Kinnock at 80 — an appreciation.
Neil Kinnock is eighty. For the generation which dug deep for the miners, wanted Maggie out, out, out, was revulsed by the scuttling taxis, and wanted to meet the challenge and make the change, this comes as something of a shock. If our hero is 80, that must mean we are getting on a bit too.
As I write ‘hero’ I can hear the chorus of opprobrium. For the hard left, with whom Kinnock dramatically broke in the early 1980s, he remains a figure of hate. His role in the waver-thin defeat of Tony Benn in Labour’s deputy leadership contest in 1980, his head-on clash with the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) which had entered the Labour Party like the maggot enters the apple, and his shift away from the anti-EEC, anti-NATO, anti-victory manifesto after 1983, all combined to make the soi-disant left hate him. They shouted at him, spat at him, called him names, and once assaulted him in the toilets at the Blackpool Winter Gardens, in a fight in which they came off worse. Kinnock said he would rather be despised by the likes of Scargill and Hatton than liked, which is just as well.
He has his critics on the moderate wing of the party too. His modernisation of Labour was too slow, too reluctant, not theatrical enough, they say. This view was cemented by his backing of Ed, not David, and the oft-repeated but misquoted line ‘we’ve got our party back’. But it ignores the herculean efforts it took to repair the damage done in the early 1980s, and the sheer courage to take on every kind of vested interest inside the Labour movement, to fashion a credible alternative government.
We forget that election in 1987 was mostly about who would come second, and thanks to Kinnock it was Labour not the SDP. Modernisers should also remember that it was Kinnock who hired Mandelson, and promoted Brown and Blair, and laid the foundations for the 1997 landslide. We forget that the ‘Clause IV moment’ was not a moment at all, but that the groundwork had been laid by Kinnock’s painstaking policy review after 1987, taking the party on a deliberative and rocky journey back into the mainstream, including becoming pro-Europe and pro-NATO. Indeed, Kinnock had made a television programme in which he proposed a new Clause IV and wrote one himself. This, alongside Jack Straw’s Policy and Ideology pamphlet and various other contributions gave Blair sufficient cover for his coup de theatre.
Kinnock’s unwritten biography of Aneurin Bevan, lying in a box in the loft, might serve as some kind of metaphor for unfulfilled promise. True, he never held any of the great offices of state. He would have been a better prime minister than Thatcher, and certainly better foreign secretary than Geoffrey Howe or Peter Carrington. He belongs to a generation of Labour politicians denied the opportunity to serve in a Cabinet by a combination of the Thatcher hegemony and Labour’s self-indulgence.
However, his role in defusing Labour’s ticking time bomb of self-destruction, and as the unlikely midwife to Labour’s three election victories, is undeniable. Nor should we overlook his service as European Commissioner and as head of the British Council, not to mention his service in the House of Lords. At 79, he took on the role as chair of Labour in Communications, a network of bright young Labour things seeking to improve Labour campaigning and electability.
A facet of Kinnock that will live long after all of us is his oratory. Neil Kinnock is the best British orator of the post-war period. His speeches, notably the clash with Militant in 1985 and the ‘why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations’ in 1987, serve as text-book examples of wonderful wordsmithery, soaring cadence, varied rhythm, and the courage to challenge the audience’s comfortable assumptions. No wonder his old friend Joe Biden stole a big chunk of Kinnock’s speech for his own 1988 presidential bid. I have watched Kinnock speak to Labour Party conference, conceding defeat on the steps of Walworth Road, at dinners and receptions, and on the campaign trail, and he meets the occasion every time. I stood in the shadow cabinet room in the Houses of Parliament when he resigned as leader in 1992 and witnessed a dignity and fortitude rarely witnessed in public life. His speeches rank alongside Martin Luther King as the greatest of their era.
Indeed Kinnock owes his seat in Parliament to a speech, and his ability to speak better than the next man. The next man was Lance Rogers and the date was 6 June 1969. In the selection battle to be the next Labour candidate for Bedwellty (based on delegates’ votes not postals) Kinnock won on the first round 64 to the NUM-nominated Rogers’ 59. After the other two candidates were eliminated, it went to a second round — result Kinnock 75, Rogers 75. On the third round, Rogers spoke poorly, rehashing his previous remarks, but Kinnock launched into a whole new argument about the NHS. One vote switched sides. Kinnock won 76 to 74. Needless to say, dozens of the comrades present subsequently claimed to be the one. It was the speech wot won it.
The thing I most admire about Neil Kinnock, especially as Leader, is that when confronted with the easy-but-wrong or the hard-but-correct choice, he chose the latter. As part of that 1960s generation, with Vietnam, CND and anti-apartheid as the great causes, and Wilson as the great enemy, he could have formed his world-view in the canteen of Cardiff University, and stuck to it through the 1980s and beyond, no matter how irrelevant and misplaced. He could have sat in his safe South Wales seat, risen on Benn’s coat tails, been the darling of the Tribune rally, spent every weekend at a rally or protest, and never done a difficult thing in his life. But he loved his party, his community, and his country more than the sound of people chanting of his name, and through force of argument and sheer will, brought the Labour Party back into the light.
Happy Birthday, Neil. I hope as you review a life of public service, a loving marriage to Glenys, two successful children, a real claim to a place on the pantheon of Labour greats (and the former Danish socialist prime minister as his daughter-in-law), you know the gratitude and affection many of us feel. A Labour party slowly returning to relevance, pro-Europe, pro-NATO, dealing with its entrist fringe, taking the tough decisions not shouting the easy slogans: we are all Kinnockites now.
Paul Richards is a writer.