Now more than ever, Labour needs its members to get stuck in, Neil Kinnock tells Richard Angell and Adam Harrison
In these dark and heart-breaking times within the Labour party, Neil Kinnock stands as a beacon of hope for many. As we join him in his Westminster office, a snug end-of-corridor room crammed with memorabilia of his political and personal life – boxes stuffed full of European Union reports, a framed map of Wales, a 70th birthday card – he jokingly tells us he has lived ‘a fairly rugged life’. This is, no doubt, in part thanks to his enormous exertions in the battles of the 1980s, the last time Labour teetered on the brink while Conservatives went on the rampage.
Labour’s former leader has received a deluge of letters from ‘people who have been despairing … [about] a leadership that lacks credibility and is not seeking, let alone succeeding, in making the breadth of appeal that is vital for Labour to advance.’ He has ‘responded to everything single one of them. Only today I wrote back saying, “Don’t leave. The only people you please by doing that are those who made you want to go”.’ ‘I say to them always, “It is that commitment and your convictions that must make you stay”.’ Does he think figures high up in the party are deliberately trying to provoke people to leave? ‘They don’t really give a damn whether people are so disgusted that they walk away. That chalks one up for them, but I don’t think that’s the driving purpose.’ More often, he believes, it is those figures thinking to themselves that, ‘I said this and nobody did anything – I can now claim this is the predominant opinion’. Viewed in this light, to the backdrop of what many deride as the ‘PLP’s constant sniping’, if statements go unchallenged, minority views could be taken to be party positions.
Kinnock takes great cheer from one particular note he just received from a party member in Scotland. ‘She used the phrase “progressive electability”,’ he tells us, clearly taken with her wording, fishing the postcard out of his correspondence tray. ‘I wrote back saying, “Terrific phrase. I hope this has no copyright because I am going to use it.”’ It ‘really does sum it up. You don’t have to compromise on your beliefs, your convictions, but you’ve got to keep in mind that the party was formed – and its convictions, its constitution, its history, its personality – to seek to win parliamentary power in order to change the country.’ He encourages people to work with others who are ‘prepared to work hard and show obvious commitment and common sense’. Internal party political labels should not define a Labour member: ‘Sheer effort and intense concentration, pursuing objectives that I would share – that is the way to build the broad alliance which, at its best, is the Labour party.’ On the more negative flipside he has, over the years, seen people inside Labour who have ‘other preoccupations and priorities’, who are using the party ‘parasitically … or to devise strategies that are deviant from the democratic socialism of the party, [who make] you say, “he might appear to be busy, but he’s not busy with our work”.’
He regrets that, through Momentum, the successor organisation to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign, ‘people who have supported Militant and its successor organisations’ have ‘had access to return to the Labour party’. However, he draws a distinction between the ‘sectarian leadership’ of the organisation and the vast majority of its members who find it ‘a source of energy, radicalism and determined opposition’. Its supporters are ‘certainly not stupid’ and believe that the group has ‘the answers they are looking for.’ Kinnock believes ‘elements in Momentum have learned the lessons of the Militant experience of appearing not to be sectarian, they have made a great play of being open and broad, and not collecting dues or making people sell newspapers and stuff like that – they can afford to, because they are very well-heeled. They’ve got lots of money.’ ‘As time goes on, and [its members]witness the reality – that Momentum is effectively a separate organisation with its own purposes and ambitions, and requiring its own loyalties – they will start to develop reservations’. ‘People will eventually say, “Wait a minute, this is a cul-de-sac. This isn’t Greece. This is not Syriza. This isn’t Spain. It is not Podemos.”’
Despite the current tumult inside Labour, ‘I urge, with every single bit of breath in my body, and every sinew people not to leave now, but to stay, to sustain their views, to organise, to relate to the many thousands of other people who share their view about the future of the Labour party’. The peer recalls how ‘sometimes it mean[s] working against some comrades. It is much nicer to work with them, absolutely wonderful when you can do that … but invariably it is not the case.’
