As the longest serving opposition leader in British political history, Neil Kinnock has plenty of lessons to share. He talks to Mary Riddell about Labour’s leadership battle and his predictions for the party’s future.
It is easy to imagine that Neil Kinnock must be a haunted man. In the past year, the former leader of the Labour Party and one-time vice-president of the European Commission has been forced to watch a life’s work begin to crumble. Is he not heartbroken, I ask, to see his legacy on Labour and on Europe turning to dust? But Lord Kinnock is not so frail as to be daunted by the ghosts of any bygone glory. “The reason egotistical people want statues is because they understand the transitory nature of legacy,” he says.
Were a statue to be erected in Kinnock’s honour, a suitable site might be the car park of his local supermarket. We meet in the height of summer at his north London home, where Kinnock had begun his day, as usual, with a visit from his four-year-old granddaughter, followed by some garden-tidying and a trip to stock up on household provisions. “Today I managed to do the shopping without any political discussion,” he says. “That was remarkable. It’s the first time for weeks that I haven’t got to Waitrose and had to hold a surgery.”
Almost a quarter of a century after Kinnock resigned the leadership of the Labour Party, his opinions are sought out from the frozen food aisles to the higher echelons of the Parliamentary Labour Party. He is not, he claims modestly, an influential figure. “I don’t think I am. I was leader one hell of a long time ago.” While that is indisputable, his words still echo down the years.
Not long ago I went with him and his wife, Glenys, to watch the first run of Handbagged, a play by Moira Buffini about the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and the Queen. Unbeknown to any of our group, the script contained a Kinnock oration delivered by one of the cast. “I’m here. You can take the night off,” Kinnock roared at his stage impersonator, who ignored the heckler and ploughed on with the speech.
“If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. And I warn you not to grow old,” the excerpt went. In the silence that followed, the audience rose from its seats, turned towards Kinnock and gave him a standing ovation. Yet durable as his most famous speech has proved, there’s perhaps an ironic resonance today. For when he now inveighs against a damaging leader, the target is most likely to be the head of his own party.
Kinnock has a formula for describing his feelings about Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure. “Only anger is preventing me falling into despair,” he says. We meet as the early votes are being cast in the Labour leadership contest, at a time when soundings suggest that Corbyn may have a better than 80 per cent chance of winning. That apparent invulnerability is juxtaposed with a seemingly shambolic campaign featuring a rebuttal by Richard Branson to a film of Corbyn sitting on the floor of a “ram-packed” Virgin train, proselytising about renationalising the railways.
Both the initial episode and the way the subsequent row was handled by the Corbyn team, after CCTV footage showed empty seats the leader might have occupied, have only increased Kinnock’s rage. “Bizarre doesn’t do it justice. Anyone can make a mistake, but this is part of a whole series of errors, clangers, disasters, that ten months’ in [to a leadership] shouldn’t be occurring. I think a decision had been made that there was going to be a film identifying Jeremy Corbyn with the wretchedness of passengers, and the reality wasn’t going to be allowed to intrude.”
In a final flourish to ‘Traingate’, it was alleged that Corbyn proved difficult to contact in the aftermath because he was busy making jam. “I’ve been in jams, and my advice is this – when in a jam don’t go and make any,” says Kinnock grimly. “The whole thing was a parable of Corbynism – of avoiding an opportunity in order to make a gesture.”
At the time of our interview, the campaign still has some weeks left to run before the result is announced at the party conference in Liverpool. Does he believe that Owen Smith, the challenger and recipient of the Kinnock imprimatur, is in with a chance? “I have absolutely no idea. I do know that I’ve had substantial numbers of emails from people who voted for Corbyn last year – for reasons which I totally understand – who have now changed their minds.
“The references aren’t to his policies but to his inactivity and to people’s revulsion at the alleged antics of some who say they support him. [Similarly] the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) didn’t vote overwhelmingly that they had no confidence because of policy but because of a total lack of confidence in his ability to lead the party. It wasn’t about the remnants of Blairism or people who had an innate grudge against Jeremy Corbyn. It was a vote by people who thought: ‘This guy just can’t do the job.’”
