Thirty years after Neil Kinnock’s Bournemouth speech, Robert Philpot recalls the fight to save the Labour party from the hard left
In September 1985, two years after Neil Kinnock was elected its leader in the wake of the devastating landslide defeat which saw Margaret Thatcher re-elected with a majority of 144, the Labour party gathered for its annual conference in Bournemouth.
There were few signs that, after its critical collision with the electorate, the party was close to coming off life support. Even as the government headed into the middle of its term, Labour was recording only anaemic opinion poll leads, thanks in part to a resurgent Liberal-Social Democratic party Alliance. Four months previously, the party had lost 124 councillors in the local elections as the Alliance – which had also inflicted the Tories’ only two by-election losses since the general election – gained 302.
The roots of Labour’s difficulties were not hard to discern. Despite having been behind the party’s humiliating loss in 1983, the hard left showed few signs of chagrin. Tony Benn, ejected by the voters of Bristol, had returned to parliament in a by-election in 1984. On the party’s National Executive Committee, Benn continued to lead a noisy opposition to any attempt by Kinnock to, as the left put it at the time, ‘compromise with the electorate’. As Arthur Scargill intended, the year-long miners’ strike, which had ended in humiliation in March 1985, saw him, as president of the National Union of Mineworkers, become the focus of opposition to the government.
As Peter Mandelson, soon to become Labour’s director of communications, later recalled: ‘The party was again associated in the public mind with the vote-killers of 1983: ideological infighting, rhetorical excesses and trade union militancy.’ Focus group findings presented to the party in the autumn of 1985 brought nothing but bad news. The imagery associated with the party – ‘reds’, ‘commies’, ‘you will do what you are told’, ‘strikes’, ‘Scargill’ and ‘Militant’ – meant that even many of those who had voted Labour in the past had already ruled out doing so when Thatcher next went to the country.
These perceptions of the party were not simply drawn from tabloid lore. In many of its traditional heartlands, a ‘new urban left’ had emerged and – unchecked by the Wilson and Callaghan governments – had grown in strength during the 1970s. By the 1980s, this new left saw local government as both laboratories for its leftwing policy agenda and citadels of opposition to Thatcherism.
The vanguard of this movement was Militant, a Trotskyist organisation committed to an ‘entryist’ strategy to pursue its Marxist programme through the Labour party. With 140 full-time staff – more than the Liberals and SDP combined – a weekly newspaper, 5,000 members and control of Labour’s youth wing, the Labour Party Young Socialists – it had been the subject of a damning report by the party’s national agent, Reg Underhill, in 1975. Finally, in 1982 and early 1983, the party began to awake from its slumber, declaring Militant ‘ineligible for affiliation’ and expelling five members of the paper’s editorial board.
But in June 1983, Militant scored a victory which threatened to wreak havoc on Kinnock’s leadership: as the party crashed to defeat nationally, Labour won control of Liverpool city council. For nearly two decades, Militant had been stealthily gaining control of the Liverpool party. Now, the council’s new deputy leader, Derek Hatton, later wrote, ‘Militant could show what it was made of, and Liverpool … could become a “showcase” city, a platform on which to demonstrate what could be achieved.’
For Hatton, who in reality led the council, ‘showing what it was made of’ meant staging a confrontation with the Thatcher government. In the summer of 1985, the council passed an illegal budget with a £100m deficit, thereby daring the government not to step in with additional funding to keep services running. It was a fatal miscalculation: having defeated the miners, Thatcher was in no mood to compromise with Militant. Behind the scenes, an increasingly frustrated Kinnock warned the Liverpool councillors that such ‘gesture politics’ risked inflicting grave harm on those who depended on council services.
It was thus a combination of principle and political calculation which led Kinnock to decide to use his speech in Bournemouth to denounce Militant. Just days before the conference opened, the council provided the Labour leader with his opening: with money running out, it hired a fleet of 30 taxis to hand out redundancy notices to its entire 31,000 workforce. ‘I’ve got them. This is where it ends, in a shambles,’ Kinnock told his chief of staff, Charles Clarke.
