The worst loss of all

Neil Kinnock

Labour’s defeat in April 1992 had a profound impact on the party. What are the lessons for today, asks Paul Richards

Twenty years ago this month Labour suffered one of its worst defeats in a general election. It is a defeat which hangs heavy in the hearts of Labour supporters and has some important lessons for Ed Miliband.

The defeat on 9 April 1992 was not the worst in terms of loss of seats or share of the vote. That honour belongs to Michael Foot and Gordon Brown. Indeed, Labour gained 42 seats, and its share of the vote was 34.4 per cent (in 2010 it was 29.6 per cent). But Neil Kinnock’s defeat at the hands of John Major was the worst in terms of its psychological impact. To lose a fourth election in a row, in a recession and at the hands of a government whose poll tax had provoked civil disobedience and riots, left Labour activists reeling. In 1970, defeat was a surprise, but part of a pattern of periods of Labour government followed by defeat. In 1983 and 1987, the loss was expected from the moment the manifestos were published. In both elections, coming second, not third, was seen as something of an achievement.

But in 1992, the Labour party had undergone a thorough modernisation of its presentation under Peter Mandelson (although Mandelson himself was off pursuing election in Hartlepool). Labour had engaged in a grinding, painful policy review designed to eradicate line by line the election-losing policies of the 1980s. The tale is told best in Labour Rebuilt by Colin Hughes and Patrick Wintour, which maps out the policy review in forensic detail. It was clear early on that the end point of the Kinnock review was a modern Swedish- or German-style social democratic party, comfortable with markets and globalisation, committed to Nato and nuclear deterrence, and in the mainstream of European politics.

So by 1992, with some dramatic by-election, European election and council election victories under his belt, a party united, a lead in the opinion polls, and a carefully costed and modest manifesto, Kinnock could expect to win, or at least be leading a coalition government. I was with him on the steps of Labour’s HQ on the Walworth Road (now being converted into flats), with a throng of Labour staff and supporters, when he threw in the towel. Some were in tears. Others directed their anger at the press pack and snappers covering the concession speech. Among the staffers and volunteers were some of the ‘Luvvies for Labour’ who had been at the election night party in Millbank hours earlier. I recall Ben Elton miming throwing himself out of a window, and standing with Susan Tully from EastEnders while waiting for Neil Kinnock to return to London from south Wales. One of the few frontbenchers with a southern seat, Bryan Gould, was there in the thick of it. Up and down the Walworth Road, carloads of Young Conservatives sang ‘four-nil, four-nil, four-nil, four-nil’.

A modern manifesto, slick communications and a healthy position in the opinion polls: what could possibly go wrong? The fact that it did raised some painful questions for Labour. One was the suitability of Kinnock himself. Despite the esteem in which he was held in the Labour party itself, it was apparent that this affection did not extend into the southern English constituencies which Labour needed to win. The so-called Sheffield Rally had nothing to do with it. Blaming Sheffield is the supreme example of post-event rationalisation. Swaths of ‘middle England’ had made their mind up about Kinnock well before 1992, just as they did about Brown before 2010. Don’t get me wrong, if Kinnock said jump, I would have asked ‘how high?’ I loved his oratory and admired his fortitude. But the uncomfortable truth is that Kinnock, like Foot before him and Brown after him, appealed to Labour voters with the old-time religion and the reassuring statements. But they could not make the Labour party more than a party of labour.

A conclusion made by many in the party after 1992 was that a telegenic, personable leader was an important component in victory. The party chose John Smith, now lionised, but at the time subject to grumbling that ‘one more heave’ was not going to win the election. After Smith’s death in 1994, though, the party chose the good-looking ‘English’ candidate over the crumpled-looking Scot.

A second conclusion was that the policy review had not gone far enough. The herculean task of dumping unilateral nuclear disarmament, the closed shop, withdrawal from the European Economic Community, nationalisation of the utilities and other remnants of the 1983 suicide note had merely drawn the poison. It was not enough to be palatable. Labour needed to be positively attractive. The first Blairite reform was replacing the Edwardian language of clause IV, part IV with a modern statement of values. But it was the pledge card policy nuggets which allowed Labour candidates and campaigners to reassure and rebuild Labour’s support among people who had voted Tory in 1992.

