Neil Kinnock: the history man

Neil Kinnock’s loss in 1992 still haunts Labour. But he thinks Ed Miliband can lay those ghosts to rest – and says his successor must “absolutely not” support a referendum on EU membership.

New Statesman

“Seething”. That is the word Neil Kinnock uses to describe his mood when I meet him at his House of Lords office. The cause of the former Labour leader’s ire is what he calls the “Nazi news” and its treatment of the Miliband family.

“This attack on Ralph [Miliband] and this attack on Ed, because that’s what it’s about, is beyond outrage, beyond outrage,” he tells me. “Especially from the newspaper [the Daily Mail] that had headlines like ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’ in the 1930s, when German and Italian fascism was seeking to exterminate everything that Britain stands for,” he adds, thumping his desk for emphasis.

In the 21 years since he resigned as Labour leader, Kinnock, who is 71, has seldom been more public than now. His name is invoked daily by those newspapers that once disparaged him so mercilessly as today they seek to portray Miliband as similarly “unelectable” and “left-wing”. When Miliband delivered his speech at the Labour conference in Brighton in September, it was Kinnock, as the only former party leader in attendance, whose face the TV cameras repeatedly cut to. And it is his defeat in 1992 that has become the shared reference point for the optimists in David Cameron’s party and the pessimists in Miliband’s.

When I ask him whether he fears that the viciousness of partisan press attacks could deny Labour victory in 2015, he warns that newspapers retain “substantial influence in shaping the opinions of the small number of people who – in the marginal constituencies – can make the difference in an election. Knowing that, the papers will make special efforts to sustain lengthy personalised anti-Labour campaigns and, particularly during the election weeks, will probably do sales promotion campaigns such as giving free copies away in marginal seats.”

Kinnock knows better than most how a handful of votes can determine an election result under the anachronistic first-past-the-post system. In 1992, if just 1,240 votes in 11 Conservative constituencies had been cast for Labour, rather than the Tories, he, rather than John Major, would have won a majority. That statistic haunts the man who remains on record as the longest-serving leader of the opposition.

But while delivering this warning from history, he tells me that Labour is in “a very good position”. “Right from the day of our defeat in 2010, I think uniquely in Labour Party history, there was no instinct for division at all. There was, as far as I could witness it, an almost universal determination to maximise unity and to get on with the task of preparing for the next election.”

Kinnock, who endorsed Ed Miliband in 2010, and whose daughter Rachel works for the Labour leader, says: “We have a leader who is very much his own man and has manifest bravery and brightness and all the right instincts . . . When a country or a party unavoidably encounters difficulties, you don’t want some petulant git who flounces off at the end of a debate to command a ship when the storm is high, you want someone who can be determined, deliberate and calm, and certain that the difficult can be and will be overcome – and that’s Ed.”

Kinnock describes Miliband as being “lethally calm”. “This is Mr Cool, not Mr Cold . . . he really does show terrific fortitude, intellectually, politically and physically.”

He rebukes his old friend and former director of communications, Peter Mandelson, for claiming that Miliband’s pledge to freeze energy prices was in danger of taking the party “backwards”. “I was rather amazed. Peter knows very well that governments in modern democracies must intervene when markets are plainly malfunctioning. Being doctrinaire about that doesn’t help, as Germany, the Netherlands, the Nordic countries and many other instances show. Even George Osborne, in his clumsy way, has intervened in an attempt to prevent the housing market from juddering to a halt and Maggie Thatcher introduced housing benefit in order to keep the private rental sector afloat. Of course, when they intervene, it’s ‘stimulus’ – when Labour does, it’s ‘socialism’.”

Of the pantheon of memorable Kinnock lines (“I warn you not to be ordinary”, “Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?”, “Well, awriiight!”), it is his alleged response to Miliband’s election as Labour leader, “We’ve got our party back,” that is most often cited today. The words are gleefully held up by Conservatives as proof that Labour is once more unelectable. But as Kinnock tells me, he never uttered them.

“At the Tribune rally in 2010 at conference, I reported a conversation instantly after Ed’s election with a guy I’ve known many, many years, as a conference-goer and activist, and he shouted at me through the applause, ‘Neil, we’ve got our party back!’ . . . I shouted back, ‘No, we never lost it! Don’t forget, the Labour Party has leaders, not proprietors!’

