Doing a Kinnock

Keir Starmer’s enthusiasm for picking fights with the Left, together with his – and Labour’s – lacklustre performance over the last couple of years, has led to speculation about his role. Does he – and do the people who advise him – see him as the next Labour Prime Minister? Or is he occupying his position purely as an interim leader, someone who can do the necessary dirty work and then step aside in favour of a better candidate? Is he, in short, doing a Kinnock?

1. The first Kinnock…

Neil Kinnock was elected leader of the Labour Party in 1983, having been an MP for 13 years and a Shadow Minister for four. A member of the Tribune group, Kinnock was seen as “soft Left”; the right-winger Roy Hattersley was elected deputy leader alongside him, and both seemed genuinely happy to work together. In both these respects Kinnock’s leadership marked a break from the leadership of veteran Tribune leftist Michael Foot, under whom Labour had suffered internal divisions, the defection of the SDP and its most disastrous election defeat since the 1930s; the impression of a ‘new broom’ was heightened by Kinnock’s relative youth (he was 28 years younger than Foot).

Of course, to say that Labour had been riven by internal strife under Foot is also to say that the Left had been stronger – in the parliamentary party, in the membership and especially in the unions – than the Right was happy with; to say that Kinnock’s version of Tribune Group leftism displaced Foot’s is also to say that the centre-left defeated the Left; and to say that the election of Kinnock and Hattersley represented left-right reconcilation is also to say that it put the lid on any possibility of the Left making real progress in the party, even after the departure of some of the worst right-wing blowhards to the SDP and oblivion. The Left was not strong in the party in 1983, and Kinnock’s election did nothing to make it stronger – rather the reverse. If we judge politicians not by their stated political positions but by direction of travel – by the trends and tendencies that they assist and those they obstruct – then it’s pretty clear that Kinnock was always leading from the Right (or rather, leading towards the Right).

In any case, he didn’t waste much time making it clear where he stood. In 1984 – the year after he was elected – Kinnock took pains to dissociate himself from the striking miners, endorsing the principle of keeping the pits open but saying little about the strike itself other than to denounce “picket-line violence”. The following year, after the defeat of the strike, Kinnock devoted his speech to Labour Party Conference to attacking the Left both in the unions and in local councils, whose struggle against the Thatcher government’s rate-capping proposals was already crumbling. While Kinnock’s “grotesque chaos” line attacking the Militant-led Liverpool Council is remembered to this day, it’s also worth remembering that what was being described was a single, failed tactic in a struggle that was already being lost. It’s certainly true that a fight against injustices imposed by Conservative governments can be pursued beyond any hope of victory and using poorly-chosen tactics, but denouncing these errors hardly adds up to a political platform – particularly when the fight itself and the reasons for it are allowed to slip out of the frame. True to Kinnock’s character as an operator and a speechmaker, this was knockabout political theatre far more than it was analysis.

Considered as a message to the Labour movement, Kinnock’s attack on Liverpool Council was wholly negative and – bizarrely for an opposition party polling in the mid-30%s – defensive. The message was that the Labour Party’s sole aim was electing a Labour government; as such, the party was not a vehicle for extra-parliamentary action, whether in the unions or through local councils; and anyone who thought differently was not welcome in the party. That said, considered as a message to the commentariat and the political establishment – the gatekeepers of public opinion – it was a triumph, for precisely the same reasons: it signalled that the symbolic defeats of Arthur Scargill and Derek Hatton would be allowed to stand, that there would be no return to the militancy of the early 1980s (let alone the late 1970s), and that the Labour Party under Kinnock’s leadership could be trusted to manage British capitalism. In short, Kinnock’s 1985 conference speech set the seal on the message his 1983 election had sent, assuring his audience(s) that the implicit commitment to consign the Labour Left to history was one that he intended to put into effect.

He didn’t really get a chance to do so, of course. At the 1987 General Election, two years after that conference speech, Labour gained 26 seats and lost six; the Conservative majority was reduced, but only from 144 to 102. Even the 1992 election – widely thought to be in the bag for Labour after a year-long period of 10%+ poll leads – left the Conservatives in power, albeit with a majority of only 21. The trouble was, that period of strong poll leads had begun when Mrs Thatcher announced the poll tax in 1989, and ended when she was replaced as leader. John Major was, initially at least, a much more popular leader, who projected competence and normality without any offputting personality quirks or ideological baggage; Kinnock’s selling-points were no longer unique, in other words. In the event, Major’s popularity had a short shelf-life, declining rapidly after Black Wednesday in September 1992; the Tories were polling below 30% for the next four years, with Labour in the mid- to high 40%s under John Smith and passing 50% under Blair. But none of that was Kinnock’s doing.

2. The Kinnock Effect

Why is Kinnock – why is that speech – still a reference point? Come to that, why wasn’t Kinnock consigned to political oblivion after his first General Election defeat as leader, let alone his second?

