The Luck of the Tories

Ross McKibbin

  • Kinnock: The Biography by Martin Westlake
    Little, Brown, 768 pp, £25.00, October 2001, ISBN 0 316 84871 9

Neil Kinnock is a problematic figure in modern British politics. He was leader of the Labour Party for nine years and presided over a number of profound changes in both its structure and its policy. All nine years, however, were spent in opposition. He was, furthermore, the only Labour leader (at least since Labour began electing ‘leaders’) never to have held a ministerial post – being PPS to Michael Foot for a year does not count. He is the only British party leader to have been an EU Commissioner – and is likely to remain so. As a result his record in ‘government’ is hard to judge, since what the Commissioners do (unless it is thought to be scandalous or incompetent) is rarely before the public eye. Yet they are powerful people, and Kinnock has plainly had some success: but his power and success have registered little with British opinion. What the public knows of him, therefore, is largely a product of the way the Tory press treated him when he was leader of the Labour Party. No other Labour leader, not even Michael Foot, was subject to the kind of personal abuse that Kinnock received – received (the odd outburst aside) with remarkable stoicism – and this undoubtedly coloured the popular view of him. As a result, he is rather hard to place, both as political leader and in the history of the Labour Party.

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