In the first of an occasional series, TCWDF talks with individuals who made headlines in the 1980s. Today, The Right Honourable The Lord Kinnock.
FOR individuals of a certain age, mention the name Roy Jenkins and they will almost always recall him as being ‘the best Prime Minister we never had’. This is a description which could be equally easily bestowed on the person I am about to meet, Neil Kinnock.
One of the most influential politicians of his generation, he came to epitomise the acceptable face of Labour. Perceptive, articulate, conciliatory and with an unrivalled gift for oratory, he could charm the proverbial birds from the trees. He led Labour through the tumultuous battles with Militant Tendency and in 1985 delivered his most memorable conference address lambasting ‘the grotesque chaos of a Labour council hiring taxis to scuttle round the City handing out redundancy notices to its own workers’.
After leaving Westminster, and still keen to serve the public, he moved to Brussels, serving as a European Commissioner from 1995-2004 and as Vice President of the European Commission between 1999 and 2004. He has been a Labour Party peer since 2005. Politics and policy run deeply through him.
At his request, we meet near his West London home in a pub somewhat ironically called The Ginger Nut.
I see him immediately; he has taken a table with a window seat overlooking the gardens. He stands to greet me; he is slightly stooped and looks older than the mental image I have. His red hair is long gone, replaced by a few grey wisps drawn haphazardly across his head. It is when he speaks that you are immediately taken back to the 1980s and raucous battles across the despatch box. His voice has lost none of its evocative power. I can almost hear ‘All right, are we all right?’
I order a pint of Old Codswallop – the same beer he is partial to – and settle down to ask him how retirement is treating him.
‘I am not retired,’ he gently admonishes me. ‘I am a working peer but less busy than I was. We get by on our pensions from the EU along with my House of Lords Allowance.’
I mention that all politicians fret over their legacies. What, I wonder, will his be?
‘To be honest, legacies have never bothered me. I am more concerned that people will recall the huge effort I put in to making Labour electable. In the eighties it was a busted flush, however the groundwork that I and Peter [Mandelson] put in has borne fruit in the dynamic and exciting offering that voters now have under Keir Starmer.
‘My real satisfaction, however, is that the Kinnock dynasty lives on in Westminster, with Stephen doing great work. I don’t think it sounds too big-headed, but I think you can draw a comparison between the Kinnocks and the Kennedys. We both have seven-letter surnames starting with K and with an N in the middle and both have made an immeasurable contribution to their respective countries.’
Did he resent the ridicule he took from Spitting Image?
‘What, the Welsh Windbag? No, I didn’t mind it at all; let’s face it you need a hide as thick as a rhinoceros in politics. From Gillray and Low to That Was The Week That Was, people in politics are fair game for ridicule and satire, it goes with the territory. I do know that Roy (Hattersley) found his portrayal as a spittle-spraying individual extremely upsetting.’
Did the Sun’s ‘lightbulb’ front page lose him the 1992 election?
‘It played a part certainly, how could it not? The brainwashed imbeciles who read such a ridiculous newspaper shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Murdoch has not only coarsened public debate but has interfered indirectly in shaping the democratic process. That is something that should be legislated against. We are seeing the same thing in the USA with Trump desperately trying to overturn the will of the people in electing Biden. Democracy is the most precious of things, and that is why I so hope Biden gets a deserved second term as reward for all he has achieved in protecting it.’
Does he still feel embarrassed about falling over on Brighton beach in 1983?
The mood switches from jocular to icy. He slams his beer on to the table, spilling it over his half-eaten pack of low-calorie scampi fries.
‘Absolutely typical! You media folk cannot help yourselves, can you? Never let anything drop, will you? Gutless and fixated on demonising socialism, that’s all you’re interested in, a few more sensationalist headlines. Why don’t you go and get a proper job?’
I am stunned at his intemperate outburst and am all too aware of other drinkers’ eyes turned on us. I try to calm things by asking if he can swim.
‘That’s it, I can’t be bothered with this any more. I had hoped you wanted to know more about the valuable work I did in Brussels especially in relation to rooting out fraud and corruption, but no, all you want is to rake up a silly mishap decades ago, ruddy pathetic. Typical Tory tactics – your mother should be ashamed of you.’
With that, he stands and brushes past me, not bothering to shake my hand, and walks out at an admittedly brisk pace for an 81-year-old.
I sit rather embarrassed as the door slams behind him. Maybe his rhinoceros skin is thinner than he imagines.