Nanny knows best

Michael Stewart

  • Kinnock by Michael Leapman
    Unwin Hyman, 217 pp, £11.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 04 440006 3
  • The Thatcher Years: A Decade of Revolution in British Politics by John Cole
    BBC, 216 pp, £12.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 563 20572 5
  • Thatcherism and British Politics: The End of Consensus? by Dennis Kavanagh
    Oxford, 334 pp, £22.50, March 1987, ISBN 0 19 827522 6
  • The New Right: The Counter-Revolution in Political, Social and Economic Thought by David Green
    Wheatsheaf, 238 pp, £22.50, March 1987, ISBN 0 7450 0127 0

Let us begin with Kinnock, in order, so to speak, to get him out of the way. If one’s view is that Neil Kinnock is a good man in a position made impossible by historical developments, one will not find much in either Michael Leapman’s sympathetic and readable portrait, or John Cole’s lively and good-humoured canter over the events of the last decade, to change one’s mind.

The nature of the Labour Party’s – and Kinnock’s – problem was vividly illustrated by what happened when James Callaghan resigned the leadership late in 1980. At that point the new machinery for electing the leader – designed to outweigh the traditionally right-wing bias of the Parliamentary Labour Party – had not yet been established, and the election was decided by MPs alone. They voted 139 for Michael Foot, 129 for Denis Healey. This, to put it mildly, was asking for trouble: and the 1983 election duly delivered it. Few people can doubt that Mrs Thatcher would have faced a far more formidable foe in Healey, and it is not absurd to imagine that the election result might have been different. But the hypothesis is unreal, for if Healey had been elected leader by MPs, the Party would have been hopelessly split; there might even have been what John Cole calls ‘the two Popes problem’, with a different leader elected by the new electoral college. In the aftermath of the 1979 electoral defeat only somebody with impeccable left-wing credentials, committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament, could hope to impose even a semblance of unity on the Labour Party. Yet such a person would find it very difficult to win a general election. (It is the same dilemma that sometimes arises in American Presidential politics: some hopefuls are regarded by commentators as nominable by their parties, but not electable; others are judged to be electable, but not nominable.)

The situation recurred, in spades, after the 1983 election disaster. That Kinnock is not electable has yet, of course, to be demonstrated: but it is clear that nobody else would have been acceptable as party leader. He got 71 per cent of the votes in the new electoral college; the runner-up – Roy Hattersley – got 19 per cent. Healey did not even bother to stand.

Michael Leapman does not duck the fact that Kinnock has made some mistakes and had some failures. In the 1984-85 miners’ strike, for example, he got the worst of both worlds. Many of his constituents are miners, and his own roots are deep in the valleys of South Wales. His emotional attachment to the miners and their cause inhibited him for far too long from denouncing the illegitimacy of the strike and condemning the violence which Scargill was condoning and encouraging. But the fact that this brought him so much obloquy from moderate opinion did not prevent him from coming under heavy fire from the hard left of his own party as well. This was because Kinnock’s distrust of Scargill and his destructive philosophy – ‘the Labour movement’s nearest equivalent of a First World War general’ he had presciently called him in 1983 – made him refuse to even visit a picket line until the strike was almost over. Another setback was the failure to do the spadework necessary to ensure enough votes at the 1984 Annual Conference for his proposal that all party members, and not just the activists, should be entitled to vote in the selection and reselection of Parliamentary candidates – with the consequence that the next Parliament, particularly if Labour does relatively well, will contain a quite disproportionate number of representatives of the hard left. And – something Leapman perhaps passes over too lightly – his failure in the Westland debate in January 1986 to knock the Prime Minister off an exceedingly precarious perch must have been a source of bitter regret to Kinnock himself.

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