992 played a part, most notably in the constitutional area. According to John Cole, Kinnock`s poor handling of the Proportional Representation issue lost Labour credibility in a tight election. This policy area highlights the real political tragedy of the Kinnock years evident in the midst of the 1987 general election defeat. In an interview immediately following the defeat it was pointed out that the majority of the British people had just voted against the Conservatives a fact that didn’t alter Kinnock`s hostile attitude toward PR. As John Cole points out Labour secured 31% of the vote during the 1987 campaign and the Alliance 23%. Indeed, at this stage the Alliance was second to the Tories in as many as 228 constituencies. So, Proportional Representation was an incredibly relevant policy issue in the midst of the 1992 campaign and Major exploited it adroitly.

Despite this Kinnock is considered to be strong on the plumbing side of politics, associated as he is with the internal policy shift that Labour undertook when he was party leader. The broadcast highlighted that he was slow to move away from a unilateral position on defence. And many pundits believe that Labours adherence to this policy line kept the party in the political wilderness for decades. One issue not explored in the programme, was the famous speech made in 1957 by Nye Bevan when he rejected unilateralism. John Cole suggests that Kinnock dismayed by this speech linked the rejection of unilateralism with political betrayal. Speaking immediately after the 1987 defeat Kinnock appeared unflinching in his support of the policy, in response to a question that Labours commitment to unilateralism was the key reason for the defeat a response that appears to be from the heart. But as John Cole points he then ditched the policy far too late to have any credibility with the electorate. He then suffered the double whammy of losing the support of those who remained true to unilateralism. This is not a very effective political plumber.

As Neil Kinnock told Prof Hennessy he launched his onslaught against Militant in 1985 and chose the party conference as an arena in which to have maximum impact. This oratory led to internal policy and constitutional change because the Labour Party was created by “tolerant people”. Regardless of one`s view of that speech, it set a precedent for other Labour leaders to follow, appearing tough when dealing with your own party pays dividends. This is a lesson learnt by Blair but honourably ignored by the late John Smith.

Kinnock, whose natural constituency in the party was the old Tribune left, fell out of favour in 1981 when Tony Benn challenged Denis Healey for the Deputy Leadership campaign. Neil Kinnock had nothing negative to say in the broadcast about Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Roy Jenkins. Whose departure from the party helped cement the long term division within progressive politics for decades. The right abandoned the party ultimately making common cause today with Orange Book Liberals. The left are of course not without blame, arguing in the 1980s about dead Russians, uttering revolutionary mantras like ancient theologians. All of this rationalised the internal Labour party review conducted by Kinnock and Hattersley in the 1980s, ultimately spawning Blair, whose commitment to the precepts of Labour was less than sincere. Blair had no qualms about removing Genesis from the Bible.

During the broadcast Kinnock spoke of the culturally rich communities in which he was brought up. These communities today are totally unrecognisable from those described. His argument that a ballot in 1984 would have allowed the NUM to settle with the Thatcher government on “compromise terms” massively underestimates the vindictiveness that government had for those workers and their communities. One need only look at the treatment previously dished out to the moderate ISTC resulting in mass closure and the destruction of communities to understand this. The leader of the NUM in 1984 understood but sadly the then leader of the Labour Party did not.

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