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Conference Voyages: former Labour leaders Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock

Former Labour leaders Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair (Trinity Mirror/ Mirrorpix/ Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

A stale whiff hangs over the government, which has been in power for more than a decade and trailed in the opinion polls for months.

The prime minister who won a landslide has been toppled and doubt surrounds the replacement. The Tories keep losing seats at by-elections and the next general election is on the horizon. Now is the time for an opposition leader to pitch for a promotion.

For 2022, read 1991. Neil Kinnock began his conference speech in Brighton then, as Keir Starmer will surely do in Liverpool, by calling for an immediate election. “You can run but you cannot hide,” he said, accusing the government of being “afraid of the people”. John Major had less time to play with than Liz Truss, who can push an election into 2024, but Starmer will try, as Kinnock, to build a narrative of a tired government running on fumes.

“They have no fresh directions, no fresh approaches to offer,” Kinnock said, before adapting Christopher Wren’s epitaph at St Paul’s: “After 12 wasted years, if you want to see their monuments, look around you.” He then echoed his more famous speech in 1985, applying to the Tories an attack line he had used against the Militants in his own party: “You cannot play politics with people’s lives.”

It was a decent speech, full of ideas, and yet obviously it did not lead to victory. One reason, perhaps, looking back at it now, is that Kinnock appeared to be talking only to the room. It was chatty and insular, naming activists from the start and beginning every other paragraph with “comrades”. It ended with him organising a singalong of We Shall Overcome. “How about we get up and sing a song?” A speech from an imminent PM shouldn’t need a song to bring them to their feet.

Blair made his victory seem inevitable, giving people a reason to vote for him, rather than against the government

Tony Blair got that. Five years later, his speech in Blackpool was aimed through the camera lens, speaking not to proven loyalists but to those whom he wanted and needed to convert. Instead of sneering at Tories, he explained why people had voted for them four times, saying that he knew the previous election had been lost when he met a man polishing his Ford Sierra who told him he was voting Tory because they helped those with ambition.

“In that moment the basis of our failure became plain to me,” he said. “That man’s instincts were to get on in life and he thought our instincts were to stop him.” And so the thrust of Blair’s speech – a long one at more than 7,000 words – was to set out why Labour’s instincts had changed and crystallise them in 10 “vows” that he called his “covenant with the British people”.

The speech is best known for the banal repetition: “Ask me my three main priorities for government and I tell you: education, education and education.” What followed is a better line. “The first wonder of the world is the mind of a child,” he said. “Yet we are 35th in the world league of education standards today. Give me the education system that is 35th in the world today and I will give you the economy that is 35th in the world tomorrow.”

Blair set out a vision of two futures and pitched to build one that was optimistic and exciting, “a new age of achievement”. In his evangelical way, Blair achieved what Harold Wilson had done with his “white heat of technology” speech at Labour conference in 1963, also a year out from an election after a long Tory rule, and made progress something to be embraced rather than feared. He also made his victory seem inevitable, giving people a reason to vote for him, rather than against the government. That should be Starmer’s goal.

Patrick Kidd is editor of The Times diary column and author of The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics

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