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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How a small tax rise exposed the SNP's anti-austerity talk for just that

The SNP refuse to use their extra powers to lessen austerity, says Kezia Dugdale.

"We will demand an alternative to slash and burn austerity."

With those few words, Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year that the SNP were a party opposed to public spending cuts. We all remember the general election TV debates, where the First Minister built her celebrity as the leader of the anti-austerity cause.

Last week, though, she was found out. When faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in the future or imposing cuts to our schools, Nicola Sturgeon chose cuts. Incredible as it sounds the SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to schools and other vital public services, rather than asking people to pay a little bit more to invest. That's not the choice of an anti-austerity pin-up. It's a sell-out.

People living outside of Scotland may not be fully aware of the significant shift that has taken place in politics north of the border in the last week. The days of grievance and blaming someone else for decisions made in Scotland appear to be coming to an end.

The SNP's budget is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. It will impose hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to local public services - including our schools. We don't know what cuts the SNP are planning for future years because they are only presenting a one year budget to get them through the election, but we know from the experts that the biggest cuts are likely to come in 2017/18 and 2018/19. For unprotected budgets like education that could mean cuts of 16 per cent.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. The Scottish Parliament has the power to stop these cuts, if only we have the political will to act. Last week I did just that.

I set out a plan, using the new powers we have today, to set a Scottish rate of income tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne. This would raise an extra half a billion pounds, giving us the chance to stop the cuts to education and other services. Labour would protect education funding in real terms over the next five years in Scotland. Faced with the choice of asking people to pay a little bit more to invest or carrying on with the SNP's cuts, the choice was pretty simple for me - I won't support cuts to our nation’s future prosperity.

Being told by commentators across the political spectrum that my plan is bold should normally set alarm bells ringing. Bold is usually code for saying something unpopular. In reality, it's pretty simple - how can I say I am against cuts but refuse to use the powers we have to stop them?

Experts - including Professors David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling; the Resolution Foundation; and IPPR Scotland - have said our plan is fair because the wealthiest few would pay the most. Trade unions have backed our proposal, because they recognise the damage hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will do to our schools and the jobs it will cost.

Council leaders have said our plan to pay £100 cashback to low income taxpayers - including pensioners - to ensure they benefit from this plan is workable.

The silliest of all the SNP's objections is that they won't back our plan because the poorest shouldn't have to pay the price of Tory austerity. The idea that imposing hundreds of millions of pounds of spending cuts on our schools and public services won't make the poorest pay is risible. It's not just the poorest who will lose out from cuts to education. Every single family and business in Scotland would benefit from having a world class education system that gives our young the skills they need to make their way in the world.

The next time we hear Nicola Sturgeon talk up her anti-austerity credentials, people should remember how she did nothing when she had the chance to end austerity. Until now it may have been acceptable to say you are opposed to spending cuts but doing nothing to stop them. Those days are rapidly coming to a close. It makes for the most important, and most interesting, election we’ve had in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is leader of Scottish Labour.