NS Profile - Neil Kinnock

There is only one issue that could have forced the past Labour leader into rebellion, and that is ed

Neil Kinnock has been biting his tongue ever since 1997, and had every intention of continuing to bite it. A close associate had warned me before I talked to the former Labour leader about my Tony Blair biography that "Neil won't do a Hattersley", and so it proved. So what forced him to do what he hoped never to do, and attack his successor? And did Blair know that his education white paper would finally push Kinnock into open rebellion?

The answer to the second question is, almost certainly, yes, Blair knew. Cherie Blair's former aide Fiona Millar had been trying to get Kinnock involved in the comprehensives campaign for months, an activity that had not gone unnoticed in Downing Street. And the answer to the first question is that there is only one issue on which the Prime Minister could have pushed Kinnock into rebellion, and that is education. Kinnock believes, with passion, that education is the route out of poverty, or at least low expectations, as it was for him. Only on education could Blair have brought out the old Neil Kinnock.

I remember him arriving at the Darlington by-election, where I was Labour's press officer, in March 1983. Wearing a loud houndstooth suit, he walked swiftly to the local Labour Party headquarters and took everyone he found there to the pub, where a stream of ideas tumbled out of him, each one perfectly wrapped in an evocative phrase. On the train home the following day, the houndstooth suit got torn. He never bought another one. No one has seen him in a loud suit for years. Seven months later he was leader of his party, and the Conservatives, the newspapers and the Bennite left set to work to kick the bounce out of him.

Those who remember only the party leader, struggling to find words sufficiently boring that they offered no hostages to fortune; or the demoralised figure who gave up the leader- ship after his second general election defeat; or the European commissioner, diligently mastering the dead language of Euro-cracy, stare in disbelief when I tell them that this was easily the most exciting politician in Britain.

Born in 1942, he was of the first generation of working-class children who could hope for a university education. Neil Kinnock has known all his life that he is a product of the Education Act 1944. "People of my age," he said in parliament, "belong to a nation of inheritors. We have, relatively speaking, been brought up with golden spoons." He famously once asked the Labour party conference rhetorically why he was "the first Kinnock in a thousand generations" to have a university education. For such a man, working for the Workers' Educational Association as tutor-organiser - his post-degree job before going into parliament - was a means of showing people in the factories and pit villages that inequality was not God-given, that learning was a path to power.

As shadow education secretary, his only shadow cabinet portfolio before becoming leader, he fought for comprehensive schools. "Nobody who has observed a community that operates a selective eleven-plus system," he said, "can doubt that on the morning of the results there are . . . floods of tears in many homes."

As leader, however, he knew he had to take his party by the scruff of its neck and teach it some of the facts of life. And he was told that his personality was wrong for the task. The noise, the passion, the bons mots, the houndstooth, they all had to go. He wrapped himself in grey flannel suits and grey woollen phrases. He gave up the simple, direct, passionate language that won hearts, and delivered his thoughts in vast, shapeless bundles of words.

Despite the relentless rebranding and repackaging, his advisers insisted that there were still vestiges of the old Kinnock to be suppressed. Peter Mandelson wrote privately to Roy Hattersley that Kinnock's "values and rhetoric are still tied strongly to the 'have-nots'. He cares too much. He's too much of a socialist."

As European commissioner, his long experience of blunting his direct language came in useful. He did not say that he wished Tony Blair's government had committed itself to joining the single currency. He said: "Simply looking at it as a conjunction of events, obviously the lines would be much smoother if a different course would have been possible," which meant the same thing. His enemies did Kinnock far more harm than he did them. They made him, just occasionally, boring.

Kinnock, with a restraint that has cost him almost as much as it did when he was Labour leader, has loyally allowed Blair to claim that he is the bearer of the Kinnock torch. He hated the re-introduction of tuition fees, comforting himself with the thought that when Blair goes, his old friend Charles Clarke will change the system. If asked whether a Kinnock government would have invaded Iraq, he would mumble something unconvincing about how he was on record as having urged George Bush Sr, during the first Gulf war, to carry on to Baghdad.

So should we be surprised that he said Blair's white paper would lead to a "dreadful shattering of the school system" and warned that if you get one of Blair's trust schools in a community "its impact is felt on every school, every pupil, every family in the area"? This is vintage Kinnock.

It is not personal loyalty. There is plenty of evidence that he admires Tony Blair's abilities - he made Blair's career, by giving him early promotion - but little evidence of personal closeness or a meeting of minds. Yet he felt that the immediate past leader could not criticise. And he is tribally loyal: to use his eminence as an elder statesman to weaken a Labour leader was unthinkable.

Now he has done the unthinkable. He said that the Prime Minister's proposals would "have a damaging effect on schools, individuals and ultimately the level of educational performance". He called for a school system that offers "equality and equity for all", and not one that divides pupils and communities.

Why now? Impatience may have a role: Kinnock is reported to have told Blair before Christmas that he should step down soon. But Kinnock also knows Labour's history. Ellen Wilkinson, the first education minister in Clement Attlee's 1945 government, found the money to implement the Education Act 1944, and the political will to overcome the deeply conservative education establishment of the time. The price she paid was the division between grammar schools and secondary moderns, which horrified her. She had been told the civil servants' private justification for it: that if we gave the best education to everyone, we would raise everyone's expectations, and then who would do the menial jobs? She would have cheered when, in Harold Wilson's Labour government, Anthony Crosland brought in comprehensive education as education secretary.

Kinnock predicted two results from Blair's original proposals. They would have returned us to the selective system, but a much more pernicious form. The government gave permission, for example, for the London Oratory School to carry on selecting pupils by interviewing the prospective student and both parents.

Second, the removal of power from local authorities would have kicked away the cornerstone of the 1944 act. If all pupils are to be found a school place, someone has to ensure that this happens. The act gave this duty to local authorities. If they no longer had the power to fulfil that duty, no one would do it. And universal education would have been killed, by a Labour government.