Peter Mandelson recalls Neil Kinnock’s fight to rescue the Labour party following his election as party leader 30 years ago
For the current generation of Labour activists and MPs – those, in the main, whose political experience and outlook were shaped by the party’s 1997 landslide – there is little awareness of what we had to go through to achieve this and the unprecedented further election victories that followed. Or who was chiefly responsible for saving the Labour party so that we could go on to earn those victories.
This year is the 30th anniversary of Neil Kinnock’s election as Labour leader. It is timely to commemorate what he did because it was he, more than anyone, who rescued Labour from a near-death experience in the 1980s and laid the foundations for that later landslide.
The year was 1983, etched in the memory as the nadir in Labour’s postwar electoral fortunes. The most vote-losing policies – ‘the longest suicide note in political history’ as Gerald Kaufman dubbed the manifesto – were served up to the public by an endearing but unelectable leader in what must have been the worst-organised campaign ever mounted by the party. It fell to Kinnock to pick up the pieces of this fiasco.
The problem, though, was that this was not some one-off unfortunate event. It was the culmination, or so we hoped, of a fit of madness that befell the party as rancour and bitterness swept through our ranks following the defeat of the Labour government in 1979 and which saw the virtual capture of the party by those whose politics had barely anything to do with mainstream Labour supporters let alone the public at large.
The party that Kinnock inherited had already split with the formation of the breakaway Social Democratic party, led by Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers, and Shirley Williams. Swaths of Labour voters and trade unionists turned away from their traditional affiliation to embrace a new party they thought better reflected their moderate views. These voters were looking for a credible alternative to Thatcherism rather than the mirror-image extremism that ultra-left cadres were foisting on Labour.
For those who defied the pressures and stayed anchored in Labour, there were two camps: the Tribunite left and the centrists grouped in the organisation Labour Solidarity. And it was these loyalist armies who devised their fightback and rallied behind their respective leadership candidates in 1983, Kinnock and Roy Hattersley.
I worked for Hattersley’s campaign for the party leadership: photocopying, dispatching leaflets and answering the phone. No disrespect to Neil, but I thought the soft left had too often indulged the ultras who brought us to the brink of the abyss. And no disrespect to Roy, who remains a friend, but I was wrong in my choice between these two men.
From the moment of his election, Kinnock worked to forge an alliance and a strategy within Labour that Hattersley would have found difficult to cement. The party – eventually – was prepared to take from Kinnock what it would not have swallowed from the man who became his deputy.
The two of them brought the party’s two loyalist camps together and plotted our way back from oblivion. But it was a long, hard road.
Why was it so difficult? The first year was thrown away on Arthur Scargill’s futile miners’ strike and its aftermath. The second and third years were devoted to battling Militant Tendency, with success coming at a high price in publicly displayed strife, however much it did for Kinnock’s reputation for toughness.
Few forget his famous 1985 speech at Bournemouth – ‘Implausible promises don’t win victories. I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises …’ The deeper, underlying problems, though, were those of ideology and the party’s public connection. The party simply did not understand that the Thatcher brand – with its rejection of high taxes, militant unions, ‘wasteful’ public spending and state ownership of utilities and industry – went with the grain of public opinion, whereas fewer voters thought Labour’s traditional brand and its policy prescriptions worked any more.
Margaret Thatcher was seen as committed to a necessary overhaul of the economy while oblivious to the social consequences of what she was doing. Labour was regarded as the opposite – dedicated to social protection without realising the changes the economy had to undergo. Where Kinnock stood on this divide was not always easy to discern but – and he may kill me for saying so – I suspect he knew there was a little more in what Thatcher was saying than he let on.
I worked very closely to him throughout this whole period. I trumpeted his every move, glossed over every setback and lauded his personal qualities to the sky. I had no difficulty doing so. He was Labour’s best – only – hope at the time, as his virtuoso performance in the 1987 general election campaign showed. That was the moment – Kinnock rhetoric, red roses and all – when we truly came back from the dead, saw off the SDP-Liberal Alliance and reinstated Labour as the main challenger to the Tories.
