Defence of Welsh windbag


September 6, 2002

The task that faced the biographer of Neil Kinnock was to save a basically decent human being from the overwhelming condescension of his contemporaries. It is a task in which Martin Westlake succeeds without ever actually admitting that this is what he is doing.

The book lacks a simple passage in which the case against Kinnock - the tabloid case - is put in the stark terms in which it was put in The Sun and in which the key "Basildon" voters articulated it. Kinnock, the caricature, was a Welsh windbag who had no principles and was unfit to be a prime minister because he did not look, sound or carry himself like one. Stating this and then presenting the case for the defence against this charge, and on the charges that came from the left and right, would have strengthened the book. Instead, Kinnock is constantly presented as the serious and interesting person he obviously is, without Westlake's explaining why this very seriousness has to be stated and justified quite so much.

In these realms of image, in the small essences of character and caricature that voters carry with them, Kinnock is for ever damned as the root of Labour's electoral weakness. In historical judgement, the tide is moving and Westlake contributes to the turn. In short, Blair has made Kinnock look much more like a prophet before his time than a reactionary out of it. It was Kinnock who did the work of building the majorities on policy committees and the National Executive Committee to reverse far-left policies on industrial and defence issues. It was Kinnock and his team who modernised and revamped the campaigning style and content of Labour's approach so that it matched and occasionally, in presentational terms anyway, beat the Conservatives. It was Kinnock who made Peter Mandelson director of communications and strongly backed Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for promotion as modernisers. It was also Kinnock who kept the party committed to a range of broadly new-left cultural issues on gender, sexuality and race, on which the supposedly radical and cosmopolitan new Labour Party is at times weak; and on race, as articulated through asylum policy, well to the right of the Kinnock Labour Party. It is impossible to imagine Kinnock's Labour planning concentration camps for people seeking refuge from persecution.

The bulk of this policy story, and many of the personal relationships that accompanied it, is well told by Westlake, who has a feel for the inner workings of the Labour Party, though little skill at conveying atmosphere. The sheer stamina that Kinnock must have had, the reserves of emotional energy, the force of personality and the physical strength to keep going are not sufficiently brought out in this account. Within the party, this was a war of attrition against a well-organised, ruthless and ambitious set of opponents led by Tony Benn. Kinnock spent the bulk of his early career as a darling of the left, though always moderated in a responsible way by the example of his hero, Nye Bevan. He was a committed democratic socialist with deep roots in the ideas of the interventionist, unilateralist radical left. Kinnock did not vote for Benn, and during the 1974-79 government and immediately after, he began to realise the potential electoral cost of the policies Benn believed in. After 1983, he changed his mind on some key issues such as Europe. After 1989, the world changed around him.

Keynes once asked: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" In Kinnock's case, the answer is that with a remarkable consistency in his values he changed his mind on the European Union, on unilateralism and on economic intervention and the ownership of industry. His problem was that every time he argued for change on these issues he was condemned as a traitor, as a hypocrite and as a liar - and that was just while he was talking to people inside the party. As the political theorist Philip Spencer has argued, it is almost impossible to change your mind on the left. Consistency is prized above being right. So Kinnock had to take the abuse from former colleagues and friends as he inched the party back from oblivion and towards being electable. He won all the internal battles, he reshaped the policy and the ethos of the party and he even contemplated changing clause four of the party's constitution. But he still lost in 1992.

However, the internal story of the Labour Party, well told by Westlake, is not why Labour lost in 1992. There has never been a greater vote against a leader of the Opposition than in 1992. On this larger, national canvas of politics, Westlake is less sure-footed. Kinnock says he recovered from the events of the election by the middle of 1993. There is ample evidence that what would have crippled most political lives cut Kinnock deeply but not fatally. Kinnock's essential buoyancy and optimism saved him. The post-1993 section of this book is an at times moving testimony to the man's resilience. The irony is that it was this buoyancy that was also key to the fatal image flaw that made the man and his party unelectable.

Another key to Kinnock's personal recovery is his wife, Glenys. The Kinnocks rank as one of the great political marriages of the century. The marriage and the family that surround it emerge as astonishingly important in providing the foundation and the support necessary to have endured the slow torture of a political career and the best explanation for the way in which the man appears to have emerged relatively unscathed from it. His obvious pleasure in the victories of 1997 and 2001 seem rooted, on the evidence of this book, in a sense of peace with his part in Labour's recovery; his initial reaction to the defeat in 1992, "I've wasted eight years of my life", has given way to more balanced reflection.

In turn, new Labour needs to acknowledge a little more readily that 1994 was not year zero. The case presented here though, that without Kinnock there would have been no new Labour governments, is in the end as partial as the new Labour view that modernisation began with the election of Blair.

Westlake has done a good job at putting Kinnock's side of the story and making the case for his leadership of the party, but he does not rescue his subject from continued sneering. Kinnock the human being, however, emerges triumphant, as intelligent, decent, honest and courageous. For now, that surely matters more.

Brian Brivati is professor of contemporary history, Kingston University.

Kinnock: The Authorised Biography

Author - Martin Westlake
ISBN - 0 316 84871 9
Publisher - Little, Brown
Price - £25.00
Pages - 768

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