A Life of Purpose, Fairness and Progress: An Interview with Lord Neil Kinnock

A Life of Purpose, Fairness and Progress: An Interview with Lord Neil Kinnock

GRI sat down with Lord Neil Kinnock to reflect on his influential life in politics as former Leader of the Labour Party and the deeply valuable advice he has for the next generation of public servants.

Profile – Lord Neil Kinnock

Neil Kinnock was Leader of the Opposition and of the Labour Party from 1983 to 1992. He was elected to the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party in 1978, and elected to the Shadow Cabinet a year later as Education Spokesman.

Following the Party’s defeat in 1983, he was elected to succeed Michael Foot as Leader, a position he held for nine years, leading the Party at two General Elections and bringing it close to victory in 1992.

After standing down from the Leadership in 1992, he served as one of Britain’s European Commissioners between 1995 and 2004, becoming Vice-President of the Commission in 1999.Following his retirement from the Commission, he was Chairman of the British Council from 2004 to 2009, and joined the House of Lords in 2005 as Lord Kinnock of Bedwellty. He was appointed as Honorary President (Chancellor ) of Cardiff University 1998-2011.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

GRI: What motivated you to enter into public service?

Lord Kinnock: I cannot recall ever making an explicit decision to go into politics. I joined the Labour Party when I was 14 years of age – slightly illegally because Labour Party membership was not allowed before the age of 15. In our area, all the Councils were Labour. On our County Council, there were 63 members – two conservatives, one communist and 60 Labour party members. That is the kind of area it was. The family I grew up in was socialist and trade unionist but not actively political. They were intelligent, well-read people – mainly coal miners and steelworkers. My father was a disabled coal miner who started working in the steelworks by the 1950s. My mother was a district nurse. We lived in a prefabbed Council house and I went to a Grammar School, which I hated because of the rigid rules and formality- though I had a lot of fun. Because of the environment in which I grew up in, it was clear to me from an early age that all the advances, advantages, facilities, chances, opportunities – the best things in life we had – were the result very particularly of collective effort and contribution. I suppose realising that I was a socialist was not in any way difficult.

In addition, the conversations in our house, the stories of the past and the experiences of the present all confirmed my socialist identity. My Member of Parliament at the time was a man I gigantically admired, Aneurin Bevan, who was a remarkable man who could mix the poetry of politics with the plumbing of politics and largely responsible for the introduction in Britain of the National Health Service and was also the Minister of Housing who instigated a huge house building programme.

During my studies at the University of Cardiff, there were opportunities for political organisation. Within my first year of University, I became elected secretary of the Socialist Society (the University’s Labour Party Club). In my second year, the young woman who later became my wife became the Secretary of the Labour Club and I had become the Chairman. Together, we built a huge membership – approximately 25% of all the 3,000 undergraduates in the university became members of the Labour Club. When I graduated, I became President of the Students Union and then I got my dream job as a tutor/organiser with the Workers Educational Association. I taught Industrial Economics and Industrial Relations, which is my degree, and I was obviously very involved politically with organisations ,Constituencies and trade unions.

Then we got married, got a nice little house, in a constituency where I had no idea that the Member of Parliament was in his late 60s. He was a very nice man, but a rather undistinguished figure. We had been living there for about three years, and he just announced that he was not going to fight the 1970 election. When I was just 28 years of age, I became selected after a tough fight as the candidate for the Labour Party, ran for the seat and became an MP. I had thought beforehand – because of my interests, commitment and communication abilities – that becoming a democratic representative of some kind was a likely probability. But I did not think that I would become a member of parliament for one of the safest seats in the country by the time I was 28. That’s what happened – luck obviously played a part!

How did you translate the socialist principle of egalitarianism into an electable brand of politics in the 1980s and move the Labour Party away from its far-left leanings?

Lord Kinnock: The way you asked that question is very interesting, because whilst I was naturally an egalitarian, my real quest was for equity – fairness – and quality. I took the view of an earlier socialist – when he was asked, ‘what do you want for your people?’ he replied, ‘what do I want for them? I want the best’. ‘How much of it do you want?’ they responded. ‘I want all of it, all of the best for our people!” he concluded. That purpose was central to all of my activities. It applied, for instance, to my very strong committed activity in anti-poverty and anti-racist campaigns, such as the efforts to secure the freedom of Nelson Mandela after he had been sentenced in the early 1960s to life imprisonment.

But it extended very particularly to my own environment and country too, as well as making me an internationalist, recognising (which is not a great intellectual leap) the interdependence of humanity, whether in the local neighborhood, country, continent, or the world. Equity and quality are often termed together as equality. However, I always thought that simply demanding “equality” could be misleading for some people because too often it was represented, particularly by our opponents, as an effort to level down or secure uniformity, regimentation. Of course, the search for equity, justice, fairness, and equality is the absolute opposite of that. Indeed, it celebrates the distinct individuality of every human being, regardless of their race, creed, economic background, gender, or any other differences, which are also important to celebrate. This body of views of interlinked purpose was the reason that I was politically active. I recognised from quite a young age that simply to hold views is worthy of value in some respect, but to do something about holding the views and trying to get your ideals expressed and applied by means of democratic consent was really what the objective of politics should be in a democracy.