Brief reply to imaginary centrist

Labour went into the 1987 election with the Tories 8% ahead in the polls; when the votes were counted the Tories were 11% ahead and had an overall majority of 102. Labour went into the 2017 election with the Tories 21% ahead in the polls; on the day, the Tories were 2% ahead and had a majority of -17. So no, I don’t think the two are comparable.

Ahem.

Kinnock’s success – at least, what’s now seen as his success – had two key elements. The first, easily forgotten now, is that he presented himself as being on the Left; he even had the receipts to prove it, as a fairly long-term member of the Tribune group of Labour MPs. As a commitment to the Left this shouldn’t be overstated; after 1981 there was no love lost between Tribunites and the “hard left” of the Campaign Group – and in any case Kinnock personally was always longer on rhetoric than on tangible commitments. Nevertheless, he did position himself as in some sense on the Left – and there’s no doubt that he played on this.

The second key factor in the Kinnock project was the state of the party, deeply divided – in Parliament as well as in the country – between Right and Left. Kinnock offered to address, even to mend, this division. The dynamic on which Kinnock was elected, with Hattersley (his runner-up in the leadership election) as deputy, was precisely “Left moving Right” – or, more specifically, “new reformed Left, abandoning old antagonisms and reaching out to the Right”. Old wounds would be healed and bridges built. It was actually quite inspiring, if you were relatively new to all this and didn’t have a suspicious nature; I very nearly joined the party at the time.

With a bit of historical distance, we can ask a couple of questions about this idea of a new reformed Left, reaching out to the Right in a spirit of brotherhood and unity. Firstly, why reach out to the Right – how many battalions have they got? If the country’s being brought to a halt by striking miners, demonstrations against rate-capping and Stop the City – all of which was going on, not to mention kicking off, in 1984-5 – the Labour Party certainly needs to do something, but “improving working relations between the Tribune Group and the Manifesto Group” doesn’t seem like it should be high on the list. Secondly and relatedly, if the “new reformed Left” is represented by the leadership, what happens to the rest of the Left – where do they go?

The 1985 conference speech answered that question loud and clear – which is why it is still celebrated on the Labour Right, and treated as if it had heralded imminent victory and not twelve more years in opposition. Essentially Kinnock offered to remake the Labour Left in the image of the Right – as a group of Labour MPs and other office-holders, who could be trusted to take their turn in charge of the Labour Party just as Labour could be trusted to take turns with the Conservatives in governing the country. Not only did he point the way for New Labour; by taking on the extra-parliamentary Left, both programmatically and personally, he paved the way, doing some of the heavy lifting for the greater leader who was to come. By cutting themselves loose from the Left, the membership, the unions and the party’s history, and above all by declaring that they were doing so in the name of Labour, New Labour followed where Kinnock had led – and succeeded where he failed.

3. (Not) Another Kinnock

How does Keir Starmer fit into this picture? With difficulty, it has to be said.

The appeal of a Kinnock-like narrative for the Starmer camp is obvious. Putting it into action, though, was tricky, for two reasons – in fact, precisely because of those two key factors.

In 2019/20 the party was certainly divided. The trouble was, nobody on the Right wanted to admit it, not least because the division had a strong ‘vertical’ component. With right-wing officeholders (and placeholders) jealously guarding their positions and crying Foul at any suggestion of greater accountability, people in positions of power in the party were much more likely to be anti-Corbyn than not – and a left-wing party divided between office-holders and rank-and-file members is not a good look.

So a variety of narratives grew up to explain what had happened to the party since 2015, mainly involving unrepresentative handfuls of thugs and Trots seizing control of party branches, just like the old days – and certainly not involving the existence of rival factions with equal legitimacy. The trouble was, this meant that Starmer couldn’t stand as “left reaching out to the right”; in these narratives there was no Left, just a gang of infiltrators who had somehow seized control of the party. By extension there was no Right – just the ordinary decent members of the party who cared more about electing a Labour government to deliver for our people than about having the correct ideological position (spit!).

What made this particularly difficult – attesting to the long-term damage caused by the anti-Corbyn campaign of 2015-19 – was the fact that Starmer still needed to run from the Left and appeal to the Left, while reaching out to the Right. (The second part of this was particularly important: in reality there were an awful lot of left-wing members out there, and everyone knew what happened when you didn’t try to appeal to them – look at Angela Eagle and Owen Smith; look at Jess Phillips.) The shape of the manoeuvre Starmer was aiming to carry out was unchanged; there just wasn’t a political vocabulary available for him to do it with.

The second problem the Starmer camp had was that, unlike Kinnock, their boy didn’t really have an image or a past to run against. Come to that, he didn’t really have any record as a politician – other than being Labour’s Mr Remain, known and trusted throughout the chancelleries of Europe, and for some reason they didn’t want to go big on that.

So the only way that Starmer could “do a Kinnock” was to, in effect, fake up a political hinterland – “I’m Left just like you! I always have been! Just in a slightly different and more moderate way, which is why you’ve never seen me around before!” Hence the ten pledges; hence the extraordinarily conciliatory campaign statement; hence the professions of friendship and solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn. Like Philip Gosse’s creationist explanation of fossils – yes, there were millions of years of history in the rocks, but that was because God had created the world looking as if it had a past – Keir Starmer the Leftist was created out of nothing for the purposes of the 2020 leadership election, and Keir Starmer’s leftist past was created with it.

