Wherever you are in Port Talbot, you cannot escape the steel mill. It breathes fire into the sky. Looking down the long beach towards the smokestacks is Stephen Kinnock, the area’s MP.
“The underlying cause for the current steel crisis is decades of underinvestment. Parties of all colours have failed to come up with an industrial strategy. Energy costs are crippling the industry – we pay 50 per cent more for our energy than the Germans.”
I caught up with Kinnock as he was digesting the news of yet more job cuts at Tata Steel, as well as a quick of lunch — life on the campaign trail takes no prisoners. We sat sheltered in a diner on the Port Talbot seafront. Lorries tumbled boulders onto the beach below us, forming the new sea wall.
Kinnock’s constituency of Aberavon is a good place to come if you want an answer to the one question that matters at this election: namely, does Labour still command the support of its working-class base? If Johnson is to get his majority, he will have to win in towns where industry is identity. For Port Talbot that means steel. So what does Kinnock think? Is Labour still appealing to its core vote?
“There are people on the doorstep saying to me they have been Labour voters their whole lives but they now have real reservations about voting Labour. There is a strong appetite in the country for radical Keynesian economic policy. It cannot be right that the top 1 per cent in our country own 24 per cent of the wealth. Labour is winning on economic policy. There’s certainly support for that in the north and the midlands and our heartland seats.”
You get the sense that Kinnock is eager to register his “but”. After another mouthful of pie, he does.
“But we have to marry economic policy together with a very strong narrative on national security, on immigration, on patriotism, on the culture and values of our country. Labour is winning on economic policy. But we are losing on this second front.”
Kinnock has one of the largest majorities in Wales. He will undoubtedly hold Aberavon – a seat that once belonged to the first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald. But along with MPs like Lisa Nandy and Dan Jarvis, he has become a de facto spokesperson for Labour’s forgotten heartlands. It strikes me that the reason he talks so convincingly about Labour’s identity is not because he is the son of a former leader, but because he is Welsh bred and London raised — he knows better than most how to weld the votes of steelworkers in Port Talbot to those of marketing gurus in Hackney.
This is where Brexit comes in. Kinnock earned the opprobrium of Remainers when he voted Johnson’s deal through on second reading. He is one of the infamous 19 who still advocates a compromise Brexit despite Labour’s official policy of a second referendum. Yet Kinnock, the Francophone husband of a Danish wife, is by no means a Europhobe. He may be wolfing down a hearty plate of pie for lunch. But he follows it up like a true continental; ordering a double espresso. It is also worth remembering that Kinnock used to work in the European parliament.
“The bay campus of Swansea University is an amazing place,” he says, pointing to a gleaming citadel at the opposite end of the beach to the steelworks. “It has state of the art facilities for engineering, mathematics, computer science and business studies. It could not have happened without EU funding.”
As chair of the committee on Post-Brexit Funding for Nations, Regions and Local Areas, it is Kinnock’s job to hold the government to account, and to ensure that Westminster will match the money hitherto provided by Brussels.
“I’m really worried that we will end up with pork barrel politics, where the government bungs money to marginal seats rather than places that need it. The great advantage of the European system is that it’s data-driven.”
At this point, Kinnock and I begin to play a game of hypothetical Brexit. To what extent would Kinnock be prepared to risk the British economy in pursuit of Brexit? Would he allow tariffs to be levied on British steel for example? If the government had not pulled Johnson’s deal, would he have voted it through committee stage unamended?
So how would Kinnock have proceeded?
“Firstly an amendment for a second referendum would have had to be defeated.”
That is plausible. After all, the indicative votes suggested it would. Then what?
“Then there would have been a majority for the amendment I had tabled – dynamic alignment on worker’s rights, consumers’ rights and environmental standards.”
That is debatable. If the whole point of Brexit is to undercut the EU through divergence, then why would the ERG vote for alignment?
“If the PM wants a trade deal by the end of 2020, then he needs a deal based on convergence rather than divergence. The more you diverge, the more barriers Brussels will put up to a trade deal.”
Hypothetical Brexit ends in a predictable stalemate. Kinnock believes there existed a majority in parliament for compromise. History suggests otherwise. We turn our attention back to the internal workings of the Labour Party. Kinnock’s coffee arrives. If Labour loses its working-class vote at this election, then who is to blame? Kinnock goes back to the issue of patriotism and identity.
“The faction of the Labour Party that is currently in the leadership – there are elements of that faction that are driven by bizarre conspiracy theories. My enemy’s enemy is my friend. Everything that comes out of Washington is about imperialism. The financial system is run by a shady cabal of Jewish financiers. These conspiracy theories are anathema to the ordinary working people of this country.”
I ask him if that means Corbyn is unpopular amongst his constituents? Kinnock chooses his next words carefully.
“Leaders are judged by their results. In 2017, we were even further behind in the polls at this point than we are now. Who knows, maybe lightning will strike twice?”
It is worth reflecting on the last election when writing off Labour. But one should not forget that 2017 was a loss. For the duration of that campaign, Kinnock agreed to be filmed by the BBC for the programme Labour: The Summer that Changed Everything. The show, which was broadcast several months after polling day, featured a scene where Kinnock suggested that Corbyn ought to resign if the party came 30 to 40 seats behind the Conservatives. In the event, Labour fell 55 short. What if the same thing happens again?
“Like I say, leaders are judged by their results. And they also have to judge the mood of the country, and the mood of the party. We recovered from a dreadful situation in the opinion polls to produce a result in 2017 that was far better than expected. Nevertheless, we still ended up with a Tory prime minister. If that happens again, that is a major issue for our party and a major issue for Jeremy. But in the end, it will be for Jeremy to decide how he responds to that result. Of course I genuinely, passionately hope that this will not come to pass. If we don’t have a Labour government, then that will be a tragedy for the country and for the party.”