The Labour Party in Blackpool: How did his predecessors fare? John Torode reports on maiden speeches to conference by Labour leaders of the recent past

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Harold Wilson became leader in 1963 after the unexpected death of Hugh Gaitskell. His speech was an attempt to rally his troops, to reach beyond the faithful to a nation increasingly cynical about the Tory government but suspicious of Labour - and to offer both a utopian vision of a planned, democratic socialist future.

The theme was 'Change; the overwhelming need for this country to adapt itself to different conditions'. Wilson talked of 'the white heat of this (scientific, economic and social) revolution' he was predicting, and decried the 'amateurism' and 'snobbery' which was, he said, holding the country back. His 45- minute address captivated activists and the country.

'The conscious planned purposive use of scientific progress to provide undreamed of living standards and the possibility of leisure ultimately on an unbelievable scale' was the vision of the Labour leader.

He warned of 'the formidable Soviet challenge in the education of scientists and technologists and above all in the ruthless application of scientific techniques in Soviet industry'.

He coined the phrase 'the brain drain' to describe the flight to America of technologically-skilled specialists. 'It is not so much a question of salary, it is the poor valuation put on their work by British industry.

'I hope this conference can send out (a message) not only to those wondering whether to emigrate or not but to those who have already emigrated. . . We want you to stay (here).

'We want those of you who have left Britain to think about coming back, because the Britain that is going to be is going to need you,' he said.


Twenty years on, in October 1983, Neil Kinnock, delivered his first conference speech as leader, in the aftermath of Michael Foot's resignation. His divided party had suffered an overwhelming, potentially shattering, defeat at the general election. Kinnock concentrated on boosting morale and bashing the Tories.

'If we give more attention to impressing each other than convincing the people we have to convince, we will not do it (win). . . We have much to do. We have to win elections at every level; we have to recruit, we have to win over 100 seats in order to give us a Parliamentary majority. They (the Thatcherites) are the enemy: they must be defeated and we must defeat them together.'

The nearest Mr Kinnock came to a vision was a paragraph on 'the ageing'. He promised to 'rejuvenate people by giving them pensions that are capable of meeting heating costs, just as a start. Rejuvenate them by giving them transport at a price they can afford with a frequency they can depend upon to free them from isolation. Rejuvenate them by giving them medical services to free them from pain. Rejuvenate them by giving them home-helps and housing to release them from the dreadful anxiety that old people encouter in this country. Yes, rejuvenate them by giving them safe streets to walk on'.

'The Labour movement will rescue this country because we are willing to invest, we are willing to spend, we are willing to protect, to control the outflow of that precious capital. A capitalist government has not got the sense to understand that. If they do not stimulate, expand and spend, the country becmes totally deindustrialised.'


In 1992, it was John Smith's turn to give his initial address to the troops on the aftermath of electoral defeat and the resignation of Neil Kinnock. He assumed his party's will to win, but did not overtly reach out to the nation or offer his vision for the future.

'It is not my wish or my intention to lead for long a party of Opposition. I was elected to lead a party of government and with your help that is what I will do.'

'I believe our people want government to take responsibility for the things they as individuals just cannot provide. . . safe streets, an efficient transport system, a high standard of education, good health care, training for jobs, a strong economy for without these things people are not free nor do they have real choices.'

'Fundamentally they (this Government) believe people are driven purely by greed and self-interest. They believe all of us are motivated by a desire to accumulate wealth with no regard for others. They see us exclusively as consumers in a market place.'

From then on, Mr Smith's speech did little more than list traditional assertions and commitments. 'We need action to stop the turmoil in our schools. . . we are calling for a enviromental agency. We are committed to a National Health Service that is free at the time you need it.

'I have long been committed to a mimimum wage which gives people a fair reward for their labour. . . we need a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly, and devolution of power to the regions. . . we need a Freedom of Information Act. . . we demand that the (European) Community strengthens its democracy . . . right at the heart of our policies should be strong and consistent support for the United Nations.'

(Photographs omitted)