When he rose to his feet on Tuesday 1 October, few were prepared for what was to come. Having delivered a series of attacks on the Tories and Alliance, he moved on to warn the Labour party that ‘implausible promises do not win victories’. And then he delivered the hammer blow: ‘You start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, outdated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end up in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.’
It was, recorded Robert Kilroy-Silk, then a Labour member of parliament, ‘as if a bomb had exploded’. From the floor, Hatton yelled: ‘You’re telling lies.’ Seated on the conference platform as a member of the NEC, Liverpool MP Eric Heffer got up and walked off the stage. While most of the conference floor stood to applaud, Kinnock – ‘looking so small and vulnerable,’ wrote Kilroy-Silk – waited while the mixture of cheering and booing subsided, before continuing: ‘You can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services or with their homes.’ Benn recorded in his diary that he had left the conference and wept.
For once, a leader’s speech deserved the plaudits it received. Denis Healey’s judgement that Kinnock’s words were of ‘historic importance’ proved prescient. Over the coming months, Militant’s leadership was painstakingly rooted out and expelled. For Kinnock, who had long been averse to expulsions, it was less Militant’s ideology, distasteful though he found it, but its secrecy – ‘they actually deny the existence of an organisation and a membership’ – which was ‘dishonest and disreputable’.
Kinnock’s decision to take on Militant led to a marked shift in the party’s internal dynamics with long-term significance. David Blunkett, then the leader of Sheffield city council and a popular figure on the party’s NEC, had often sided with the hard left and initially sympathised with Liverpool’s strategy. But a visit to the city shortly after Kinnock’s speech exposed him to the reality of the bullying and intimidation employed by Militant. He not only backed the expulsions, but became an increasingly important Kinnock ally. Tom Sawyer, the deputy general secretary of the NUPE trade union, had also often backed the hard left in NEC votes. Like Blunkett, he was shocked by what he witnessed in Liverpool. ‘Some of the things I saw,’ he recalled, ‘have more in common with the extreme right … than the left.’ Out of what Kinnock’s biographer, Martin Westlake, terms this ‘realignment of the left’ would grow the forces which would forge Labour’s rebirth in the 1990s.
While Labour never succeeded during the next 18 months in establishing a potentially election-winning opinion poll lead over the Tories, Kinnock’s speech led to an immediate drop in support for the Alliance from which it was never to fully recover. Moreover, the polls showed an immediate rise in the Labour leader’s ratings: for the first time, voters indicated they thought he would make a better prime minister than Thatcher.
By spring 1987, with the economy growing strongly and the Tories relentlessly exploiting the antics of ‘loony left’ councils, the Alliance began, once again, to threaten Labour. Moreover, many of the policies which had contributed to the ‘longest suicide note in history’ four years previously were still in place. But, as Mandelson, who was to play a key role in the 1987 campaign, recognised, Labour had one potential asset: the reputation Kinnock had established in his 1985 conference speech. Clips of his attack on Militant formed a central part in Labour’s ‘Kinnock’ election broadcast.
The broadcast – together with Kinnock’s strong performance during the campaign – ensured that, as Westlake writes, ‘if Labour lost the electoral battle for office, it won the right to remain the major opposition party in British politics’. That had not been a given: at the start of the campaign, Labour led the Alliance by two points. On election day, it was eight points ahead. Philip Gould later summarised the 1987 result by saying: ‘Labour never looked back; the Alliance never recovered.’
Kinnock’s words on 1 October 1985 probably saved the Labour party. Alone, they were insufficient: even after he slaughtered the hard left’s sacred cows after the 1987 general election, Labour lacked a sufficiently positive appeal to win the 1992 election. Neither did Kinnock save the party alone: as Dianne Hayter has detailed, the ‘St Ermin’s group’ of moderate trade unionists worked tirelessly in the early 1980s to wrest the NEC back from the Bennites and thus provide Kinnock with the votes he needed to defeat the hard left.
More than a decade after Bournemouth, Kinnock quoted the words of the philosopher George Santayana as he recalled the lessons of his assault on Militant: ‘Those who forget their past,’ he told his biographer, ‘are doomed to relive it.’
Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress
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