It was also in this period that we established Progress as a platform for Labour modernisers. It will not be long before we are celebrating Progress’ 20th anniversary.

Of the current shadow cabinet, only Harriet Harman and Peter Hain were members of parliament prior to the 1992 election. Tessa Jowell has been around since the 1980s and entered parliament in 1992. A few of the others were active in politics, working as policy advisers or in thinktanks. For example, Yvette Cooper was Harman’s parliamentary researcher, and spent the autumn of 1992 in Little Rock, Arkansas working on Bill Clinton’s successful bid for the presidency. Many of the new MPs elected in 2010 were not even adults in 1992: Stella Creasy was 15, Rachel Reeves was 13, Chuka Umunna was 14, and Jonathan Reynolds was 12. Pamela Nash, the MP for Airdrie and Shotts, was eight years old. For them, the 1992 election may only be the stuff of teenage, or even childhood, memories. As the 20th anniversary approaches, they should think hard about what it meant. 1992 was proof that Labour election victories do not happen by accident. There is no pendulum that swings back and forth. Nor do they happen because the Tories are unpopular if Labour is loathed even more.

Then, as now, Labour’s chances of victory rest on a few thousand voters in the southern marginals: places such as Thurrock, Hastings, Southampton, Crawley, Brighton and Norwich. Labour is not campaigning in a vacuum. The Tories aim not only to keep the seats they have got, but also to take seats from Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Any Labour MP with a notional majority under 500 following the boundary changes will feel the heat.

If Labour cannot win over the hard-working, car-owning, owner-occupiers in southern and eastern towns and suburbs, piling up majorities in northern cities will count for nothing. This substratum of our society decides who governs. This is the real ‘political class’ – the people who decide who forms the cabinet. They do not like high taxes, an out-of-control benefits bill, or an interfering government. They have never been to Wales, Liverpool or Newcastle, but they have been to Ibiza and Majorca. In 1992, they preferred a grey man and party which had bashed the miners, brought in the poll tax and could not give a hoot about mass unemployment.

Labour’s leader has to look them (or their grown-up children) in the eye and win them over to a party they rejected in record numbers barely two years ago. No one said it was going to be a walk in the park.

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Paul Richards is the author of Labour’s Revival and a contributor to The Purple Book. Thanks to Biteback Publishing for allowing this article to be reproduced

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Photo: dushenka

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  • Anonymous

    An excellent analysis. You are quite right to say that Neil Kinnock and Gordon Brown were not popular with the electorate and this most certainly contributed to electoral defeat. I still believe that the speech “We’re Alright” by Neil Kinnock was an absolute disaster and most certainly deterred many of my friends from voting for the party. Ed Miliband will struggle to attract people in the South and East – Tony Blair has been the only Labour leader to do this. Regrettably, the party is coming over as anti business, anti aspiration and indeed anti everything. They are on dangerous ground when they pursue class issues too. Most aspiring families would, if circumstances permitted pay for education and health. Many of us are not against wealth although we despair of government waste and government running up debts. Tony Blair recognised that and his introduction of academies into state schooling and the private sector in healthcare were welcomed. To be honest I do not know what the party stands for anymore other than a party of protest. You can talk about the squeezed middle all you wish but we out here are feeling that the party is only interested in those reliant on the State and jumping on bandwagons to win the disaffected. We hate high taxes and a nanny state. We are tolerant of helping those who need us at times of crisis with dignity but abhor the culture which developed in the last decade that personal responsibility does not matter and the State will provide. That is why our Welfare Bill is out of control. In despair……

  • Anonymous
  • JackFogarty

    Why do Blairites always try to write that remarkable election result of 1931 out of history? Is it hatred of Michael Foot (whose record on resistance to Argentinian aggression against the Falklands shows up Blair’s desperate desire to invent weapons of mass destruction, and to fawn on Bush’s refusal to offer evidence against Osama bin Laden to the Taliban’s reasonable and correct request for such evidence)? or is it a suspicion that Blair is remarkably similar to the Ramsay MacDonald who won two great election victories in 1931 and 1935?

