Founding father

Kinnock: the biography

Martin Westlake <em>Little, Brown, 768pp, £25</em>

ISBN 0316848719

Every now and again in this long book, Neil Kinnock, the senior EU commissioner, pops up to give his verdict on Neil Kinnock, the youthful leader of the Labour Party. By the end, he cannot take any more. His last appearance is a note to the author on the final draft of the book: "Sorry this has taken so long . . . my fault. Reading it just depressed me to vanishing point. Christ! What a way to spend my forties!"

The author, Martin Westlake, constantly refers to the paradoxes and apparent internal contradictions associated with Kinnock, but it takes the man himself to bring them to life. His valedictory note manages to be funny, sad, demonstrative and introspective at the same time. That is how Kinnock comes across these days. He has rediscovered the energetic wit and charm that mesmerised many in the Labour Party and beyond before he became leader. Yet he is burdened still by the weight of the years in which he led an almost unleadable party. His old ebullience has acquired a melancholic streak.

When Kinnock became leader after the 1983 election, he faced an impossible task, although it probably did not seem so at the time. That was part of the agony. There was always the hope of succeeding, of becoming prime minister. Only in retrospect do the obstacles seem so daunting. In the 1983 election, Labour was slaughtered, securing a significantly lower percentage of the vote than the Conservatives did last June. Kinnock also had David Owen and the SDP/Liberal Alliance breathing down his neck. He had no control over who was in his shadow cabinet, and faced a powerful national executive committee, still largely committed to the programme that had brought the party to its knees. In the constituencies, the Militant Tendency was continuing to wreak havoc. Compared with this, Iain Duncan Smith enjoys a golden inheritance.

At Labour's annual conference, Tony Blair never fails to hail Kinnock as the "first moderniser" or the "man who made Labour electable again". Kinnock looks a little uneasy at the tribute and the applause it generates. He is probably thinking to himself: "Yes, but I still bloody lost." Yet Blair is right to make the tribute. Kinnock provided a route map of sorts for new Labour. When he became leader, he recognised the importance of presentation for a centre-left party surrounded by a right-wing press. Years before Blair and Brown, he proclaimed the need for economic competence in order to make social justice a possibility. Slowly and painfully, he dropped one vote-losing policy after another, without finding an alternative set of credible policies to replace them. To some extent, new Labour is still searching. Privately, Kinnock has his criticisms of new Labour, but he is in many ways its founding father.

Kinnock had to change not only the Labour Party, but also himself. In the 1970s, he was an anti-marketeer, a unilateralist and a rebel MP who attacked the Labour government for cutting public expenditure. But this book makes clear that the stereotype of a left-wing firebrand who became a vote-seeking pragmatist is simplistic. Kinnock always had a pragmatic streak, one that led to a breach with the Bennite left in dramatic circumstances in 1981, two years before he became leader. Could Kinnock have done more to narrow the gap between the two main parties by 1992, or even win an election himself? Although Kinnock insists that his metamorphosis into a tight-arsed bank manager was necessary, it surely went too far. The vitality that made him such an appealing politician in the late 1970s and early 1980s was purged unconvincingly and unnecessarily. On the policy front, perhaps Kinnock could have moved a little faster in the early years. He thinks so now.

The most revealing moments in the biography come when the author dips into the Kinnock collection of papers, evidently a treasure trove of malicious documents from feuding politicians. Kinnock's largely loyal deputy Roy Hattersley wrote: "I sent you a note last week that contained a joke about the constant cancellations of our meetings. The joke is beginning to wear a bit thin." I do not get the impression that Kinnock and his office managed people very well - but then again, a more awkward bunch of people to manage would be difficult to envisage.

Broadly, Kinnock faced challenges on too many different fronts to have achieved much more than he did. I also suspect his self-confidence was fatally battered by a media onslaught that was more intense and relentless than anything faced by William Hague. The attacks were made worse because Kinnock did not possess the armour of being a former minister. He could only affect the pose of a ruler, not knowing what it was really like. Only an election win would have restored his confidence. The lack of self-confidence prevented him from winning an election.

Westlake has provided a comprehensive and occasionally illuminating account of Kinnock's political journey, although his acknowledgements suggest that he did not interview significant players of the leadership years. Perhaps this is why the drama of that desperate decade does not come to life in quite the way it should.

Shortly after the 1992 election defeat, Kinnock told me that he envisaged no further biographies. He stated mournfully: "Biographies are for winners, not losers." Now Westlake states that his is "only" the fifth biography. Kinnock is a much more substantial political figure than he realised when voters rejected him for a second time. More authors will wish to revisit the bloody way he spent his forties.

Steve Richards writes for the Independent on Sunday and presents GMTV's Sunday Programme

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The Empire strikes back

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis