Political Commentary: Kinnock's hard look at past failure

Stephen Castle
Saturday 07 August 1993 23:02

IN ONE of the most striking clips in the current television series chronicling the career of Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader recounts the following comment from his wife: 'At that time Glenys said to me: 'can anybody really lead this party?'. You don't have to go too far back in Labour history to find an answer to Glenys's question: Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, who in his spare time also managed to win four out of five elections. In fact Lord Wilson was out and about recently, looking older, smaller and frailer, but still managing to enjoy a glass of champagne, courtesy of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, at a Westminster garden party.

A former Chancellor of Bradford University, Lord Wilson is proud of his links with higher education, recently remarking that his decision to set up the Open University was taken in an afternoon. According to an old colleague of his, the former prime minister also takes pride in his management of the economy and draws a favourable comparison with the present regime.

With the publication of a biography by Ben Pimlott last year, Lord Wilson is at last undergoing a rehabilitation. It has taken 20 years. Mr Kin nock has achieved his in fewer than 20 months. The LWT documentary on his political life, Kinnock - The Inside Story, which concludes tonight, has at times come close to hagiography. There are panoramic shots of sunset over Westminster, stirring music and camera angles which bear a striking resemblance to those used in Labour's party political broadcasts. Nevertheless, in an age where politicians seem unable to accept blame for anything, Mr Kinnock's display of self-criticism (branding himself a 'personal and political failure' for starters) is disarming.

Not all of Mr Kinnock's media appearances since he left office have been so successful. Standing in for John Dunn on Radio 2 raised some eyebrows in the party, as did an appearance on Carlton Television's A Kick in the Ballots, a production that won little praise. But Mr Kinnock is determined to stay in mainstream politics and exercise an influence through his continuing membership of the National Executive Committee (or even, as he hints in tonight's programme, as a member of a future Labour cabinet). To that end he seems to have become more discriminating about his appearances. He is said to be unenthusiastic about an invitation from a division of Saatchi & Saatchi's to advertise Heinz baked beans.

Mr Kinnock's year out of office did not begin well. He cut an unhealthy figure, losing two stones in weight. Again some disarming candour came into action. In an article in London's Evening Standard, he wrote: 'I did look gaunt when I went to the Labour Party conference just after I shed the first stone. I was shocked myself when I saw the photographs and people were genuinely concerned.' But he has grown into his leaner look.

On a political level, too, things have pulled round, partly because, in stark contrast to Baroness Thatcher, Mr Kinnock has been loyal to his successor. Today's documentary makes public for the first time the pre-election strain between the leader's office and John Smith, then Shadow Chancellor, over tax policy. But even now it is not Mr Kinnock but his former chief of staff, Charles Clarke, who makes explicit criticisms. Public perceptions probably began turning when it became clear that his hopes of becoming a European Commissioner had been scotched by John Major's fear of enraging the Conservative right. The British public, always partial to a loser, may have felt that Mr Kinnock had been hard done by.

But the Prime Minister has contributed in a more important way to the Kinnock rehabilitation. Seventeen months ago the Conservative Party and sections of the press were portraying Mr Kinnock as an incompetent and untrustworthy politician bent on raising taxes. Then the post-election period brought a humiliating British exit from the ERM, a stubborn recession, Conservative divisions over Maastricht and U- turns over everything from coal to school tests. After a year of Mr Major's re-elected government, many who were wary of voting for Mr Kinnock in 1992 must wonder whether he could possibly have done any worse.

Meanwhile Mr Smith's titanic struggle with the trade unions over their links with Labour has served as a reminder of Mr Kinnock's strengths as a party manager. The left of the party welcomes the less confrontational approach adopted by Mr Smith towards dissident sections of the party. But this has not produced the support from the big unions he needs in the forthcoming battle at Labour's conference in Brighton in September. With the Transport & General Workers' and the GMB general union opposed, the arithmetic still looks bad for Mr Smith. .

The Labour leader has every right to be surprised at the opposition because it is just over a year since the big unions voted, almost unanimously, for his leadership on a one-member-one-vote platform. But MPs and union officials complain that the clarity with which relations with the Kinnock private office were handled has not been replicated under Mr Smith. Charles Clarke was a key point of contact for senior union officials who knew that he spoke with the full authority of the leader. In Mr Smith's office no one fulfils that role. In some cases the leader is brought into discussions too soon, wasting his time with lengthy meetings when neither he nor union leaders have specific proposals to broker.

Meanwhile, the sentiment among consituency parties will remain crucial. Here critics of the new regime argue that the party has been slow to galvanise the one-member- one-vote campaign at grassroots level.

If comparisons with the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition have highlighted some of Mr Kinnock's qualities, the gaps still show through on the television footage. Mr Kinnock openly admits his gaffes and misjudgements. The ineffective Commons speech during the Westland crisis, the long struggle over defence policy and blunders during the last election campaign, particularly the Sheffield rally, all figure prominently.

Nor does Labour's ability to identify and communicate a big idea seem better with hindsight. The former Labour leader believed passionately in a reformed, social democratic party and removed negative elements that deterred people from voting Labour. But he failed to provide a convincing critique of society that defined his party's aims and objectives. Mr Smith has made a start on this front, setting up a Social Justice Commission that will report next year. He might take a leaf out of Lord Wilson's book. The white heat of scientific revolution may have promised much and delivered little. But nearly 30 years on it is still a better slogan than anything on offer from the new- model Labour Party.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments