The Luck of the Tories
- 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.
Martin Westlake’s biography does much to place him and certainly encourages the reader to reflect on the recent history of the Labour Party. It is not exactly an official biography, but it is sympathetic (though not uncritical) and was written with Kinnock’s support. Kinnock’s own comments – on his own and others’ views – form the core of the book; they are supplemented by material from his extensive personal archive, by much oral evidence and by wide reading in newspapers and secondary literature. Since Kinnock was never in government the evidential basis of Westlake’s biography is not diminished by the Thirty-Year Rule. The European Commission’s archives and a reworking of Kinnock’s papers aside, what we have here is probably as much as we ever will have. As such, it is a useful and often revealing book.
Its most interesting aspects are to do with Kinnock’s leadership of the Labour Party and his relationship with New Labour: indeed, how far he was responsible for New Labour. Kinnock, it seems, thinks of his leadership as, on the whole, a failure. When the first result of the 1992 election was declared – a swing of only 2 per cent to Labour in Sunderland South – he said: ‘That’s it. I’ve just wasted eight years of my life.’ In retrospect, he may think differently; but even then it was possible to do so, or to think that ‘failure’ was too strong a word. When he became leader in 1983 the Party seemed almost down and out; it had won just 209 seats in the election of that year, and in terms of votes was in real danger of being overtaken by the Liberal-SDP Alliance. In 1992 Labour won 271 seats, regained much of its urban support, and polled twice as many votes as the Alliance. Perhaps more significantly, Kinnock had taken on and defeated Militant, and, in a (literally) bruising campaign, despatched the hard Left. All of this required considerable courage. There is no doubt that he left the Party in much better electoral shape than he found it. Yet one’s memory is of failure and wasted opportunities. And of a generally discreditable and puzzling episode in modern British politics: not only was the tabloid press’s treatment of Kinnock contemptible, but he evoked strange snobberies which have now largely disappeared from British life. It has been argued that any Labour leader at the time would have received the same treatment. But that is surely not so. It wouldn’t, for example, have happened to either Callaghan or Healey. Some have suggested that it was because he was Welsh: the English have an ineradicable stereotype of the garrulous Taffy and Kinnock was made to fit it. Yet this, again, is hardly true. Some English, for instance, might have feared Lloyd George or Bevan, but many more respected and hardly any mocked them. The problem was, as Westlake notes, that Kinnock’s career was ‘founded on his oratorical powers’, not on any great achievement in government or politics, and that he was perhaps the last politician of whom this was true. As a result, it was difficult for people to associate him with anything other than talking. Besides, his sort of inspirational oratory doesn’t mix well with the modern media. Ramsay MacDonald, a similar kind of orator, suffered badly from the radio, which was ideally suited to Baldwin’s more reticent style. Michael Foot had a reputation as a compelling and persuasive speaker, but that isn’t how he appeared on television.
In fact, Kinnock is a witty man and was perfectly capable of puncturing Thatcherite absurdities. But he chose not to use his wit on those occasions when it would have been most effective: notoriously during the Westland debate. (Though, despite what was said at the time, I doubt that it would have made much difference.) What emerged was everybody’s idea of a certain kind of windy politician. Disraeli, an expert in self-fashioning, said that England, subject to fogs and a large middle class, required grave statesmen. But Kinnock was not a grave statesman. Indeed, that is one of his more attractive features. At the time, however, his seeming to be neither witty nor grave undoubtedly undermined him as Labour leader. In this respect his political manner contrasts pointedly with that of both his successors.