Here we are in a democracy – what do you want to do it to make it better? That is the fundamental question. The answer is use democratic politics to try to advocate and apply your ideals. In the Labour Party specifically, there is always a great majority of people who want to secure a more decent and secure life with opportunities for all people, and that is the main thrust of political purpose in the Labour Party. There are also always a minority of people who think that anything less than purity is intolerable. And they would rather advocate the perfect than try to achieve by gradual process (which is much more arduous) the tolerable, the usable, the acceptable, and consequently, I found myself in conflict, both with what could broadly be described as the ‘Right’ in politics, with a capital ‘R’ – that is to say Conservatives in the United Kingdom – and with what I call the ‘impossibilists’ within the Labour Party, the people who would rather perfection than gradual progress. Perfection is highly desirable but gradual, progress is achievable and – most important – useful to the great majority of people. There is a big difference between the two, and it has defined most of the contests, arguments and indeed, sometimes the achievements of my time as democratic representative.

Do you agree with the argument that the UK is a naturally conservative country?

Neil Kinnock: There are two extraordinary paradoxical features about British politics that are both historically and currently accurate. Firstly, the Conservatives as a political force and in government have never received popular majority voting support and yet there has been a conservative hegemony since we have had adult democracy in Britain. The reason for that is the Conservatives managed to get the spread of support, which enables them to benefit from a First Past the Post system. And consequently, it has meant that Britain is regarded ,internally and externally ,to be a ‘conservative country’, but actually the majority of people have consistently voted for anti-conservative purposes, policies and parties. So, I think that when people are taking a view of Britain, they ought to take this historic reality into account. The second reality is whenever closely examined by analysts and pollsters, the British people never fail to show a substantial majority for what could be called ‘progressive values and practices’. This is not a search for the “comforts”, so-called, of the welfare state. It is an attitude towards each other and in the way they tend collaborate and cooperate and to absorb changes in sentiment, fashion and trends.

I am not trying to represent the British as a great progressive force. History would argue against that, at least against our rulers and leaders. But nevertheless, you could not, on any analysis of current or previous public opinion, consider Britain to be innately conservative and reluctant to undertake and accommodate change. All tests of opinion demonstrate the contrary. So here we are in a country, which is potentially or at least characteristically enlightened and progressive, which keeps on electing Conservative governments and giving prominence to what could be called conservative stances, attitudes, and values. This Conservative hegemony has got to do with our system of communication, expression and ownership of the press and the Establishment forces safeguarding their position and promulgating their conservative attitudes as if they were majority public opinions. I think the contrary can be demonstrated factually and easily.

When did you realise that the shift had to occur within the Labour Party to a more pragmatic form of social democracy?

Neil Kinnock: The purists – or the impossibilists – have from time to time managed to secure domination in the institutions of the Labour Party, particularly the National Executive Committee, or particular Council groups or, occasionally, affiliated trade unions. It is not frequent or usual, but it does happen. In the wake of our election defeat in 1979, those people temporarily secured dominance. They had a very effective leader called Tony Benn, who was articulate, charming, forceful, and someone who had discovered radical socialism in his early 50s, which is always dangerous. The problem was that I was not in fundamental disagreement with the hopes that they had, but the way in which they expressed themselves and organised. The objectives that they set out and the way in which they did it were not just a deterrent, but a repellent for the mainstream Labour voters. They became so excessive at one stage that they actually threatened the existence of the Labour Party as a political force. I never took any persuading that we had to secure change and so consequently, I ran for the leadership of the Party specifically to deprive them of their dominance and try to reassert the mainstream values of Labour as a democratic socialist party. After 8-9 years, I succeeded in doing that, but for the first three or four years, it was a very tough fight. In some respects, in order to defeat sectarianism, I had to adopt the same kind of sectarian tactics that they had been employing. But that proved to be quite successful as well.

I managed to secure significant change, some would say a seismic change, in the policy stances, in general leadership conduct ,in finances, organisation and communication of the party – I had to change everything from the budget to the miniscule detail of policies but I eventually got support to do that. And the last three or four years, while they had their challenges, were probably easier than the first three or four years.

What advice would you provide young people who are aspiring to become public servants?

Lord Kinnock: A fundamental rule is never ever think of engagement in democratic politics as a “career”. Some of the most boring and useless people I have ever met have sometimes achieved a form of success in career politics, but not many of them, because people who are bent upon a career in politics tend to become careerists, and consequently, almost unavoidably, they exchange the body of ideals and purposes that they have to make a better World for doing the bidding, or conforming to the general appeal and dominance of those who are ruling at whatever moment in politics. And the moment that you give up your own judgment of intellect and conscience and become a careerist, you cease to be authentic and you are pretty useless at the business of representing people because that is not how real people live. So that is rule number one.

