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'A comprehensive examination': Lord Clark reviews 'Neil Kinnock: Saving the Labour Party?'

Neil Kinnock at Labour Party Conference, Bournemouth, October 1985 | Alamy

3 min read

Kevin Hickson’s book adds much to our understanding of an outstanding leader

I have known and worked alongside Neil Kinnock since we were elected to the House of Commons on 18 June 1970. We were amongst the youngest MPs. From the very beginning, as well as being active in Parliament we campaigned in the wider community.

Our respective majorities however necessitated a differing approach. Most of my efforts centred on Colne Valley constituency in West Yorkshire which I had gained from the Liberals by a mere 856 votes. Neil had won Bedwellty in South Wales with a massive 22,279 majority. Nevertheless, he was an assiduous constituency MP as well as making a name for himself as a fine platform speaker.

He eschewed any approaches to join Labour’s front bench in the Commons, preferring the wider campaigning across Britain. After a period, I took an alternative route, becoming shadow minister of agriculture and food. For each, it was the correct choice.

My first thoughts when I first came across Kevin Hickson’s book were mixed. It’s not a formal biography but a collection of essays by 26 contributors from a wide variety of perspectives. I doubted whether such an approach would work. I was wrong to doubt. The very breadth of the essayists inevitably presents differing pictures which collectively add much to our understanding of an outstanding Labour leader.

Hickson’s subtitle to his book is simply, Saving the Labour Party? It prompted me to consider the proposition. On reflection, I concluded he did save the party at a critical period when it was under serious threat from the hard left.

As to the stark subtitle of the book, I simply ask if a question mark is necessary?

Kinnock changed tack in 1979 and joined the front bench. Four years later, he was elected leader of the Labour Party. His leadership from October 1983 until July 1992 coincided with most of Margaret Thatcher’s years as PM. He appreciated that Britain was suffering from de-industrialisation and the Labour Party urgently needed to modernise its approach. He supported the miners during their strike of 1984 to 1985 but not their president, Arthur Scargill’s, strategy. The Trotskyist Militant Tendency had taken over many local parties and were threatening the party nationally: indeed two MPs represented Militant in the Commons. In my more than 60 years’ membership of the Labour Party, it was the nearest it came to being captured completely by the anti-democratic left.

At the 1985 party conference following the strike, Neil took a similar view and made a passionate appeal for the party to return to its social democratic values. He made some enemies on the hard left but won the day. Those years in the 1970s when he travelled the country addressing local party meetings meant he had made thousands of friends and they stood by him at this crucial time.

He felt he had achieved his mission and resigned as leader soon after Labour’s defeat at the 1992 general election but remained in Parliament until early 1995. On leaving the Commons he was appointed a European commissioner for transport where he remained until appointed as vice president of the commission for five years. He was nominated to the House of Lords in 2005. 

As to the stark subtitle of the book, I simply ask if a question mark is necessary? Having worked with Neil Kinnock over many years, I don’t believe it is. At the party’s most critical moment, he did not shirk the responsibility of successfully taking on the Trotskyite infiltrators and routing them. This book provides a comprehensive background to the crucial decision.

Lord Clark of Windermere is a Labour peer

"Neil Kinnock: Saving the Labour Party?"
Edited by: Kevin Hickson
Publisher: Routledge

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