Neil Kinnock interview: Labour must "absolutely not" support an EU referendum

As Ed Miliband comes under pressure to promise a referendum, the former Labour leader warns that the dangers of an in/out vote are "massive".

In the 21 years since he stepped down as Labour leader, Neil Kinnock has rarely loomed larger over British politics. On the pages of the conservative press, his name is continually invoked as the right-wing titles that eviscerated him seek to portray Miliband as similarly "unelectable" and "left-wing". When Miliband delivered his speech at the Labour conference last month, it was Kinnock, as the only former party leader in attendance, whose face the TV cameras repeatedly cut to. It is his defeat in 1992, the last time a Conservative government beat a Labour opposition, that has become the shared reference point for the optimists in Cameron’s party and the pessimists in Miliband’s.

I've interviewed Kinnock for tomorrow's New Statesman (the full piece will be on online later today) and here are some of the best lines. 

Labour must "absolutely not" support an EU referendum

While speculation that Ed Miliband would use his conference speech to call for an early in/out EU referendum came to naught, the Labour leader has refused to rule out such a commitment in the future, with one party figure recently telling me that a U-turn could follow the 2014 European elections as the party seeks to demonstrate that it has "listened and learned".

When I asked Kinnock, who served as vice-president of the EU Commission from 1999-2004, whether Labour should support an in/out referendum he told me: "no, absolutely not" and warned that the dangers of a public vote were "massive". 

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 [David Cameron] 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.

Investor after investor, company after company, of all sizes, say we will lack investment, we will lack decisions to locate, or to deepen commitment in the UK, we will lack customers if this great breach was to take place. The dangers attendant upon having the referendum in those conditions, where there is no constitutional justification whatsoever, are massive.

Press attacks could cost Labour marginal seats in 2015

While most agree that Fleet Street wields less influence than in 1992 (and that its clout was exaggerated then), Kinnock warned that the attacks on Labour by the right-wing press could cost the party victory in 2015 by depriving it of key marginal seats. He told me that the press retains

[S]ubstantial 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 partisan 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.

"We've got our party back": I never said it

Kinnock's alleged response to Miliband's election as leader in 2010, "we've got our party back", is frequently cited by Conservatives as proof that Labour is once again unelectable. But as Kinnock told me, he never uttered those words.

"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."

How he inspired Miliband's new slogan: "Britain can do better than this"

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.'"

Mandelson's criticism of Miliband's energy price freeze: "I was rather amazed"

Kinnock rebuked 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.'"

Neil Kinnock at the Labour conference in Liverpool in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's fans must learn the art of compromise

On both sides of the Atlantic, democracy is threatened by a post-truth world. 

Twenty years ago, as a new and enthusiastic Labour MP, I wrote an article for The Observer in praise of spin. I argued that if citizens are to be properly informed and engaged in their democracy, politicians - and in particular governments - have a duty to craft their messages carefully and communicate them cogently. It was a controversial notion then but less so now that we have entered the era of post-truth politics. In the old days, we used to "manage" the truth. Now we have abandoned it. 

We’ve probably come further than we think, for when truth is discarded, reason generally follows. Without a general acceptance of the broad "facts" of any matter, there can be little basis for rational debate nor, therefore, for either the consensus or the respectful disagreement which should emerge from it. Without a commitment to truth, we are free to choose and believe in our own facts and to despise the facts of others. We are free too to place our faith in leaders who make the impossible seem possible. 

We condemn the dictatorships which deny their citizens the right to informed and open debate. But in our own societies, unreasoned and often irrational politics are entering the mainstream. 

The politics of unreason

In the UK, the Leave campaign blithely wedded brazen falsehood to the fantasy that Brexit would cure all ills – and millions of voters enthusiastically suspended their disbelief.  “We want our country back” was a potent slogan - but no less vacuous than the pledge to “make America great again” on which Donald Trump has founded his election campaign. On both sides of the Atlantic, people want to take back control they know they never had nor ever will.

Both campaigns have deliberately bypassed rational argument. They play instead to the emotional response of angry people for whom reason no longer makes sense. Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, democracy’s critics have warned of the ease with which reason can be subverted and citizens seduced by the false oratory of charismatic leaders. Trump is just the latest in a long line of the demagogues they feared. He may not make it to the White House, but he has come a long way on unreasoning rhetoric - and where he leads, millions faithfully follow. He has boasted that he could commit murder on Fifth Avenue without losing votes and he may well be right.

But if Trump is extreme, he is not exceptional. He is a phenomenon of a populism of both right and left which has once more begun to challenge the principles of parliamentary democracy.

Democracy in decline

All over Europe and the United States, consumer-citizens are exasperated by democracy’s failure to meet their demands as fully and as fast as they expect. If the market can guarantee next day delivery, why can’t government? The low esteem in which elected politicians are held is only partly the consequence of their failings and failures. It is also evidence of a growing disenchantment with representative democracy itself. We do not trust our politicians to reflect our priorities. Perhaps we never did. But now we’re no longer prepared to acknowledge their unenviable duty to arbitrate between competing political, social and economic imperatives, nor ours to accept the compromises they reach - at least until the next election.

We have become protesters against rather than participants in our politics and, emboldened by hearing our chosen facts and beliefs reverberating around cyber space, have become increasingly polarised and uncompromising in our protest. 

The Trumpy Corbynites

Which brings us to Labour. Despite the obvious political differences between Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump, there are striking similarities in the movements which have coalesced around them. For many of their supporters, they can simply do no wrong; each criticism provides further evidence of a corrupt establishment’s conspiracy against them; rivals, including those who share many of their beliefs, are anathematised; unbelievers are pursued across the internet; inconvenient facts are reinterpreted or ignored; rational, civil debate is shut down or drowned out. 

There are other similarities in these insurgencies: both mistake slogans for policies and mass rallies for popular support; both are overwhelming and quite possibly destroying their own parties – and both, ultimately, are movements without practical purpose.

Trump may give vivid expression to his followers’ grievances but, other than building a wall along the Mexican border, his plans for government are obscure. Similarly, while Corbyn and his supporters know what they’re against, they have not yet articulated a clear vision of what they’re for, much less how it can be achieved. For many of them, it is enough to be "anti-Blairite". 

But in disassociating themselves from a Labour prime minister’s mistakes, they are also dismissing their party’s achievements under his leadership. Their refusal to acknowledge the need for compromise may well enable them to avoid the pitfalls of government. But government’s potential to bring about at least some of the change they want does not come without pitfalls. In wanting it all, they are likely to end up with nothing.

The art of compromise

Democracy cannot be sustained simply by what passionate people oppose. And though movements such as Momentum have important roles to play in influencing political parties, they cannot replace them. Their supporters want to be right - and they often are. But they are rarely prepared to test their principles against the practical business of government. The members of political parties want, or should want, to govern and are prepared, albeit reluctantly, to compromise – with each other, with those they seek to represent, with events -  in order to do so. Parties should listen to movements. But movements, if they are to have any practical purpose, must acknowledge that, for all its limitations, the point of politics is power.

We have to trust that the majority of American voters will reject Donald Trump. But closer to home, if Labour is to have a future as a political force, Corbyn’s supporters must learn to respect the historic purpose of the Labour party at least as much as they admire the high  principles of its current leader. There isn’t long for that realisation to take hold.

In the UK as in the US and elsewhere, we need to rediscover the importance of common cause and the art of compromise in forging it. The alternative is a form of politics which is not only post-truth, post-reason and post-purpose, but also post-democratic. 

Peter Bradley is a former MP and director of Speakers' Corner Trust, a UK charity which promotes free speech, public debate and active citizenship.