About the second major theme of Westlake’s book – the extent to which the modern Labour Party, New Labour, is Kinnock’s creation – Roy Hattersley wrote last year that ‘the Blair Project is not a continuation of Neil Kinnock’s reforms. Kinnock wanted to establish a new and improved form of socialism. Blair believes he has found an alternative’ (Tribune, 28 September). For Hattersley, who was Kinnock’s deputy and whose views on New Labour are well known, that Kinnock should be thought to have spawned New Labour is a formidable charge. Nonetheless, what strikes one, reading Westlake’s biography, is just how much New Labour owes to Kinnock. Much of what he did of course had to be done: the 1983 election manifesto had committed Labour to many preposterous policies and the relentless negativism of Kinnock’s leadership in part arises from that. He was also, understandably, reluctant to support any policy likely to prolong the Party’s interminable ideological wrangling: doing nothing was better than doing anything.
Yet it is more than this. Kinnock knew what he did not like, but had little idea what he did. He seems to have been uninterested in the details of policy, let alone in the Party’s ‘aims and values’. Westlake suggests that, even as a student politician, Kinnock was a ‘pragmatist’: in short, interested primarily in ‘what works’. For better and for worse he appears surprisingly uninfluenced by his background and upbringing in the Welsh Valleys. This detachment allowed him a degree of hard-headedness, but also left him increasingly susceptible to the ideologues of the market. ‘In the manner of the convert,’ Westlake writes,
he went about the task with a zeal which eclipsed anything which more traditional men of the Right, such as Shore and Hattersley, could have contemplated. The problem was that Kinnock knew better what he did not want than what he wanted. Having taken such pains to shed one set of ideological baggage, Kinnock was in no hurry to take up another.
He records an incident in 1988 when a statement in a party document on Aims and Values (largely drawn up by Hattersley but issued in both names), arguing that, other than in certain areas such as health, education and social services, ‘the operation of demand and supply and the price mechanism is a generally satisfactory means of determining provision and consumption,’ had to be modified to meet the objections of people like John Smith. A pillar of the old Right of the Party, a man still rooted in its traditions, Smith didn’t feel that Labour had to start all over again. Kinnock became increasingly irritated with people who resisted the Party’s modernisation, whether they came from the Right or the Left. It is, however, unclear what modernisation meant (and means), other than basically accepting the status quo established by Mrs Thatcher. Although Kinnock denies it – he says, for example, that Labour supported entering the ERM at an impossibly high rate only for cosmetic reasons – it is likely that, even with John Smith as Chancellor, Labour would have been almost as ill-prepared for office under Kinnock as it was under Blair.
Striking, too, is the way the same names crop up. Charles Clarke, appointed Chairman of the Labour Party by Blair (it was once a prerogative of the NEC), became Kinnock’s research assistant in 1981 and then effectively head of his private office. Clarke’s CV is worth noting:
Like Kinnock he had been an active student politician, but on a national scale, first as Treasurer then (in 1975) President of the National Union of Students. From the soft Left of the Party, he had, from an early stage, the kind of realistic outlook that had come to loom larger and larger in Kinnock’s own thinking. Over the following decade the Clarke-Kinnock symbiosis consolidated this tendency, until ultimately it became the defining characteristic of Kinnock’s approach to politics.
Patricia Hewitt, now Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, is another example. She was originally Kinnock’s press secretary but adopted a more aggressive stance than the title implies. Kinnock himself was fascinated by journalists, while Hewitt, in Westlake’s account, was largely (though not wholly) interested in TV and radio, and in presentation. Her comments on the 1983 Party Conference are, as Westlake says, ‘enlightening’. She complains that Glenys Kinnock came onto the platform from the wrong end on the Sunday; that there were two empty seats behind the leader, and one on the NEC front row and so on. It was the way the Conference appeared visually to the media that seems to have concerned her. She was probably the one who attempted (unsuccessfully) to give Kinnock a makeover, to turn him into the grave statesman that Disraeli thought the English demanded. Hewitt’s was a style now all too familiar. She became Kinnock’s ‘gatekeeper’, and according to Westlake, a ‘wall had descended between Kinnock and the media’. Equally familiar is the sight of a Party obsessed with media management, yet curiously ineffective in its actual dealings with the media, and without a strategy for coping with their hostility other than to fawn.
There are other recognisable names. Kinnock was very dependent on Peter Mandelson: when Mandelson resigned as director of communications in order to stand for Hartlepool Kinnock ‘almost literally’ hopped with rage. He thought Mandelson ‘irreplaceable’; without him Walworth Road would ‘collapse’. And there are the protégés. Blair was made employment spokesman in December 1989. This was, Westlake says, ‘a significant pointer to the Labour Party’s future’ – with which no one would disagree. Blair’s first task was to rid the Party of its commitment to the closed shop. The closed shop seemed to be a violation of the EU Social Charter, to which Kinnock was committed, and thus had to go. Blair got rid of it at speed, without the usual processes of consultation. Kinnock thought him impetuous but gave him his full support, and I don’t imagine Blair did the job reluctantly. There were other appointments of the ‘Oxbridge and/or NUS’ type, many not well received by much of the Party. (Kinnock, however, declined to appoint Alastair Campbell press adviser for the excellent reason that he was more use to the Labour Party at the Mirror.) Kinnock’s, in fact, was the first of the New Labour ‘courts’. Wilson had a kitchen cabinet, and all Labour leaders have had confidants. But Kinnock’s was something different, both in size and function, and anticipated the courts which surround and protect Blair and Brown.
The relationship between Kinnock and New Labour makes clear, I think, that the origins of New Labour in the 1990s are to be found in the soft Left of the 1980s. Why that should be the case, why the old Right should have remained much more attached to a traditional social democracy, is a difficult question to answer. There is no doubt something in the sociology of the soft Left which made it readier to abandon that tradition, but the real answer may have more to do with a fundamental intellectual confusion. The Labour Party’s soft-Left modernisers could not see that exceptionally fortunate short-term circumstances were as much responsible for Conservative electoral success in the 1980s as long-term structural changes. Indeed, the modernisers hardly even recognised the existence of fortunate circumstances. The rapid decline of the industrial working class, profound shifts in the economy and in expectations of life, were things to which Labour had to adjust, but they alone were not, as Labour was inclined to think they were, responsible for Thatcherism’s triumphs. Without good luck and the favourable moment the Conservative Party would not have won those four elections. The Labour Party’s failure to make a distinction between long-term change and short-term luck had two consequences. It meant, on the one hand, that Labour had no explanation for the depth and speed of the Conservative Party’s collapse in the 1990s and, on the other, that by renouncing so much of the Labour Party’s history, by conniving at the delegitimation of the state and the public sector, it has devised few alternatives to those policies which brought the Conservative Party to ruin in the first place. That the Conservatives’ electoral success was purchased by an almost fabulous neglect of the country’s social infrastructure and the creation of widespread poverty, that these sooner rather than later would catch up with them, was instinctively understood everywhere except among the country’s political elite. It has taken the Labour Party nearly five years to come to terms with that. And the state as an organising agency has been so thoroughly undermined, ideologically and physically, that it is still unclear whether Labour can do much about it.
Whether we think Kinnock was the saviour of the Labour Party or its gravedigger depends very much on what we think of New Labour, and how far we agree with Hattersley that Kinnock was seeking not to abandon socialism but to introduce a new and improved form of it. Somebody had to disembarrass Labour of the infantile disorders of the early 1980s and Kinnock did that very well. As a result his successors were able to exploit the Conservative Party’s various disasters in the following decade. Kinnock, furthermore, did not (does not?) share New Labour’s overt or covert admiration for Thatcher. He retained a moral critique of the 1980s unfashionable in the contemporary Labour Party. And I like to think that he would not have dismantled the country’s comprehensive school system. Yet there is little in Westlake’s book to suggest that he was indeed seeking a new and improved form of socialism – if he was, he didn’t find it. Given his attitude to policy, to what underlay the electoral success of the Conservative Party, the people he promoted and whose guidance he sought, the only alternative likely to emerge was New Labour.