The former leader is keen to clear one thing up. After Ed Miliband’s election as leader, he was ‘misquoted extensively’ as saying, ‘We’ve got our party back’. At the Tribune fringe he recalled a comrade using the dreaded phrase. What was not reported was his retort: ‘We’ve never lost it. The Labour party has members, not proprietors. It has leaders, not bosses. There are no owners of the Labour party other than its membership. Remember that.’
Week after week, across the dispatch box Kinnock faced off against Britain’s first woman prime minister. What advice does he have about taking on the country’s second woman prime minister? ‘Go for policy. Absolutely always go for policy. Never be afraid to return to the original questions that haven’t been answered.’
Like Margaret Thatcher, ‘Theresa May is a bone-marrow Tory [but she is] manifestly trying to learn from Maggie’s mistakes’, he observes. ‘She can never say that publicly – that would be spitting in church – but there is no doubt that in the way she has deliberately chosen what I think is a synthetic vocabulary of care, of one nation Toryism, of serving everybody, she is deliberately seeking to contrast herself with the abruptness, condescension, arrogance, dogmatism of Thatcher. Actions will prove whether the change is genuine.’ Theresa May’s suggestion about being on the centre-ground has one problem, he argues: it has to ‘paid for’, to be ‘taxed for’ and will ‘contradict basic Tory views of the omnipotence of the market.’ He says, ‘I’m a socialist, a person of compassionate and generous view to my fellow human beings, so I simply hope that the better angels Theresa May professes to have will prevail. [But] as my mother used to say “I have my doubts”.’
What does the former European commissioner make of the tension between remaining a member of the single market and control of national borders – is this a circle that can be squared? ‘I think it’s possible, given the movement in view that I observe in other countries, to make a proposal for a more managed system of migration, focusing on the treaty commitment to the movement of labour, that would not only serve perceived British needs but would have a much more general appeal and application in other states.’ But, he sighs, ‘that would require a positive, intelligent, productive negotiating stance. Thus far … the government fails on those grounds.’ In fact, he fears, ‘that such has been the nature and rhetoric of the Tory government that they have diminished the trust in the UK to the point where they cannot engage in the kind of complex, productive negotiations that could produce this change.’
With Brexit looming, does Kinnock think that the referendum was ever winnable? ‘Given the four-point margin’, had Stronger In been ‘campaigning much more directly on the concerns about and responses to migration … we could have gained an extra two points.’ But ‘the great majority of votes were decided long before 23 June’. He also identifies a long prehistory of national governments actively harming the European cause. ‘We had the effect cumulatively, over decades, of governments – not just in this country, all governments – treating the transaction of EU business as a product of their genius if the public perception was favourable, and the fault of the commission … if the perception was not so favourable’.
In a September episode of Panorama, Kinnock shared his worry that he would not see another Labour government in his lifetime. If his comments ‘made people depressed, I regret that’, he says, but maintains that his concern is ‘justified … and honest’. He will be 78 by the time of the 2020 general election, and into his 80s by 2025. So, he believes, ‘It’s best to face up to the realities … if you evade self-evident truths, you inevitably fall into error.’ ‘I live in the real world. I knock real doors.’ What he hears from voters is ‘dispiriting’, he says.
But, if Kinnock were to see a Labour government, what would he want it to do? Without hesitation, he replies, ‘Cut the standard rate of income tax [and] replace that proportion of the cut with a dedicated national health and community care tax, which would be levied on a progressive basis [and] ensure buoyancy in the funding of these vital services, including research and advanced science. I think it would be the only tax that the British public would say, “Because we know it’s not going anywhere but to health and care services, we will pay that tax happily.”’ It might have happened long ago, being an idea that had ‘strong support from Robin Cook’, Kinnock tells us. And, he muses, despite ‘resistance from John Smith’, then the shadow chancellor, ‘we would have got around to it if we’d won the election in ‘92’.
Times now are increasingly grave: ‘When you’ve got healthcare trusts with a cumulative deficit of over £4bn, that’s really serious stuff.’ There are acres of political ground for Labour to occupy right now, if only it would step away from the edge. And if only it had another figure strong and committed enough to pull it back.
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