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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.