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.

Photo: Getty
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Commons Confidential: Herod in the House

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

The spell cast over Theresa May by the youthful Gavin Williamson and Cronus, his pet tarantula, leaves envious Tory rivals accusing him of plotting to succeed the Stand-In Prime Minister. The wily Chief Whip is eyed suspiciously as a baby-faced assassin waiting to pounce.

My tearoom snout whispers that May is more dependent on the fresh-faced schemer (he also served as David Cameron’s PPS) who signed a survival deal bunging the DUP £1bn protection money than she is on David Davis, Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd or Boris Johnson. She delegated the reshuffle’s middle and lower ranks to Williamson, but his nous is questioned after he appointed Pudsey’s Stuart Andrew (majority: 331) and Calder Valley’s Craig Whittaker (609) as henchmen. Vulnerable seats are dangerously unprotected when whips don’t speak in the House of Commons.

Left-wing Labour MPs mutter that Jeremy Corbyn is implementing a “King Herod strategy” to prevent the birth of rival messiahs. A former shadow cabinet member insisted that any display of ambition would be fatal. The punishment snubbings of Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna, who had expressed a willingness to serve, were intended to intimidate others into obedience. The assertion was reinforced by an influential apparatchik musing: “John [McDonnell] is looking for a bag carrier, so Chuka could apply for that.” The election has laced the boot tightly on the left foot.

The military career of Barnsley’s Major Dan Jarvis included service in Northern Ireland. Perhaps old acquaintances will be renewed with the allocation to Sinn Fein’s seven MPs of a meeting room next to the Labour squaddie’s office.

Ian Lavery, the burly ex-miner appointed as Labour’s new chair by Jeremy Corbyn, disclosed that he was bombarded with messages urging him to “nut” – that is, headbutt – Boris Johnson when he faced down the Foreign Secretary on TV during the election. I suspect that even Trembling BoJo’s money would be on the Ashington lad in a class war with the Old Etonian.

Campaign tales continue to be swapped. Labour’s victorious Sharon Hodgson helped a family put up a tent. The defeated Lib Dem Sarah Olney was heckled through a letter box by a senior Labour adviser’s five-year-old son: “What’s that silly woman saying? Vote Labour!” Oddest of all was the Tory minister James Wharton informing his opponent Paul Williams that he’d put in a good word for him with Labour HQ. There was no need – Williams won.

The Tory injustice minister Dominic Raab is advertising for an unpaid Westminster “volunteer”, covering only “commuting expenses”. Does he expect them to eat at food banks?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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