'Rush of blood' was Kinnock's downfall

Michael Leapman
Sunday 26 November 1995 01:02 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


THE FORMER Labour leader Neil Kinnock is haunted by the conviction that a rush of blood to the head, lasting a few seconds, cost him victory in the 1992 election. In a television interview to be screened next month, Mr Kinnock describes the emotional spasm that overwhelmed him at the controversial Sheffield rally in the week before polling day, destroying the statesmanlike image that had been constructed for him over his nine years as leader.

He believes that three little words caused his defeat: "We're all right." He shouted them three times in a tone of frenzied triumphalism, punching the air, just after he entered the Sheffield arena to a mighty ovation. That was the part of his address shown on television news programmes, rather than his carefully scripted arguments.

In the interview he explains: "This roar hit me and for a couple of seconds I responded to it; and all of the years in which I'd attempted to build a fairly reserved, starchy persona - in a few seconds they slipped away."

Tom Sawyer, general secretary of the Labour Party, drives home the lesson. He says Mr Kinnock is "a very ordinary guy with very ordinary instincts that hadn't really been tamed even by all the political advisers; so on occasions like that there was always the chance that he would do something that the average football supporter would do. And he did it."

The four-part series, The Wilderness Years, begins on BBC2 next Sunday. In frank interviews with the main participants, the programmes portray the agony of the Labour Party, as factions with competing political philosophies fought for dominance in the wake of the 1979 election defeat. The squabbles made Labour unelectable for more than a decade.

Mr Kinnock, now European Commissioner for Transport in Brussels, emerges as the tragic hero. Having been made leader in 1983 partly because of his spontaneity and blokeish humour, he surrounded himself with advisers who always urged him to keep it in check. David Blunkett, opposition education spokesman, thinks it was a poor strategy: "What they [the advisers] failed to grasp is that it is the root feeling that you touch when you're out there as a politician, [the feeling] that got you the job in the first place - that makes the difference between success and failure. Even John Major in 1992, on his soapbox being ridiculed, understood that."

The result of the over-protective attitude to his image was that, when Mr Kinnock inevitably stepped out of line, the press moved in on him. Soon after becoming leader he was persuaded to sing and dance for the cameras at a party conference. "I got crucified," he admits, "I thought then that not dancing in the street and not singing funny songs is not much of a sacrifice to make for the advance of the Labour movement, so I did become more constrained."

Even Mr Kinnock's natural gift for oratory had to be curbed. "I knew what would happen if I got my words out of place and if I'd demonstrated more vitality," he says. "One person's mobilising articulation is another person's windbaggery."

Mr Kinnock's image may not have been the only reason for his failure. Politicians as far apart as Roy Hattersley and Tony Benn believe that his long-time support for unilateral disarmament made him unelectable, even though he abandoned it after the 1987 defeat. Mr Hattersley says that the policy itself was a fatal hindrance before 1987 and then the switch aroused the voters' distrust. Mr Benn is blunter: "Neil gave up everything he believed to get the leadership and found when he got it that nobody believed a word he said."

Today the defence issue is dead, but the clash between image-makers and party faithful persists. John Prescott, the deputy leader, is still scornful of the red rose symbol instigated by Peter Mandelson in 1986.

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