  • Thomascartwright

    Although Jack Fogarty has a shrewd point about Ramsay MacDonald, the victory of 1935 cannot be credited solely or perhaps even mainly to him. He resigned as PM inJune and the election was not until November. His identification of the weaknesses of Labour organisation and ideology, and his successful exposure and destruction of them were at their height in 1931 (do I recall a book by Bassett on this?); in this he outdid Blair. He abstained from foreign adventures, and set the scene for an election in which Labour ambiguity (opposing both rearmament and negotiation) resulted in a further victory for the National government which he headed.. {Edgerton BRITAIN’S WAR MACHINE, p 30}. He also presided over rapid industrial growth in the Southeast, especially Greater London (eg ibid p 25), a further point missed in Paul Richard’s comparisons.

  • Alex Grant

    I remember the 1992 election very clearly: I was 18 and it was the first time I voted. Paul’s analysis is right up to a point – but the key reason Labour lost in 1992 was not Neil Kinnock’s persona, but the perception that the party lacked economic credibility.

    I remember a hustings in the run-up to the 1992 election at my school in Kent (in a safe Tory seat, but not far from those marginal, Thames estuary seats which Paul rightly identifies as the battleground). The Labour candidate was torn apart by sixth-form students whose questions all harked back to the economic woes of the 1970s, and expressed doubt that Labour could ever be trusted on the economy.

    None of these students had been born before 1973 – so our memories of the late 1970s are hazy, and in many cases dependent on what parents had told us: Labour was the party of high inflation, going cap in hand to the IMF, strikes, the Winter of Discontent, etc etc. My then-schoolmates (many of whom are probably now Labour voters) simply felt that Labour had not changed, that Labour was the party of economic incompetence, and that electing them in 1992, when the country was only slowly emerging from recession, was too much of a risk.

    The 1992 election showed us that once a party acquires a reputation for economic incompetence – as Labour had in the late 1970s – it can take 15 or 20 years to shake it off. A similar thing then happened to the Tories: the near-fatal damage done to the Tories’ economic reputation by Black Wednesday in September 1992 was only finally repaired by the election of a Tory-led coalition in 2010, nearly 18 years later.

    This makes it all the more important that Labour refutes the Tories’ current arguments that it bequeathed “economic chaos”, a “record deficit”, or that it has failed to “fix the roof while the sun was shining” before 2010. These clichés may be rightly derided by Labour voters like us, but are gaining more and more currency among floating voters. If these charges stick, then Labour could be out of power for a decade or more.

    In fact, the deficit in 2010 was lower as a percentage of GDP than it had been for much of the twentieth century, and the impact of the Global recession were in many ways less pronounced in the UK than many other Eurozone countries, because of the interventions of the Labour Government between 2008 and 2010. Whatever Labour’s faults in the run-up to 2010, economic incompetence was not the principle one. We need to stress how the Tories have made things so much worse, in terms of unemployment, economic growth and consumer confidence, since May 2010.

    It is these arguments that need to be hammered home, not harking back to 1992 or the 1970s, which merely reinforces the Tory myth that Labour is forever associated with austerity, economic woes and deficits, that history is bound to repeat itself, and that Labour is doomed to be in opposition for the next ten years or more. We need to make sure that 18-year-old first time voters at the general election of 2015 and 2020 are not asking the same questions of Labour candidates that they were in 1992.

  • Thomas Headland

    Paul Richards makes a very honest and interesting analysis. True, Kinnock seemed too much to appeal to core Labour voters and less to the wider community, but the latter also doubted him because he was too close to his past. How had someone so prominent on the left, so vociferous a member of CND come to switch positions so radically? I do not imply at all bad faith on Kinnock’s part but popular perceptions of him in this regard were negative.

    However, I am trying to understand what I might infer from Paul Richard’s closing two paragraphs and his perceptions about the “hard-working, car-owning, owner-occcupiers” in the southern and the eastern suburbs whom Labour must convince to win. They do not like, he says, “high taxes and an out of control benefits bill or an interfering government”. Let’s leave aside how the writer would define those highly loaded terms, but I am mindful that, as J K Galbraith once said, “When you stand a Republican against a Republican, the real Republican always wins”.

    We do not have to go back to Benn versus Healey and the bad old days to offer these voters a view of Labour which while meeting their needs, makes us a party distinctive from even “soft” Lib Dems and Tories, but also shows that self-interest is not the way to solve society’s problems and that a concern for others may also serve your own interests.