You’d think thirty years on from the end of his leadership that there wouldn’t be much more to say about Neil Kinnock. Like other leaders of the Labour party, the passage of time has meant his leadership has been assessed and reassessed, though not to the degree of Labour leaders who won elections or became Prime Minister. The most enduring of these reassessments can be best seen in The Wilderness Years documentaries, where Kinnock’s time as leader is characterised as a necessary precursor to enable the victory of Tony Blair and New Labour in 1997.
Kinnock’s impact, his personality, and his policies are all explored in a new collection of essays edited by Kevin Hickson in Neil Kinnock: Saving the Labour Party? as to whether Kinnock did indeed save the Labour Party and whether or not all the actions taken by Kinnock as leader helped the party in the long term. The book lies in between the traditional view as Kinnock as an inherent precursor to New Labour and a somewhat more nuanced view that Kinnock attempted to create an alternative to Thatcherism rather than merely adapt the Labour Party to the changes made by her administration.
The first section of the book deals with Kinnock as a political thinker – how Kinnock developed as a politician. The second looks at the policy changes that occurred under Kinnock, with the final section in many ways weaving elements of the prior together to provide more personal reflections of Kinnock. This structure works well as it allows each section to not overlap too much as can sometimes be a tendency with books that collect essays together. The division between personal reflections and those offered by historians allows the book to have its cake and eat it – provide insight from those who knew him whilst also having more grounded analysis of his material actions.
In the first section, both in Hickson’s own essay and those contributions by Jeremy Nutall and Simon Lee, Kinnock is presented less as the somewhat shallow political opportunist that some would have him but rather as a coherent thinker, one who evolved over time whilst keeping a core belief in the redistributive power of the state – changing, however, the amount of influence it had.
Lee, in particular, points to Kinnock representing a standard bearer for “One Nation Socialism”, a socialism that for Kinnock, Lee argues represented “a pragmatic calculation of how the working class could best secure political power via parliamentary democracy”. Yet Kinnock’s evolution as a politician was one of gradual degrees. Kinnock himself uttered in 1976:
I believe that the emancipation of the class which I came to this House to represent, unapologetically, can best be achieved in a single nation and in a single economic unit by which I mean a unit where we can have a brotherhood of all nations and have the combined strength of working class people throughout the whole of the United Kingdom brought to bear against any bully, any executive, any foreign power, any bureaucratic arrangement, be it in Brussels or Washington, and any would be coloniser either an industrial coloniser or a political coloniser.
Whilst Kinnock’s core belief in intervention and the state providing for society did not change totally, he would during his leadership become more open to co-operation with business. Even so, as he said in 1986, “The pressure of financial exploitation has increased and is increasing.” The degree to which business had a hand in the economy and improving lives was thus, for Kinnock, a balancing act.
The section of Kinnock’s personality and political thought leads rather neatly into that of Kinnock the policy maker. For Kinnock modernisation was not simply the magic bullet of privatisation but rather, as Joel Tomlinson suggests in his essay, “A shift in policy towards stability and credibility”. In direct contrast to the unpopularity of the proposals set out in the 1983 election manifesto. The state supporting society was still there but the presentation of it had changed in an effort to contrast what Labour was advocating for under Kinnock to that presented under Foot.
Kinnock’s vision of “Supply side socialism”, of modernising the economy through economic investment was similar to the emphasis placed during New Labour on investment but crucially it did not present itself as a development of Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies but rather an alternative. Kinnock’s supply side socialism was, as Tomlinson suggests, linked into the rhetoric used by Kinnock at the time in relation to North Sea Oil – that the government had wasted it rather investing it at home on improving failing industries; an argument that was a combination of his old argument about the need for Britain to be strong enough to “Bear against any bully” with the new language of investment. It does, I feel, demonstrate that the portrayal of Kinnock as merely one section of the road towards New Labour underestimates the work Kinnock did to produce a credible alternative to Thatcherism.
This second section develops this further in Andrew Taylor’s detailed and highly engaging essay on Kinnock and Industrial Relations as well as Ben Williams’ essay on Social Policy. Williams’ essay, in particular, is informative in contextualising why Kinnock and Labour at times suffered repercussions for what some interpreted as scare mongering about cuts to the NHS – an issue that was more effectively conveyed by Blair and New Labour during the 1997 campaign.
The third section is in some ways similar to the first in that it deals with Kinnock personally – after all the book is about him so it makes sense to do so. Patrick Diamond, Jon Redwood and Jon Lansman’s essays provide interesting though radically different reflections of Kinnock. Lansman and Redwood’s essays both display a grudging respect for Kinnock, and it is interesting to hear how they judge his abilities from two distinctly different perspectives with Lansman in particular praising Kinnock’s oratory whilst also critiquing how he deployed it.
Kevin Hickson has, therefore, provided the public with a book that is well worth reading. The central question the book poses is – did Neil Kinnock save the Labour Party? It’s clear from the arguments presented that Kinnock did and that he did his best to move the party away from negative public associations whilst remaining true to his firm belief in a state that cared for the population and provided opportunity for them. What Hickson and the authors of the essays contained in this book demonstrate is that Neil Kinnock did a truly brave thing for any politician – he evolved and allowed his party to develop. Although he was personally unsuccessful, he allowed the Labour Party the opportunity to accept that by changing itself it could become an agent of change in Britain. It provides a new insight into how Kinnock’s time as leader was not simply part of a predetermined path to Blairism but rather an alternative to the vision presented by Margaret Thatcher, and one that the country sadly rejected.