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The Neil Kinnock interview: 'As long as I breathe, I’m going to be interested in the Labour Party'

8 min read

Lord Kinnock may not have made it to No 10, but he remains a totemic presence in Labour. He shares with Sienna Rodgers his analysis of leaders past and present – and what the party must do to secure a successful future

Everyone was expecting a Labour victory. Not a huge majority, perhaps, but a narrow win – or at least the largest number of seats in a hung Parliament. That all came to a shuddering halt on election night 1992, when it became clear Neil Kinnock would never be prime minister. Reflecting on that moment, 30 years later, the now-Lord Kinnock reveals he was one of the few people in the country who wasn’t surprised.

“It was a beautiful morning and that lifted everybody’s spirits,” the former Labour leader says of polling day, 9 April 1992. “The problem was I knew we weren’t going to win. Our private polling showed we’d been behind throughout the whole campaign.

“Secondly, and I think even more importantly, my instinct after 40-odd years of campaigning, and [his wife] Glenys’ instinct, was the sense of welcome and support we’d been looking for just wasn’t there.”

Kinnock is speaking not in Parliament but over Zoom from his home in north London. He recently disclosed that Glenys – a former minister, MEP, Labour peer in her own right and his wife of 55 years – has Alzheimer’s, making it harder for him to travel to Westminster. His huge respect for her as both a life partner and politician is evident in the way he refers to her political instincts.

“Elections are won and lost in years, not in weeks”

The memory of those strange weeks, when the Kinnocks kept secret their sense of foreboding about their prospects of moving into No 10, has stayed with him down the decades. 

It was a case of finding the strength to “strive on and sustain the spirit of purpose” throughout the campaign, despite his expectations of a loss, he says. “That wasn’t an easy thing to do. But all politicians are, to some extent, actors who can pretend they’re in a comedy when they know they’re in a tragedy.”

The front page of The Sun that election day blared: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.” Although he was reported at the time as blaming the Tory-supporting press for Labour’s defeat, Kinnock now believes the “generally poisonous” coverage made little difference. 

“Elections are won and lost in years, not in weeks.” For the same reason, he says the infamous “Well all right!” Sheffield rally, which prompted accusations of hubris, was “incidental” and “did us no damage whatsoever”.

Instead, he attributes the loss to three factors: voters’ long memory of the late 1970s and the 1980s; his nine-year tenure as opposition leader (he considered leaving but decided the resulting internal turmoil would “neutralise any advantage that came from going early”); and that “nice Mr Major – and I say that without irony”. Like Boris Johnson in 2019, John Major’s replacement of Margaret Thatcher 16 months before the election signalled to the electorate they could vote Conservative again, as the same party represented change.

Another anniversary deserves recognition: 25 years ago, Labour won a landslide, for which many would say Kinnock laid the groundwork. Did a part of him – perhaps understandably – feel it should have been him? 

“No, I was ecstatic,” he insists, though he adds candidly: “I’d be less than human if it didn’t occur to me, when I saw Tony and Cherie [Blair]  outside the door of No 10, a spasm of thought that reflected on 1992.” But it was “a spasm, not any kind of a lingering thought”.

The former leader was critical of the New Labour government at times. Kinnock says: “I was very fortunate, indeed privileged, that right throughout all those years with Tony and Gordon [Brown], their door literally was permanently open to me. Sometimes they asked me to come in, other times I asked to go in, but meetings were arranged sometimes at an hour’s notice.” 

He used these opportunities to raise “much more frequently matters of praise and emphasis” than of disagreement – but nonetheless he did disagree.

Specifically, Kinnock had “a real dispute” with Blair over education; he pushed for reforms – smaller class sizes, better pay and conditions for teachers, a programme for 11 to 14-year-olds – and was disappointed when a report exploring the policy area was not implemented in full. But the discussions were “all friendly”, and “all secret”, he stresses. “This is the furthest I’ve ever gone in disclosing what went on.”

We turn to Ed Miliband, whose election as leader was championed by Kinnock before the younger man repeated his mentor’s experience at the polls. Where did it go wrong? 

“The factor I underestimated was the degree to which the leadership office can become a bit of a bunker,” Kinnock says. And a “drift” led to the impression Labour was “distant from the reality of life”.

“I think change is well and truly under way under Keir Starmer, so I’m optimistic about the future, I say with some relief”

On Labour’s next leader, Kinnock is much harsher: “Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was a grand error.” The Islington MP’s unexpected elevation to the leadership in 2015 was an “understandable self-indulgence”, Kinnock says. “Whilst Labour quite likes to win, the Tories only exist to win. And it would be sensible for the Labour Party to adopt a similarly relentless view of the need for power.

“If the Labour Party ever again becomes dominated by people who give greater priority to power in the Labour Party than they give to power for the Labour Party, then we’ll continue to be an object of political interest, but never a party of power.” 

The current leadership is much more to Kinnock’s taste, however. “I think change is well and truly under way under Keir Starmer, so I’m optimistic about the future, I say with some relief, because I have to say I went through some bleak years after 2015.”

Corbyn is now a member of Labour but not of the parliamentary party. He came close to having the whip taken away before – under Kinnock’s leadership, after meeting with convicted IRA volunteers in 1984. (Corbyn later said he had never met people from the IRA but had associated with members of Sinn Féin.)

Kinnock admits he intervened – in a move that ultimately changed the course of history. He still believes he did the right thing. “The idea of taking the whip off him because he spoke to people would have been the wrong step. So, I just let it lie.”

“I tend to send him really amusing – what do they call them? – tweets that I’ve picked up”

Kinnock is fully supportive now of Starmer’s decision to suspend the whip over Corbyn’s comments on anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, arguing it is “sensible and correct” because being a former leader – rather than a rebellious backbencher  – “changes the context completely” of such remarks.

Kinnock knows better than anyone just how challenging it is to be Labour leader, and reveals he often tells Starmer he is doing a good job: “Having been in that position, I know it makes a difference.” They communicate “quite frequently,” exchanging jokes. “I tend to send him really amusing – what do they call them? – tweets that I’ve picked up.” 

All elected politicians have it tough, Kinnock says. Laughing, he recalls how old friend and former MP for Ealing North Stephen Pound would reply when asked on holiday what he did for a living: “I’m a traffic warden!” 

Would Kinnock recommend the leader role to his son Stephen, 52, a Labour frontbencher with strong views on the party’s future direction? Could he even be a future prime minister? “Well, he’s never thought about it, so I haven’t,” the former leader replies. As a father, he cannot however resist adding: “In terms of capability, he can do anything, and he’s always been that kind of person.

“He’s also someone who, to his credit, has got a great sense of public service duty. That’s why he gave up quite a remarkable career in the private sector to become a Member of Parliament. When he told me that was his intention, I said all the things a father would say, including, ‘You do realise you’re going to take a big – a gigantic – wage cut?’ And he said, ‘I know all about that, Dad. I want to put something back in and do it in a way that makes a difference.’ That defines his motives, and still does.”

Although Kinnock has just turned 80, he shows no sign of losing interest in politics – or his party. He is still active and recently became chair of Labour in Communications, a network of Labour-supporting people who work in public affairs. 

“As long as I breathe, I’m going to be interested in the affairs, the direction, the challenges of the Labour Party,” he says emphatically.

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