Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Leading the way

Neil Kinnock talks to Jennifer Gerber and Jessica Asato about the challenges ahead for Labour

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Neil Kinnock states that he is a man of 65, yet hearing him talk you can’t fail to be amazed by his energy. In many ways he’s still fresh-faced, able to construct arguments in the inimitable way only he can, couching debates in a language that resonates as much today as 20 years ago.

But the past is not something Kinnock feels the need to dwell on. Instead he articulates what challenges he sees ahead for Gordon Brown: ‘international policy, including the efforts to normalise and then withdraw from Iraq; relationships with the EU; relationships with the USA, as we approach a change in administration; and the domestic challenges arising from the requirement to maintain economic stability and social progress’.

He also includes what he perceives as the apparently silly, but necessary, challenge of presentation. He suggests that Brown needs to show that he is not the ‘sour, dour, remote, obsessive jock of his caricature’, adding that he will ‘triumph in that respect because people see that he is very substantial, a man of great breadth and great humanity’.

On the leadership and deputy leadership contest, Kinnock praises the ‘candour… and quality of the contributions which are free from animus’. So did he think the process enabled the Labour party to talk more freely about ‘traditional’ Labour issues such as housing and redistribution? He replies in the affirmative: ‘it means the party is going to be more confident of approaching these issues without fear of being misrepresented as reaching back into the distant, cobwebbed past’.

On the specific issue of taxation, Kinnock surmises that ‘if the party is prepared to put together a well argued case that relates to the tax obligations of the sensationally best paid minority in society… there’s a good chance that the opinion poll respondents would say that they would be prepared to consider paying more tax in the interests of social justice’, though adds ‘it’s whether they would be prepared
to vote for it!’ which is the problem.

On the merits of Labour’s new leader, Kinnock describes Brown as being ‘self confident about his convictions. He’s not an ideologue and he’s not doctrinaire, but he has got strong, clear and certain principles’. He argues that this ‘will provide a reinvigorating spirit in leadership’ which will help to energise both the party and society in general.

Developing on from this theme of leadership, Gordon Brown may have a reinvigorated party, but he will also have the sharp and relentless glare of the media spotlight on him. Following Tony Blair’s comment that the press had got noticeably worse over the last 10 years, how does Kinnock, who is no stranger to the acerbity of the media, view Blair’s conclusions? He certainly agrees that Blair’s relationship with the media worsened: ‘what we have seen in these 10 years is the continuing intensification of superficiality and sensationalism, and a tendency to distort, among large sections of the British press’.

He is clear though that, ‘until we sort out the issues of ownership of the press in this country there’s always going to be a big distorting influence on the written media’.

Off the media, and onto the nitty-gritty issues, does Kinnock agree with the government’s aim to increase choice in public services? ‘I’ve never been convinced that in the critical area of public services you can advance quality and achievement by a competitive process. You can do it in the private sector, certainly, but that’s in areas where the supply of goods and services is a matter of great interest but not life and death, and not life chances or the lack of opportunity.’ He doesn’t believe that competition between schools, for example, will improve performance – ‘as if they were making nuts and bolts or providing beef burgers, that isn’t how it works’.

It is this concentration on what Kinnock calls ‘a galaxy of ideas’ which he blames for Labour’s poor poll rating on public services. Taking schools as an example, he argues that it’s a ‘criminal tragedy that this extraordinary record of public expenditure commitment in every sphere of education has almost been skewered in the public mind by other factors’.

He ascribes this problem to ‘our people communicating dissatisfaction about, and disappointment with, education all the time. Any time we approach with a fresh plan, an innovation, what you’re saying is what we’ve got now is at best inadequate and the effect of that cumulatively is felt.’ He adds, however, that ‘it is to the eternal credit of this government that it has made investment in public services a priority’.

But despite this massive investment, it is still the case that David Cameron’s Tories have tried to chip away traditional support for Labour on issues such as schools and the NHS. Kinnock smiles knowingly when Cameron is mentioned, and you feel he has the measure of the man when he booms: ‘whenever Cameron’s Conservatives have got near having a policy, they’ve either been destroyed in a few seconds… or they’ve ended up on the rocks because of deep objections from a large section of the Conservative party’.

He adds that ‘this completely spurious nonsense about grammar schools’ would actually do very little for millions of Britain’s children, yet was ‘trumpeted as if it was the discovery of the other side of a distant planet’. Labour, he says, ‘has to make ‘Cameron exposure’ a continuous pastime’.

Labour has challenges too, however, and Kinnock is clear that the party has to directly connect ‘the accomplishments of the last 10 years with the purposes, principles and values that inspired the people who introduced these policies to pursue them’.

Another huge challenge for Labour is still the legacy of Iraq and Britain’s relationship with the US. Does he think Gordon will be able to walk this tightrope? ‘Gordon’s got a huge advantage. He’s been deeply, personally engaged in, and with, the United States and its decision making classes for about a quarter of a century.’ Kinnock suggests this could allow Brown to take ‘whatever stance he liked in relation to the Bush administration, without anybody, even his worst enemy, being able to accuse him of being “anti-American” or “tearing up the special relationship”’.

And what about Brown’s relationship with the EU where he has sometimes been accused of being overly cautious? ‘It’s not caution, in some respects it’s the opposite – impatience with the things that have always made me shudder.’ It is because often ‘the procedures, posturing and policy aspirations haven’t got a great deal to do with the demands that confront a country on the continent’.

If Gordon Brown sometimes ‘manifests his impatience more dramatically’ than Kinnock has, it is because ‘Gordon wants to make a practical difference and thinks that the European Union has got massive potential for doing that’. When the EU ‘looks inward and mumbles away to itself, that’s when Gordon sighs and throws down his pencil, folds his arms and leans back in his chair’.

It’s that note of impatience that you feel both Brown and Kinnock share – a desire to drive things forward, confident in Labour’s ability to lead on the issues of the day. ‘I know we have been a bit preoccupied with events within the party recently’, he says laughing, ‘but with those behind us I see a renewed party and government with a new focus on the challenges ahead’. And with that the man who led the party for nearly 10 years is as clear as ever on the challenges for the next 10.

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Jennifer Gerber

is director of Labour Friends of Israel

Jessica Asato

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