Nonetheless, this broad consensus failed to produce a rival candidate with any certainty of rattling Corbyn, let alone of unseating him. One criticism of Smith is that he appeared to be the embodiment of the problems bedevilling Labour rather than an antidote to its woes. Was he, at best, merely a staging post on the road to a post-Corbyn future? “I don’t see him as a halfway house. I [formed a] confidence in his ability to lead, to articulate, to organise and to manage. Those are the qualities we are looking for to restore Labour to a credible opposition.
“I led the party for eight and a half years, and in the end [the 1992 election] we just missed. But even on the days that were a manifest failure, we gave it our best shot. Owen Smith will always give it his best shot. That is why I voted for him in good heart. Ours is a party committed by constitution, history and tradition to the parliamentary route to socialism. Owen Smith understands that – like Bevan and Attlee and Foot and Callaghan.
“Protest will not bring the Tory walls of Jericho crashing down. It has to be done by organisation and ceaseless effort. We [had] one candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, who can’t do that, and one who can.” As Kinnock knows, by the time this interview is published, his words may stand as an epitaph to a failed campaign.
Should Corbyn be reanointed leader in Liverpool, what does Lord Kinnock think would happen next? “The strife can’t be concluded. I say that with no threat and much regret. The inability of Jeremy Corbyn to select a convincing shadow cabinet shows he is not fit to lead the Labour Party. Those who will not serve are people who, in all conscience, cannot support a leadership that lacks all credibility. There will then be threats, some veiled, some not, against those MPs.”
Having previously discarded the idea of a coalition of progressives from assorted parties, does Kinnock now concede that the tensions within Labour might portend a split within its ranks? “No. I’ve made very clear that there are no circumstances in which the party could or should split. People antagonistic to Corbyn are entirely legitimate members. They’re not going to jettison [their party] and find some other political vehicle. Jeremy Corbyn has a decision to make: How much does he love his party?”
It is unlikely that Kinnock detects much self-sacrificial impulse in a man who has long been a thorn in his side. When Tony Benn made his move against Kinnock in 1988, in the last challenge to an incumbent Labour leader, Corbyn was in the rebel vanguard. On that occasion, Kinnock easily secured sufficient backing from MPs to ensure his inclusion on the ballot paper. Corbyn, who failed to do likewise, had to rely on an Appeal Court ruling endorsing the NEC’s decision that he be allowed to run.
Kinnock is contemptuous of Corbyn’s remedy. “When the leader of a political party has to take refuge in the judgment of judges, and not do what is politically vital and honest, that speaks volumes. The constitutional provision was clearer back in 1988, but I didn’t know that when I made my decision. My attitude was that I wouldn’t take refuge in occupancy, and it wouldn’t have mattered a damn what the constitution said.”
Is he saying that Corbyn would have stood aside if he were a man of honour? “It’s a pretty straightforward matter of political integrity. You damn well have to maintain at least reasonable support in the PLP and across the party.”
Though many MPs share Kinnock’s concern about “utterly inadequate” local election results”, the timing of the move against Corbyn was dictated by a Brexit vote which may still augur an early general election.
“That prospect remains. My guess is that, if it happens, it will be levered by when to trigger Article 50 [the starting point in a two-year process to leave the EU]. Theresa May may argue she wants either a mandate or an endorsement for having triggered it. There will be incessant Tory pressure to get on with it. I don’t know how resilient she would be in those circumstances.”
Despite being a fervent Europhile who served first as an EU commissioner and then as the Commission’s vice-president in the years after he resigned the Labour leadership, Kinnock declines to endorse Owen Smith’s call for a second referendum or a general election to endorse any future deal. “I think that’s leaping too far ahead. We shouldn’t be describing the finishing line.”
Instead he wants a minimum of one select committee or similar body to ensure full parliamentary involvement in the Brexit negotiations. “Constitutionally, it’s essential to orientate policy, since they [the government] don’t know what the hell it is. We’ve got three Brexit secretaries of state. I’d make the case for three select committees.”
Kinnock denies that such bodies would merely become talking shops. Instead he argues that a time-limited investigation is essential. “The first part of what Owen says is practical and necessary – to hold off triggering Article 50 until we know what the hell it is we’re triggering.”
Parliament, he believes, must vote on activating the trigger and ensuring that Britain stays in the single market. And that means also accepting freedom of movement? “Yes, of course. When we made that case, we were dismissed as Project Fear. [But] the British people voted without being aware of the realities of staying, and certainly those of leaving.”
