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  1. The Weekend Interview
20 January 2024

Neil Kinnock: “It’s not 1992. Rishi Sunak is no John Major”

The former Labour leader on life after his wife Glenys’s death, Keir Starmer’s election strategy, and becoming Joe Biden’s “greatest ever speechwriter”.

By George Eaton

The BBC Parliament channel was on when I arrived at Neil Kinnock’s home in Tufnell Park, north London. “Steve’s on the front bench,” the former Labour leader said, with pride, of his son – the shadow immigration minister – as MPs debated the Rwanda Bill. Family is always on Kinnock’s mind, but rarely more so than at present. 

On 3 December, Glenys, his wife of 56 years and political soulmate, died, aged 79, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Mindful of this, I was reassured when Kinnock greeted me with the crushing handshake I recalled from previous encounters and brewed a cafetière coffee. Puffle, a Norwegian Forest cat, playfully scurried around. 

We spoke in the front room of a house that is a shrine to Kinnock’s twin passions: family and politics (a framed photograph of Glenys with Nelson Mandela sits in the hallway). Labour posters compete for wall space with pictures of children and grandchildren. 

“The family have carried me through,” Kinnock, 81 – a bearded lion in winter – replied when I asked how he was. “They’re in touch every day. Steve, if he’s in Britain, never misses a week; I’m so fortunate.”

But Kinnock’s grief was still raw. “That bastard disease, it didn’t just rob us, it robbed her,” he said, his eyes welling with emotion. It was in 2017 that Glenys – who was a Labour MEP from 1994 to 2009 and later served as Europe minister and Africa minister – was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

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“Rachel [Kinnock’s daughter] and I read in several places – we’ve studied this as if we were doing PhDs – that the actual manifestation of Alzheimer’s can be triggered. It’s there but sometimes trauma can really make it evident.

“We think the trauma in Glenys’s case was the murder of Jo Cox [the Labour MP] in 2016. They were very, very close – she was like an honorary niece. She worked for Glenys for three years in the European Parliament and they had the same sense of humour, always taking the piss.” 

For Kinnock, the experience of caring for Glenys for six years exposed anew the frailties of the UK’s social care system. “What people do who can’t afford regular supportive care, God knows. Well, I know what they do: some of them die – not the sufferers, but the people who are looking after them. We were desperately lucky to be able to afford it.

“But it’s not cheap, and the kind of sums involved put it beyond any possible reach of 90-95 per cent of people, even if they double mortgage their homes.”

Kinnock has long argued for the introduction of a national health and community care tax – combined with a cut in income tax – to fund a universal service. “It’s the one tax that people would pay with little reservation or antagonism.”

In British political debate, Kinnock’s name is perhaps most often cited in relation to the 1992 general election. Had just 1,240 votes in 11 Conservative constituencies been cast for Labour rather than the Tories, he would have won a majority and become prime minister. Instead, John Major triumphed by securing the largest popular vote in UK history (a record that still stands). 

Today, Labour’s campaign director, Morgan McSweeney, studies the 1992 election as an instance of how opposition poll leads can be lost. The Conservatives, meanwhile, console themselves that governments can win against the odds. 

But the man who fought that election is adamant: this is not 1992. “Tory strategists just hoped that somehow Rishi Sunak could be John Major. And I could have saved them a hell of a lot of time and money by telling them that if he lives for a million years, Sunak is never going to be John Major.”

“Major’s great strength was to relate and be seen to relate,” he said of the Brixton boy who delivered speeches from a soapbox. “In the end, that’s what beat me, so I give him full credit for that.”

In contrast to Major, who “exuded normality”, Sunak exudes “distance, not only because he is monumentally wealthy but because when he tries to do something normal he gets it wrong. Sometimes very obviously, like the credit card episode.

“Whether it’s his personal mannerisms or on the great occasions, he just cannot get the ball in the middle of the bag. If he was there for 20 years, he’d never learn – because if you don’t arrive with that, it’s bloody difficult to learn.”

Back in 2016, Kinnock remarked: “Unless things change radically, and rapidly, it’s very doubtful that I’ll see another Labour government in my lifetime.” Today, in his view, things have changed radically and rapidly. 

“That was in the depths of the Corbynite chasm. I was immensely gloomy at the time, but in the wake of the 2019 election we had Keir [Starmer], and he had the right set of priorities. And he’s gone about it with a degree of ferocity – I think with great integrity and very basic practicality.”

What of the charge from the left that Starmer has abandoned or diluted most of the ten pledges on which he was elected Labour leader? 