“To me that’s a very basic and important principle. And the reality is that obviously leaders exercise huge influence and nobody should diminish the significance of them, but the continuity of the Labour Party, its strength, is the fact that, leader in, leader out, good times and bad, it is a permanent organisation whose purpose is to secure progress locally, nationally and internationally. And sometimes the Labour Party is better than its leaders and sometimes the leaders are better than the party. I do think that the party has sometimes shown remarkable patience with its leaders, but I also think there have been leaders who’ve shown remarkable patience with the party.”

The proximate cause of our meeting is to discuss Kinnock’s political mentor, Michael Foot, on whose life he will reflect with Melvyn Bragg at the Hampstead Arts Festival in London on 4 November. When I ask Kinnock what Foot taught him, he replies: “That you must be very firmly grounded in the present, you must have an understanding of the past, but you must not offer a faltering note if you’re going to try to encourage people to achieve more in the future. That particularly applies, of course, to social justice and economic progress.

“People who feel daunted, people who feel restrained, people who accept that they’re victims of circumstances don’t make the future. People whose heads are screwed on but whose spirit is strong, they make the future.”

With RBS and Lloyds in public ownership, former generals supporting unilateral nuclear disarmament and the Tories considering withdrawal from the EU, Foot’s 1983 manifesto (which Labour’s Gerald Kaufman acidly described at the time as “the longest suicide note in history”) now seems prescient.

“A lot of that would warm the cockles of Michael Foot’s heart,” Kinnock says. “But you would never hear him saying ‘I told you so’. That just wasn’t in his make-up . . . he had a pomposity bypass.

“But he would have been delighted at the turn of opinion, even though, of course, he would have been deeply depressed by the cause of some of those changes, those evolutions in thinking. If he’d wanted to nationalise the banks, he would have made the case for it. He wouldn’t have wanted it to come out of chaos.”

After speculation that his speech to this year’s conference would include a call for an early EU referendum, Ed Miliband avoided the subject in favour of the cost-of-living challenges that polls show preoccupy voters. But he has notably refused to rule out such a commitment in the future, and Labour figures now suggest that a U-turn could follow the 2014 European elections as the party seeks to demonstrate that it has “listened and learned”. Tom Watson, among others, has argued that it should lend its support to the Conservative MP Adam Afriyie’s legislative amendment calling for an early referendum.

However, Kinnock, who served as a vicepresident of the European Commission from 1999 to 2004, tells me that Labour must “absolutely not” support a referendum on British membership of the EU.

“When the question comes up, I offer in response this question: ‘Why should our country be subjected to the distraction, the cost and, most of all, the gigantic risks that come with the referendum, simply because the leader of the Conservative Party can’t run his party?’ He is suffering the fate of all appeasers, which is to be eaten by the people he’s trying to appease. What he does inside his own party is his business but he really hasn’t got the right to inflict that on the future of our country.”

Kinnock is more sympathetic to the other much-mooted Labour U-turn, the one over High Speed 2, and he warns that it is “difficult to justify such enormous investment in one project when, over the same decades, the need for radical and continual upgrading and modernisation of the rail network, technology, engines and rolling stock will be huge and urgent”.

Kinnock was part of a generation of Labour politicians who feared that the party would never hold office again. But the joy he felt at Tony Blair’s three victories was tempered by the party’s rightward shift and Blair’s courting of Rupert Murdoch. Should Miliband, by contrast, win in 2015 on an unambiguously centre-left platform and in the teeth of press opposition, he will feel that Labour has finally won the victory that was denied to him.

In an anecdote reflecting the bond between him and Miliband, Kinnock told me that the Labour leader’s new slogan, “Britain can do better than this,” was inspired by him. “I said, ‘Where did you get that from?’ and he said, ‘Actually it’s what you said the night you acknowledged defeat in the 1992 election.’ I said, ‘I didn’t say that,’ and he said, ‘No, you actually said, ‘Britain deserves better.’”

If, through an act of alchemy, Miliband can turn Kinnock’s words of defeat into words of victory, the demons of 1992 will at last have been slain.