Brief reply to imaginary leftist historian

OK, his leftist past wasn’t entirely created in 2020; I’ve heard good things about his radical early 30s, when he was a lawyer to radical campaigns, and I actually knew him slightly in his radical mid-20s, when he was a Pabloite. But the man’s pushing 60; there’s been precious little sign of that radical past lately, and there’s certainly no continuity with it.

4. Where are we now?

So if Starmer is doing a Kinnock it’s a very particular kind of Kinnock – a virtual Kinnock, a “fake news” Kinnock. Needless to say, it’s an approach that leaves the field littered with hostages to fortune.

Admittedly, left-wing reminders of Starmer’s ten pledges, his “hands up” to energy nationalisation and his reference to Corbyn as a friend haven’t made much of a dent in Starmer’s standing. But then, Starmer’s standing – as distinct from his election as party leader – isn’t dependent on the Left. It could be a different matter when the right-wing press decides to use that information – and use it they certainly could. It wouldn’t be beyond them to borrow the Left’s argument as it stands and use it as an attack on Starmer’s character – if this is what he’s willing to say to his friends, how can you believe what he says to you?

Alternatively, they could turn the Left’s argument on its head and ask, not whether Starmer was lying when he professed left-wing commitments, but whether we can trust Starmer not to revert to those commitments. This is potentially a really explosive line of attack; everything Starmer says now to differentiate himself from Corbyn could be undermined by those past statements. We can see here the importance of those two factors in Kinnock’s victory. On one hand, his Tribunite back story made it credible that someone could be on the Left and join with the Right in attacking the “hard Left”. On the other, the fact that divisions within the party could still be defined in terms of “left” and “right” – and not in terms of “ideological fanatic” and “pragmatic moderate”, or (grotesquely) “antisemite” and “anti-racist” – made it credible that someone could have been left-wing in the past and oppose the Left now. Neither of those escape routes is available to Starmer: if he’s publicly shown to have been a leftist in the past – nay, a Corbynite! – his story falls apart. Whether he’ll be allowed to lead Labour into a General Election, when he’ll surely face all that and more, seems highly dubious.

Will Starmer be judged a success on the “Kinnock” criterion on leaving his current post – will he have succeeded in both moving the party substantially to the Right and in re-energising it, making members believe the next election is winnable? (I’m not saying anything about the actual outcome of the next election; polling data suggests strongly that it was public reaction to Black Wednesday in 1993 that won it for Labour in 1997, and a conjuncture like that isn’t to be counted on – particularly seeing that economic incompetence no longer seems to be a problem for Tory governments.) Even on this restricted criterion, I’m not confident. Kinnock’s victory hadn’t been gained entirely by fair means – and the defeat of the miners certainly wasn’t – but the Right didn’t press home its advantage; the Left was sidelined and irrelevant within Labour, but largely retained its political legitimacy. A nominally left-wing leadership, drawing on the Right of the party as well as the centre-left, could afford to ignore them: the leadership was where the action was, after all.

None of this is true under Starmer. The Left remains a substantial presence within the party but is entirely deprived of political legitimacy; indeed, so incomplete was Corbyn’s victory, this was very largely the case even before Starmer came to power. (The well of political discourse was well and truly poisoned between 2015 and 2019.) Starmer’s leadership has taken steps to reduce the representation of the Left and deter left-wingers from staying in the party, but all this does is repress the problem, storing up trouble (or, depending on your vantage point, opportunities) for the future. (I mean, we’re still here. Not quite so many of us, and we’re not exactly happy, but we’re here.) On the other hand, “reformed Left” discourse and political renewal, even of the bland and half-hearted kind embodied by Kinnock’s “Meet the Challenge, Make the Change” policy review, is nowhere to be seen. But then, it’s hard to renew politically without drawing on different political positions – and it’s hard to do that if you’re committed to denying that there are any different political positions.

The blandness and vacuity of Starmer’s leadership – and Labour’s seeming inability to stretch its poll lead beyond 4-5%, even against the worst Tory government anyone has ever known – are telling signs of the sheer exhaustion of the Labour Right. (We were defeated, and we’re still knackered – but they won, and they’ve got nothing.) We can be pretty sure that Starmer is never going to be PM, but we can also be confident that he isn’t going to “do a Kinnock”, redefining the Left in his own image and leading Labour to a new home on the sunlit uplands of vaguely leftish neo-liberalism. This is partly because neither he nor the people around him have even that much to offer in terms of ideas – and partly because neither he nor the people around him are willing to acknowledge the existence of the Left, let alone redefine or claim to lead it.

A second Kinnock? Starmer will be lucky not to go down in history as a second Jo Swinson.

One Comment

  1. Posted 14 June 2022 at 21:57 | Permalink | Reply

    Enjoyed this article very much!

One Trackback

  1. […] By the way this is an interesting analysis of Starmer. […]

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