This piece was published in The Big Issue in April 2009.
High above Westminster on a gorgeous day. From up here, on the office balcony belonging to the chairman of the British Council, people can be seen toing and froing between Whitehall’s faded beige buildings: the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Health and the Cabinet Office. Power, if you like that kind of thing, pulsates invitingly below.
Neil Kinnock, the man who almost had it all, retreats back inside the belly of his office and takes out a mean-looking sword.
It’s a Sikh kirpan he was given not long after becoming the leader of the opposition. “I used to threaten the shadow cabinet with this!” He cackles gleefully, flicking it from side to side. “Actually, it’s bloody useless,” he says, suddenly practical, sliding it back into the scabbard and onto the shelf. “The handle’s too small you see.”
At 67, the loyal Labour warrior is in hot-blooded good humour, happy to throw himself back into the old battles with gusto. It doesn’t take too much prodding, over a pot of tea, to find some of the oldest wounds are still raw.
It’s almost 30 years since Lord Kinnock’s nemesis Margaret Thatcher assumed power, and just over 25 years since Arthur Scargill and the miners’ strike derailed his efforts to reboot the centre-left. Thatcher remains the she-who-will-not-be-named and Scargill the enemy who steamed ahead with a national strike without a democratic ballot.
“She was very fortunate Scargill was leader of the National Union of Mineworkers,” he growls. “Those two were made for each other and nobody else. Scargill made her a political present which she exploited to the uppermost. Someone with more democratic modesty and someone with more subtlety would have led the strike in a different way.”
The ensuing misery of picket-line skirmishes and mining town penury happened at the worst possible time for Kinnock – less than a year after he took over from far-left Michael Foot and Labour’s pummelling in the 1983 general election. It made it all the more difficult to pull the party out of its militant quagmire.
“It postponed the necessary reform of policy and of attitude in the Labour Party by two years,” he recalls. “The press and our political enemies sought to associate us not with the nobility of the miners’ cause, but with the aspects of the strike which were hideous. It meant our recovery didn’t get underway until after [the general election of] 1987. The lost years cost us.”
Lord Kinnock has a tendency to sink into his chair, his tremendous voice dropping into a low, sad rumble as despondency takes over with the memory of those who lost most. The son of a South Wales coal miner, he knows how much the Labour heartlands suffered.
“Nothing I endured during that period began to compare with the conditions experienced by coal industry workers, some in my own family. It was a really grim, miserable, negative time.”
How does he look back at his relationship with Thatcher? “It was… toxic.” A long pause, and a slight moistening of the eyes. “I couldn’t have anything but the most resentful and angry feelings toward the Thatcher government.”
“You have to remember” – he pulls himself up with sudden energy – “with the massive fresh wealth from oil, there were other choices. To wilfully destroy manufacturing in the name of ideologically-driven policy is unforgivable.
“Apart from an immediate human price to pay, there’s a price in decay and delinquency that comes with it. We’re still paying for the damage done.”
Once you understand that personal disputes matter less to him than the effect of policies, it doesn’t seem so strange that the subject of tabloid attacks and the 1992 election defeat arouse a chuckle.
Kinnock remembers Bob Worcester, founder of the MORI poll, phoning in the days after his resignation to tell him just how close he came. “I said, ‘I know how much we lost by. It’s there forever under my eyelids – 21 seats’. He said, ‘Neil, you lost the general election by 1400 out of 25 million votes’.”
Kinnock clamps his eyes shut and rolls his head around in mock dejection before breaking out in a hearty laugh.
There was a time when this rosy-cheeked gregariousness was perceived as zealous, red-faced ferocity. Private Eye called him the “Welsh windbag” (an image picked up by Spitting Image). The Sun’s election-day front page had a picture of the Labour leader on a lightbulb and the headline: ‘If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.’
Did the negative coverage turn uncertain voters away? “Well, the tabloids have never helped. I’m an upstanding, straight-living, tax-paying old man. And they’re still after me!” More chortles.
“I never claimed it was The Sun that won it, but they said they did. They intended to do us harm, and it had some effect. But it was the constant drip-drip of attacks in the years before, not one headline. Elections are won in years, not in weeks.”
Kinnock himself admits to “acting with an ebullience that provided ammunition for allegations of a ‘gravitas deficit’”. What of the infamous rally in Sheffield, held the week before the election, where Kinnock took to the podium crying “Well AwwwRIGHT!” like a demented TV evangelist? He prefers to think of the performance as that of “a rock and roll singer… it’s what Johnny Cash does”.
He doesn’t accept the cringe-worthy moment had any negative impact. “A couple of articles reflecting on the election afterwards were critical of my approach, which only lasted 15 seconds.
“References made after the election were said to effect what happened before the election. It would be much easier if the Sheffield rally played a significant part because then I could say, ‘Ah! That was the clincher’. But it would be absurd.”
