Neil Kinnock: “If campaigns win elections, we are doing well. But I do recall that I got the prize for the campaign and still didn’t win”

Is this 1992 all over again? Could Ed Miliband stay on if he loses? Neil Kinnock talks the past, present and future with our political editor George Eaton.

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No general election has been invoked more often during this campaign than that of 1992. The Conservatives’ belief is that now, as then, their polling advantage on the economy and leadership will prove decisive. The pessimists among Labour’s ranks fear that they are right.

But the man who lost that election is confident the outcome will be different this time. “What the Tories forget is that [John] Major started out with a 100-seat majority and ended up with a 21-seat majority,” Neil Kinnock tells me. “They started off with no majority and they’re going to end up ­losing seats.” The former Labour leader adds: “They didn’t get hold of what is fundamental in my view, which is that there are no second ’92s, or ’97s, or 2001s, or ’45s – every election is unique and must be addressed as such.”

Kinnock, 73, is one of Ed Miliband’s most redoubtable supporters. He endorsed him during the Labour leadership contest; his daughter, Rachel, works as Miliband’s events director; his son, Stephen, is standing in the safe Labour seat of Aberavon. Kinnock speaks of Miliband with the fondness of a father. “Ed is performing outstandingly and some people have been a bit surprised by that. But anybody who’s talked to me over the years knows that I’ve always said, I’ve always said, that he’s manifestly very bright [and] he’s brave, which is a terrific quality – not full of derring-do, but steadfastly so, [on] everything from Murdoch to Syria and the Mail and the banks.”

He adds: “If campaigns win elections, we are doing well. But I do recall that I got the prize for the campaign and still didn’t win.”

The Conservatives’ final hope is that, as in 1992, when the polls showed them level with Labour before they finished 7 points ahead, the numbers are wrong. Back then, it was the “shy Tories” – those who refused to disclose their true voting intentions – who delivered victory for Major. Though pollsters have since adjusted their methodologies, Kinnock warns that this phenomenon remains a danger for Labour.

“There’s a superstition that somehow a Tory government will look after your pocket; it’s a triumph of propaganda over reality. And people who tell pollsters that they’re not sure, or they’re not going to vote Conservative, will, in the privacy of the ballot booth, say: ‘To hell with it, I’ll stick with what I know because they say they’re going to cut my taxes’ – even when their record is, of course, to have put taxes up.”

Kinnock laments that the Tories got away with “telling a lie” about the economy because Labour was “preoccupied with a leadership election”. After the contest, he says, “we should have redoubled our efforts to demolish the lie”.

But he maintains that Miliband will become prime minister, albeit as the head of a minority government, the Labour leader’s preferred option in another hung parliament. “I think the most likely result is that Ed becomes prime minister and that he follows a fairly conventional course in the House of Commons. You gather majorities for specific issues, whether they are big statutory requirements, like the Queen’s Speech or the Budget – in some senses they are the easiest things to get majorities for – or amendments on bills.

“I wish that people in the media who have got genuine expertise about the operation of parliament were getting a lot more space to tell the truth that they do tell: governments have to manage the Commons. And Ed will manage the Commons, very able people with him will manage the Commons. I don’t think there are many other options [to minority government] that are realistic or desirable. Patently, [there can be] no coalition or concession to the Nats; and any arrangement with the Liberals would have to be on Labour terms.”

In a recent interview with me, John McDonnell, the chair of Labour’s Socialist Campaign Group, vowed to vote against any budget or spending review that included spending cuts and warned that up to 40 of his colleagues would do the same. Could a Miliband government fall prey to such divisions? “No, been there!” says Kinnock, referring to his time in the leftist Tribune group in the 1970s. “The only significant rebellion was over the public expenditure white paper, where a large number of us abstained and the government was defeated. But we won the confidence vote the next day. I don’t think we’re even in that territory . . . Sabre-rattling before an election is unhelpful, ill-advised and likely to be much smaller in its significance than the sabre-rattlers would like to think. That’s not an old man speaking from the mists of time: that’s a party activist saying, ‘You get a Labour government, you support a Labour government.’”

After losing the 1987 election, Kinnock remained leader for another term. There is increasing discussion within Labour about whether Miliband could similarly survive if he fails to become prime minister. Kinnock refuses to entertain the issue. “Oh, I don’t think the question arises . . . It doesn’t arise for a lot of reasons – the political situation, the attitude in the Labour Party – it’s simply not a question.”

He reflects wistfully on the fate he believes Miliband will avoid: “We lost the 1992 election by 1,450 votes – the accumulated bottom 11 Conservative majorities. But coming second’s no damn good, and to do it twice, when I thought I’d pretty much completed my mission of modernising the Labour Party and making it reach out to the electorate, without losing any of its spirit or ideals, then it was time to go. The fact I had to hang on until mid-July was bloody purgatory. But that was my duty, I had to do it. I couldn’t sod off like William Hague.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle