Neil Kinnock speaks about life and politics at Burgh House
NICKNAMED the ‘Welsh Windbag’ by Private Eye, Lord Neil Kinnock did not disappoint at Burgh House on Thursday as he regaled listeners with stories of his childhood in Wales, arguments with Tony Benn and schisms in the Labour party.
In front of a packed audience, the former Labour party leader gave a Lifelines series interview at the Hampstead museum.
Widely credited as the man who healed divisions in the Labour party during the 1980s and brought it back together, Lord Kinnock spoke of how he had to fight tooth and nail for reform in a party which clung to its outdated policies.
After Labour’s most disastrous election loss in 1983, Lord Kinnock took over as leader from Michael Foot and set about reforming.
He said: “By the time we got to the 1983 election not only was there a civil war in the Labour party but there was a real war in the Falklands. The economy was recovering and there was a feelgood factor, which is one of the reasons we lost so badly.
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“I knew that making the change in the party was going to be a struggle. Some of the policies were quasi-religious but it was a matter of realism. We had to be relevant. We had to transform a mindset.”
Although he originally opposed entry to the common market in the 1970s, something he says he now regrets, Lord Kinnock had to persuade his party to abandon ideas that Britain would ever pull out.
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He said: “People had to stop telling themselves that we were going to pull out without a massive loss of jobs and economic struggle. Every single change we made had to be fought tooth and nail.
“I did not have any problem with people buying their council house and as leader I was determined to change our policy on that. Tony Benn said they belong to the community and should not be sold.
“I said to him ‘it is no fault of your own but you have never paid rent or a mortgage. You do not know what we are talking about, you are not fit to make policy on this’.”
Lord Kinnock’s years as leader were overshadowed by the miners’ strike and he says this is why his party did not have enough time to concentrate on changing policy and consequently lost in 1992.
Losing that election, he told people, cemented his views that the first past the post system is not right.
“We lost by 1,240 votes which proved to me the problems with the first past the post system,” he said. “There are numerous MPs at the moment who only have 35 per cent of the vote which means that 60 per cent of their constituency did not vote for them. That is not fair.
“We cannot continue like this. The change available is something like the system I want and I will be campaigning for a yes vote.”
Born in 1942 in Tredegar, Lord Kinnock was the son of a coal miner and a nurse, and grew up in a council house.
He said: “It was a happy, generous household full of imagination with lots of colour and culture where learning was encouraged. My parents were always staunch Labour supporters and believers in freedom.”
At the age of 14, after watching Aneurin Bevan speak, he joined the Labour party – three months before he was officially old enough.
He said: “The first time I heard Bevan speak I was 10 but the greatest effect he had on me was when I was 14 at the time of the Suez crisis. He came to Tredegar and more than 2,000 people heard him speak – he was magical.”
At school, Lord Kinnock joked his best subject was “fooling around” but he studied enough to get to university in Cardiff to read industrial relations and history.
“In the first year of university I played rugby and joined the socialist society,” he said. “Then in the second year I met a woman called Glenys Parry and found out that the people who impressed her were politically active.
“So in order to cement a flourishing relationship with her I spoke at a debate and I was very lucky, I came off well and the rest as they say is history.
“We were both political activists and the anti-apartheid movement became very important to the extent that Glenys had a silver wedding ring to make sure that the gold did not come from South Africa.”
The couple honeymooned for a night in a railway hotel in Bangor and then both took up their first jobs as teachers in South East Wales.
Lord Kinnock taught adults industrial economics and relations until his selection as the Labour candidate for the constituency Bedwellty in 1970. After his time as an MP he became the transport commissioner for the EU and since 2004 has been in the House of Lords.
In his party’s recent leadership election he backed winner Ed Miliband who he says has the “X-Factor”.