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