The rest of it is a matter of not just the purity, the integrity but also the practicality, the workability of what you believe in. It is important – no matter what the temptations and pressures – to try to sustain that original body of conviction. It does not mean of course that you must never compromise. The only people who are terrified of compromise are people with shallow convictions. People with deep convictions know that progress has to be gradual, cumulative, incremental and can very rarely be dramatic, sudden, or miraculous. Consequently, it is important to have convictions that are deep and held with integrity, not through dogma. That does permit you to compromise, to do deals, to take away half a loaf when your real desire is to get the whole loaf. Focus not only on the principle, which is vital, but the practicality of what is being proposed and done in pursuit of that principle. Realise, also, it is a lifetime business and journey. You could almost call it a crusade if you are religious, which I am not – think of it as a true and lasting vocation instead.

Sustaining that body of principles, subjecting them to the daily test of reality – which does change because the facts change – and you have to accommodate that change, instead of trying to bulldoze your way through reality, which is only a great way of getting a broken nose. Combine that principle with practicality. If you can do that, and you are not doing it as a careerist, but as a contributor to the common well being in your neighbourhood, country or planet, you will be a useful member of society. If you manage to get elected to something or appointed to a responsible position, you will be useful to that organisation and its purposes, whether it is in the public sector, the private sector, the third sector – it is applicable everywhere.

What are your proudest achievements in public service?

Lord Kinnock: I suppose the biggest achievement was, to sum it up in the words of Roy Hattersley – who was my deputy leader, a marvelous man of great distinction and integrity and a terrific author – who said “Kinnock made the Labour Party electable” and I added, “And Tony Blair got it elected – there’s a big difference !”.

Tony Blair was kind enough to say on several occasions, and I knew he meant it, that what he achieved in 1997 and in the years afterwards would not have been possible if I had not made the Labour Party electable. I am also quite proud of my years as a European Commissioner – as the Commissioner responsible for my chosen portfolio of Transport, we dramatically changed the rules and practice governing motorcar safety, rear seat belts, crash helmets, quite massively changed the rules governing merchant shipping around the coasts of the European Union, which became widely adopted by other countries around the world, and liberalised civil aviation with improved competition and financing and better protection for passenger rights. When I was Vice President of the EU Commission, I was proud of the way in which I reformed and modernised the European Commission to become much better managed so it can demonstrate its full brilliance, which, on a good day, is very substantial. Anyway, I have not wasted my life but there are lots of things I would have liked to have done.

What advice could you share with young people who might be put off by the image or reality of polarisation in politics today?

Lord Kinnock: Firstly, I do not think they should be put off by the image of polarisation. I think they ought to investigate it, to see how accurate a representation of democratic politics it is. There is a problem – in a two party system, or broadly two party system, which is what exists in most democracies. Even where there is a multiplicity of parties, there is a pretty broad division between Conservatives with a big or small ‘c’ and Progressives with a big or a small ‘p’. That is the broad division in politics. I think that anybody thinking about these issues, can see two basic sets of opinions, values and priorities no matter how many party labels are stuck on them. And of course, out on the fringes and relatively isolated, are the very small groups that are nationalistic and racist. They are more prominent now than they have been at any time since the 1940s and they have got to be conquered by democrats, but they do not have a mainstream appeal yet, and they must be prevented by democrats from ever achieving that appeal. And then secondly, and much smaller, there will be those on what I call the ‘excessive’ left who think that regimentation and a form of authoritarianism, whatever label they stick on it – sometimes they call it the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (which of course, is a confusion in terms) – but they have got virtually no broad appeal and are not significant in modern politics.

So here we are with these two broad groupings. The trouble arises when one of them becomes ideological. That can either take the form of embracing a set of propositions that are rigid and do not pay real regard to reality, or it can take the form of the adoration of an individual or a small number who rule that party or a combination of both. If and when they become ideological, they provoke a response from the other side, which is also tempted into seeking a body of pretty rigid dogmas and doctrines, which does not serve its original practical purpose. Now the important thing is to try to ensure that dogma becomes if not laughable, at least exposed as so impractical and incapable of dealing with the challenges of the day and the future, that it gets virtually no support.

I guess that the challenge for people of all politics when they are young, and they are still forming their perceptions, ideas and ideals, is to safeguard against that bigotry and dogma. And if they do that, whether they become reasonable Christian democrats, conservatives, conservative liberals, democratic socialists, social democrats, liberal progressives – that is up to them – they will be resistant to illusions and untruths and doctrine. They will think for themselves. The important thing is they will have taken a stance against having their actions, preferences and priorities dictated by dogma. That is what we have got to safeguard against. Not only in politics, but in life more generally.

– Edited by Ryan Chan

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