But getting to grips with our policy shortcomings was harder than applying the presentational makeover. On the eve of the 1987 campaign, the Trades Union Congress suddenly laid down its own programme of largely unreformed policies it expected to see implemented by an incoming Labour government. I was horrified by the propaganda boon this offered to the Tories. I went to see Neil in his room at the Commons. He was busy polishing his shoes (a favourite past time also pursued by Tony Blair). He shrugged but said, between powerful brush strokes applied to his shoes, there were many policy teeth that would have to be pulled after the election was over.
And – up to a point – they were duly pulled between 1988 and 1990: unilateralism, nationalisation, Europe, council house sales, the closed shop and more. It was often two steps forward, one step back, given the resistance to the changes needed and the difficulty in picking his way through the minefield of Labour’s arcane policymaking procedures, cajoling here, compromising there, totting up votes among constituency parties and the trade unions wherever he could. Throughout, Kinnock was wary of losing his own leftwing credentials, always aware that changes of this kind would only be accepted by the party from a leader with such political and working-class credentials as his.
But it was not just on the left that he faced frustration. On the right of the party there was sometimes less policy realism, or courage, shown than Kinnock wanted. In John Smith’s ‘shadow’ budget prior to the 1992 election, it was clear that tax and spending were going to remain our achilles heel. As a result, we failed to convince. We were newish but not, yet, unambiguously new and the public saw through this.
The subsequent defeat in 1992 came as a shock to the party but it could be foreseen. The switch from Thatcher to John Major, a softer, more unifying figure, signalled to voters that the Conservatives were becoming a gentler, more middle-of-the-road party. But the main issue remained the economy. The country was in recession, from which you might think the Tories had most to fear. But the public’s bigger thought was that Labour policies might make things worse. If times were hard and likely to remain so, could the country afford to spend more, and could any family afford to pay the higher taxes Labour demanded? Kinnock heard our pollsters’ warnings and he was worried. But others refused to listen and, ever since, I have doubted the old adage that ‘governments lose elections, oppositions don’t win them’.
It is also true that, as the election approached, Kinnock was not his old self. I sometimes think he became exhausted by the sheer, constant uphill struggle of forcing his fractious party to follow him without argument or dissent. The great Welsh orator, who had often used words to bridge the divide between party and public, trying to bowl both along with him, suddenly felt the well was dry and he found it harder to rediscover the edge and passion he needed to stir audiences. He was aware that his most memorable speeches, although not forgotten, had become dated, those like his 1983 election speech: ‘I warn you not to grow old …’ Or his 1987 speech, ‘Why am I the first to go to university …’
But this is not why we lost, forcing Kinnock’s resignation immediately after. The damage Labour did to itself in the early 1980s and its inability to adapt to social and economic change went too deep for anything other than a longer-term project to succeed. It is true that Kinnock’s 1992 campaign did not display the verve and cohesion of the ‘red rose’ campaign of 1987 – described by Private Eye as ‘Labour’s brilliant election defeat’ – and, without doubt, the extraordinary rubbishing of Kinnock by the Murdoch press and the Daily Mail took its toll.
But the battering Kinnock received was, in reality, a reflection of the fact that Labour had not modernised enough; the party’s unwillingness and inability to take tough policy choices were projected onto Kinnock.
Too many in the party believed that the Tories’ unpopularity would be enough to offset Labour’s negatives and give us victory. They were wrong. The country was looking at how Labour would perform and too often judged this by our past performance. I believe Kinnock saw this; he worried that we were unconvincing but, by then, he had given his all. It fell to another leader at the election that followed to complete the turn of the kaleidoscope.
But the fact that the kaleidoscope existed at all was ultimately Kinnock’s achievement, no one else’s.
Peter Mandelson was the Labour party’s director of campaigns and communications from 1985 to 1990
Conservatives, Labour, Labour history, Margaret Thatcher, Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandelson