ONE thing Neil Kinnock shares with John Major is an extreme sensitivity to being patronised. He has put up with a great deal of it since becoming leader of the Labour Party nine years ago, but this week, the last of his leadership, must have been particularly trying, as colleagues and commentators queued up to make their farewells.

The verdict of instant history has been more or less unanimous: 'Poor old Kinnock . . . did a grand job against the odds . . . made Labour at least appear electable . . . no shortage of courage . . . but would have been hopelessly out of his depth as prime minister . . . voters always knew he wasn't, you know, quite bright enough . . . sad really, but there it is.' When the supporters of John Smith and Daily Mail leader writers are as one, it is difficult not to wonder whether this can really be right, or whether it is not just another example of how history is written by the winners.

An interesting thing about Mr Kinnock is that he was absolutely at the height of his powers when he resigned in the immediate aftermath of the election result. Usually when political leaders go or are pushed, their star is clearly on the wane, they are tired or ill, out of touch or declining in effectiveness. This could not have been said of Mr Kinnock. He had fought a creditable campaign during which he made some fine speeches, stood up to the worst that the television interviewers could do and, above all, exuded a real sense of power and energy.

Nobody knows whether he would have chosen to stay on as leader - the arguments against fighting a third election would have weighed as strongly with him as with anybody. He was, however, effectively denied any choice about the timing of his departure by a tacit understanding within Labour's ruling circles (for which read trade union leaders) that if the party lost he would immediately face a challenge to his leadership from John Smith which, if it came to a fight, he would lose.

Mr Kinnock is now being treated as a sort of unperson in the Labour Party. At best, his achievements are widely taken for granted. At worst, he is spoken of with derision and contempt as the albatross around Labour's neck, the single most important reason why it ultimately could not win.

To be honest, I have never been a Kinnock fan. When he became leader, I thought that he might be nearly as disastrous as Michael Foot. His style of oratory, depending as it does on passion rather than argument, leaves me cold. His lack of appetite for the hard details of policy has always struck me as a weakness, while many policy positions he originally held, such as unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Community, were more the product of Welsh student politics than responsible reflection. But to blame him for Labour's fourth election defeat and to suggest that anybody else could have done a better job as party leader is not only unfair, it is actually dangerous for Labour's future.

The really striking feature of Mr Kinnock's political development is just how good he was after the 1987 defeat. He had already shown his mettle by conducting a savage campaign to destroy the Militant entryists who had poisoned Labour for a decade and by bringing a new professionalism to Labour's penny-farthing organisation. But he fully understood the limits of symbolism and campaigning. He knew that without root-and-branch policy reform, Labour might as well not bother turning up for the next election.

Unlike most of his predecessors, Mr Kinnock was prepared to do whatever it took to get his hands on the party's policy levers. One-off deals with union leaders to vote down election-losing commitments were no substitute for gaining an iron grip on the policy-initiating national executive committee. In order to force through the policy-reform process, he employed the most formidable party management skills with a brutal efficiency that was absolutely essential.

Two of the things which are currently being said against Mr Kinnock deserve to be nailed. The first is that during this period he was unnecessarily confrontational, too macho, more bullying than he needed to be. It is suggested that a John Smith leadership will be more emollient and consensual. It is true that Mr Smith has excelled at not making enemies. But if anyone thinks that Labour will gladly accept what must now be done to continue and accelerate the Kinnock reform programme, they will be in for a disappointment. If Mr Smith declines to go in where the fists are flying, the massive authority he will derive from Saturday's overwhelming leadership victory will be wasted.

The second calumny against Mr Kinnock is to acknowledge his skills as a party manager while saying that these in no way equipped him to be prime minister. With the powers of the prime minister's office behind him - the patronage, the prestige and the government machine - a tough and decisive operator such as Mr Kinnock might well have made an impressive premier. He was also far from being a unique electoral liability to Labour. Opposition leaders often trail their party's poll ratings at general elections because they usually suffer from the credibility problem of never having been prime minister - it did not stop the Tories winning under Ted Heath in 1970 and Margaret Thatcher in 1979. For Labour, the danger of believing that Mr Kinnock was unelectable is that it obscures the reality that it was Labour itself which was unelectable, despite Mr Kinnock's heroic efforts.

It will be a shame if Mr Kinnock's talents and dedication to public service cannot be usefully harnessed. His relations with Mr Smith preclude a senior Shadow Cabinet job, but the idea that a way should be found for him to become a European Commissioner has considerable merit. Mr Kinnock's conversion to Europe was profound, and fundamental to his vision of what a modern Labour Party should be like. It was his recently found commitment to Europe which for many people made Labour a party they could again feel proud to belong to. Perhaps that will be seen as his greatest achievement.