“Yes, but as he’s said with great justification, that was then, with that electorate; this is now, with an electorate that runs into the scores of millions. It isn’t that anybody is dishonest or telling lies to the Labour Party electorate. What you’re doing is giving evidence that you comprehend their priorities and you would like to fulfil them. What you’ve got to do with the general electorate is to show the same thing, which is a different challenge from running for the leadership.”

Jon Cruddas, Labour’s former policy coordinator, writes in his new book, A Century of Labour, that Starmer “often seems detached from his own party”. What tradition does Kinnock, a man steeped in Labour history, place Starmer in?

“The Keir Starmer tradition. Everyone is a first, and the reason is very straightforward: times have changed by the time the new leader gets in the saddle… There might be bits from Attlee’s acerbity, Wilson’s imagination, Callaghan’s steadfastness, Blair’s flair that can all be usable – drop everything that relates to Kinnock’s verbosity – but the main thing is that the conditions are new.”

Kinnock, who defeated the entryist Militant Tendency and remains the longest-serving leader of the opposition in UK history (from 1983 to 1992), has both political and personal sympathy with Starmer. 

When the Labour leader offered to visit after Glenys’s death, Kinnock told him: “Listen, you’ve got a lot on.” As he recalled Starmer’s reply his voice cracked and his eyes filled with tears: “He said, ‘Nothing’s more important.’” 

On such occasions, the common description of the Labour Party as a family acquires true meaning. 

“It is a family,” said Kinnock. “And like most families – not mine – there can be tensions, people can fall out, but in the end you know who’s with you.”

The 2024 UK election is not the only contest this year in which Kinnock’s name is likely to be invoked. Across the Atlantic, he is indelibly associated with the US president, Joe Biden.

In 1987, Biden was forced to abandon his Democratic presidential campaign after he was accused of plagiarising one of Kinnock’s most celebrated speeches: “Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?”

The affair has been cited against Biden ever since (including by Donald Trump). But Kinnock himself took a relaxed view. 

“Joe came to see me and gave me a blow-by-blow account of what actually happened, which was completely credible. He’d used my name every time on previous occasions. On this occasion, because he was pushed for time, he didn’t say, ‘UK Labour leader Neil Kinnock said…’” 

He proceeded to do a plausible impression of Biden: “When I saw him last, which was in 2007 in his office in the Senate, he gathered everybody in the foyer, 30 to 40 staff, and said: ‘Folks, I want to introduce you to my greatest ever speechwriter: Neil Kinnock!’ He’s a good guy.”

But Kinnock grew solemn when I asked if Biden would retain the presidency. 

“Getting re-elected against a lying charlatan will not be all that easy for obvious reasons: his [Biden’s] age will be used against him. I’m terrified of it, I truly am. It’s the one thing that still keeps me awake, it really does.” 

Kinnock has always been internationally minded: from 1999 to 2004 he served as vice-president of the European Commission. His daughter-in-law – Stephen’s wife – is the former Danish Social Democratic prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

Would he like to see the UK rejoin the EU under a Labour government?

“I would make the case for re-entry to the single market, which effectively means the European Union, simply on grounds of national interest and security… It’s going to be bloody difficult to get a sustainable, respectable economic growth rate year-on-year without barrier-free access to our main market.”

He added: “I understand the constraints, though I think that public opinion has been shifting ahead of us as outlined in Julius Caesar: ‘There’s a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.’ And that’s right, that’s true. I’m not sure we’ve reached the flood yet, but the tide has changed.”

Kinnock has an intuitive feel for movements in public opinion. Contrary to mythology, he said, he did not expect to win the 1992 election by the time of polling day. In an interview on the eve of the 2015 election he told me that “shy Tories” could yet doom Ed Miliband. 

Of Labour’s prospects today, Kinnock said, “I don’t think we’re going to lose. I’ve been pretty certain for nearly a year; it’s not the same thing as being certain we’re going to win, but it’s a damn good start.”

He hailed the party’s renewed focus on economic security and the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’s coinage of “securonomics”. 

“The bells rang when I heard that – it was terrific, and they were big cathedral bells [mimics bell-ringer].”

Throughout our two-hour conversation, I was struck by Kinnock’s tenacity and sharpness of mind. After personal and political tragedy, what is it that sustains him?

“I guess just about every week somebody in the New Statesman quotes Antonio Gramsci: the only fitting mindset is ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. By God, I’ve clung on to that for 60 years. But I’ve never clung on to it with more desperation and ferocity than I have now.”

[See also: The myth of Tory pragmatism]

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