Still, Kinnock cannot claim to be innocent of the art of presentation. It was he who brought in Peter Mandelson as director of communications in 1986 to shape the party’s message and broaden his own appeal. If he helped modernise his party and laid the foundation for Tony Blair, did he also play a role in creating the culture of spin? “There’s a lot of nonsense talked about [Peter] Mandelson and the black arts,” he sighs.
“I think the arts have probably blackened as time has passed. I’m not naïve. I’m not an old man looking back on some golden age, because they weren’t golden. They weren’t even copper – they were lead. But there is a difference between a very sharp attack in television debate or even in an exchange of speeches, than this kind of…gangster politics.”
He is referring, of course, to Damian McBride and the smeargate saga that saw Brown’s adviser sacked for suggesting an online campaign of lies about Tory ministers.
“It was repulsive,” Kinnock sneers. He has slunk low again and the melancholy rumble has returned. “It was repulsive because it was dirty; repulsive because it was counter-productive and repulsive because the world is concerned with realities of life; not manufactured illusions about somebody on the other side.
“People whose time should’ve been occupied in thinking up effective ways of conveying the Labour Party’s political message, including political attacks on our opponents, and instead of doing that they were playing little boys games – who can say ‘yah boo’ the nastiest.”
It’s a passionate defence of the Prime Minister that perks him up again, describing the choice between Brown’s New Labour and the Tories under “a very unconvincing person” (David Cameron) as “the difference between diamond and chalk”.
“Gordon is a man ahead of his time. He was the guy, from the late nineties, since the financial collapse in south-east Asia, who has argued for the new global financial architecture. He pointed it out earlier and more than anyone else. If he’d got an agreement with the Clinton or Bush administration, it [the economic downturn] wouldn’t be anything like the scale we’re experiencing.”
So the Conservative poll lead is assailable? “The Tories are still not regarded with trust or affection. It’s very, very shallow support. People know we’re in tough times and the choice is there between somebody who will tinker with the system and someone who will change and improve the system in big-spanner ways. I’ve got a lot of confidence Gordon and Labour can win.”
If New Labour can eke out another victory, it will be the fourth since the most famous gentleman’s agreement in British politics. Kinnock dismisses the idea of a pact arranged in Islington’s Granita restaurant as “complete garbage”, but then confirms some kind of Blair-Brown deal was made.
“After John [Smith] died, as it happened, Tony, Gordon and I had adjacent offices on the corner of Trafalgar Square. So I became a sort of Dutch uncle. It was going to be one or the other of them. I said to them both, ‘Don’t listen to anybody else. Between you, do everything you can to come to a decision that will work in favour of the Labour Party and maximise our chances of winning’.
“Each did their calculations,” he goes on, politely implying they all knew Blair had the greater potential appeal with the electorate. “As it turned out, Tony was the right man for the right moment.”
Kinnock remembers the roar of the 1997 landslide as “sweet-remembered music”. He was flattered by the praise he received for charting New Labour’s course and has refused to reprove the Blair-Brown governments, even when observers speculated on where his ideas differed from the prevailing view at No. 10. He does not attempt, however, to pretend to be happy about devolution. “Well,” he shrugs, “we’ve got it now, so we have to make the best of it.”
Despite paying lip service to his old flatmate Rhodri Morgan (“a great guy”), Kinnock remains defiantly unimpressed by the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. “I saw that it would lead to arguments, to schisms, with the taxpayers of one country saying they’re paying for the people in another part of Britain. If there was to be a Tory government next year, it would allow people to be resentful of ‘Tory England’. And so we’d become more divided.”
Would he consider becoming First Minister of Wales? “Oh no. No, no, no…” A dramatic pause and more mock despair. “Oh, you’ll give me nightmares now! I won’t be able to get it out of my mind!”
Even if he takes a distant approach to changes at home, there was to be a political transformation across the Atlantic that Kinnock did enjoy up close. He attended Barack Obama’s inauguration as an invited guest of Vice President Joe Biden. “It was like Christmas morning with two million kids opening their presents,” he beams.
Kinnock and Biden have been buddies since 1987, after the US presidential candidate was caught up in controversy over apparently-plagiarised chunks of the Labour leader’s speech.
He recalls a meeting in October 2007 in which Biden, again a presidential candidate, picked out the likely front runners. “I remember speaking to Joe and him saying it was going to be Barack Obama up against John McCain. He said, ‘You can put money on it – Obama’s a genius’. I said, ‘What kind of genius? Like who?’. He said, ‘Well, there isn’t one person I could compare him to, but he’s like a cross between Denzel Washington and Franklin Roosevelt’.”
There’s just time for a tour of the office and the accoutrements of a distinguished career: biographies of Bevan and FDR, an abstract painting sold to him by someone who used to work for Colonel Gaddafi, model trains and airplanes (he was EC transport commissioner) and a huge bust of Beethoven, given to him when he stood down as vice president of the European Commission and accepted a seat in the Lords in 2005.
What next? “Well, there’s still plenty to work on in the House of Lords. There’ll be less stress, less trouble perhaps,” he says sadly, before thinking better of it. “Then again… trouble does seem to follow me around.”
The belly laugh suggests he wouldn’t want it any other way.