The NS Interview: Neil Kinnock

“Will we win on 6 May? At the moment, it doesn’t look like it”

How is life in the House of Lords?
When I was chairman of the British Council, I didn't go a lot. But I've been more in the last ten months or so. It's not a preoccupation.

And is the Lords all it should be?
Oh, no - it should be abolished. Before I accepted the nice invitation to go, I asked Robin Cook what he'd do. He said, "If we're going to change it, we need people there to vote for it."

What about electoral reform more generally?
I've long been in favour [of it]. I will enthusiastically campaign for it and vote for it.

How would you feel about a Lib-Lab coalition? A cabinet with Nick Clegg or Vince Cable in it?
I'm not even going to speculate on that. I am not as fearful of hung parliament as some. What the country wants is stability.

Many believe that having Cable as chancellor, for example, could help achieve stability.
The likely outcome of this election is more difficult to predict than any other in our political life. I've got a lot of time for Vince. I'd have more time for him if he hadn't torn up his Labour Party card, of course.

When was the Labour Party at its best?
Probably in 1997. Gutsy, purposeful. I hugely respect the party of 1945, but we're not fighting the same battles.

And who are the party's rising stars now?
Ed Miliband, definitely. Ed Balls. And Yvette Cooper has massive potential. I knew her when she was a student - she's a very good woman.
Are any of them a future Labour leader? The future is a long time. And if I was to single one out, I would probably ruin their career.

Why isn't Gordon Brown more popular?
He has been poisonously misrepresented by the press. People say they haven't been as nasty to anyone since I was leader, but I hadn't been the chancellor of the Exchequer, and Gordon produced this long period of sustained growth.

What part have the Murdochs played?
They never intended to support us. Untrustworthiness is in their DNA.

Do you regret Labour's courtship of them?
Tactically, it was handy, but a democracy that defers to them is a much-weakened democracy.

Will Labour win a majority on 6 May?
At the moment, it doesn't look like it. But it is within reach. The cliché "too close to call" really fits. And the current electoral system makes it even closer.

Why are the polls looking so bad now?
Thirteen years is one reason. Some in the party speak to journalists like therapists, articulating worries about this person, that figurehead.

Aren't there other considerations - Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance?
Iraq and Afghanistan certainly don't help. And I recognise the depth of feeling generated. But the people who are most concerned by the circumstances of these wars should be the most ready to support a progressive government.

What are your memories of the 1992 election?
The biggest difficulty was not communicating my conviction that we couldn't make it. I told Charles Clarke I only had a dilemma if we lost by ten seats: then I might have to hang on.

Do you regret shouting, "We're all right!" at the Sheffield rally in 1992?
It wasn't until about ten days after the election that people started writing about the "hubristic Sheffield rally" and all the rest of it. Given my time again, I wouldn't repeat it - but the great legend is complete, bloody rubbish.

What political decision do you regret most?
I didn't call for a ballot at the start of the miners' strike in 1984. I'll regret that until my dying day.

Does Labour still need the unions?
They played a very significant part in the party's formation and survival. It's vital the alliance continues. The myth is that he who pays the piper calls the tune. They never called the tune.

Your wife, Glenys, is a minister of state now. What is it like being married to a politician?
We've been married for 43 years, and the reason we maintain such loving amity is that we've only lived together for two. Glenys has a mission: justice. I watch her in action and think, "My God, I'm glad I'm on her side."

Was there a plan?
No. My first real experience of ambition was as party leader. It was my ambition for Labour to win, in which event I would be prime minister.

What would you like to forget?
I could tell you the things I would rather hadn't happened. But those, I simply can't forget.

Are we all doomed?
Far from it. This is the best time to be alive.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times