Given that he envisages so little change, what’s the point of leaving the EU and incurring all the potential disadvantages with none of the gains? “Those are profound questions, and I recognise their validity. But the fundamental question is: Are we still a parliamentary democracy that has to operate on the basis of a referendum result [albeit advisory]? The answer is yes, and the result is implacably there. Those who are elected must solve the problem.”
But shouldn’t people have a vote on the final deal? “I would be making a guess about [what happens in] two or three years’ time. And I simply don’t know.” On whether we might never leave the EU, he is similarly Delphic. “I have no way of knowing that.” He is however emphatic that Jeremy Corbyn’s feeble endorsement of the Remain message contributed to the Brexit vote.
Much more curiously for a diehard Labour crusader, Kinnock places great trust in the Conservative prime minister. “I do have faith in the basic rationality of Theresa May. She’s not flashy. I don’t think she’s as devoted to tomorrow’s headlines as some of her predecessors. She’s not going to risk her political future. I might be doing her too much credit, but I do think she’s enough of a responsible patriot to try everything she can to get the best possible deal for the UK.
“Suppose there was a queue of people, saying: ‘Brexit means Brexit – but what the hell does Brexit mean?’ Number one in that queue would be Theresa May. She knows that in making that assertion, she was also begging a generation-sized question. I don’t think she’s flippant or superficial.”
Briefly, Kinnock tempers this unprecedented endorsement. “I’m not a fan in any way. She’s a Tory, and a right-wing Tory at that. But daft she ain’t. So she will feel a deep obligation to do the best for the UK.” And if the deal to leave proves unworkable, could May yet pull back from leaving the EU? “Well, we will see.”
His respect for the PM and his disdain for his own party leader beg the question of whether Kinnock would rather live in a Britain led by May than submit to an (admittedly unlikely) Corbyn premiership? “No question. I want a Labour government. Full stop.” But how, as many delegates will wonder at Liverpool, is that to be achieved?
Though several MPs may be quietly manoeuvring for a future leadership bid, Kinnock detects no political Messiah waiting in the wings. “Anyone who thinks they are some kind of loaves-and-fishes saviour is completely deluded.” Nor does he hope for some charismatic challenger to rescue the party from its turmoil. “If the sun was charisma, Clem Attlee would be Saturn, but I’d settle for Clem. He took over in circumstances even more fraught than in our miserable age.”
While Kinnock has never succumbed to despair, he grieves for his party’s plight. “It is a source of dismay to me that basic lessons are overlooked. It means that yet again the Labour movement has to learn the hard way. It’s like self-flagellation.” He does not believe that the model of social democracy for which he has fought so hard is no longer viable, and nor does he think the gulf between centrists and the hard left within Labour is unbridgeable. The Militant Tendency which he faced down has little in common, in his view, with Corbyn’s backers in Momentum.
“Let’s go back. I knew as soon as Jeremy Corbyn was on the ballot paper that he was going to win.” As a veteran of campaigning, Kinnock detected a dangerous mood within Labour after the 2010 defeat and conveyed his fears, to little avail it seems, to those around Ed Miliband. “Rage against the Tories and impatience for Labour [to do better] landed straight in Corbyn’s lap. All that coincided with allowing people to have a vote for the price of a pint. But it was the will of existing members and newcomers which gave us Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum.
“There are a small number of ultra-leftists. But rage and impatience have given Momentum an influence Militant was never able to achieve.” The next step in Kinnock’s view, is that Momentum members will also grow hungry for victory and so evolve into the kind of doorstep campaigners who practise Kinnock’s brand of “socialism by slog.” In his expectation: “When people are presented with doorstep arguments, they will realise that they need a credible leader.
So under that process of osmosis, Momentum will become part of the solution rather than the problem? “But it’s the only solution. “They [the hard left] slog for their ideology or they don’t slog much at all until they realise they can’t do anything without power. Then they slog. I’ve seen it happen to countless people who moved from near-inertia to getting stuck in and realising that if Labour’s appeal is not broadened, its future is bleak.”
If Neil Kinnock has correctly assessed the route to political recovery, then his party will be saved by the very force that seems to undermine it. But if he is wrong, as less optimistic onlookers may suspect, then Labour’s future will rarely have looked more parlous.