His leadership, the Falklands War, the Miners Strike and facing up to the militant left
The tenure of any leader of the opposition is often fraught with uncomfortable periods and decisions which are later regretted, but the political life and times of Neil Kinnock make for divisive reading. A man who sat opposite Margaret Thatcher for almost all of his time as leader of the Labour Party, Kinnock was at the forefront of UK politics during one of the most turbulent decades in recent history.
A Welshman, Kinnock was born in Tredegar, just south of the Brecon Beacons, in March 1942. He became a member of the Labour Party and was a Member of Parliament from 1970 to 1995, firstly for Bedwellty and then for Islwyn. It was his time as leader of the party which he will be most famous, or infamous, for.
Three days after the 1983 General Election, which Labour lost, then party leader Michael Foot declared his intentions to resign. Kinnock faced Roy Hattersley, Eric Heffer and Peter Shore in the leadership election which was decided on 2 October. Kinnock won comfortably, sealing over 70% of the votes from party members, trade unions and MP’s.
Kinnock was involved in moments of tension with Margaret Thatcher even before he himself was Labour leader. In 1982 the UK sank the Argentine battleship the General Belgrano in what was arguably the most controversial event of the Falklands War.
Kinnock, who was the Shadow Secretary of Education and Science at the time, heavily criticised the government’s actions during the war and was part of a Labour condemnation against the sinking of the Belgrano. The war would be vital in saving the public perception of Thatcher and would help the Conservatives to a landslide victory over Kinnock’s Labour Party the following year.
During his time as an MP, Kinnock was viewed as one of the more left-wing members of the party. However, when becoming leader, he turned his focus on moving the party closer to the centre of the political spectrum. This was done with the hopes of giving the party a better chance of being electable.
However, this plan backfired less than six months into Kinnock’s tenure when leader of the National Union of Mineworkers Arthur Scargill led his union out on strike in protest to planned pit closures. Kinnock supported the reasoning for the strike, but condemned the methods used by the striking miners.
At a Labour Party rally Kinnock called the death of David Wilkie, a Welsh taxi driver who was killed when a concrete block pushed by two striking miners landed on his car, an outrage. He was then heckled, to which he responded by accusing the hecklers of ‘living like parasites off the struggle of the miners’ whilst also accusing Scargill of lying to the miners.
Labour suffered another defeat to Thatcher’s Conservatives in the 1987 election, although they did regain seats in Scotland and Northern England. Southern England, however, remained strongly in the hands of the Conservatives.
His leadership was challenged in 1988 by Tony Benn and with his popularity down within the party it was entirely possible he could have lost his role. However, Kinnock comfortably kept the leadership and enjoyed a rise in popularity as well as a run of strong performances against Thatcher in the House of Commons.
The new decade would bring a rise in the support for Labour, with the three years leading up to the 1992 election seeing the Party edge out the Conservatives in the polls. However, another defeat resulted in Kinnock resigning from the role as leader.
In his resignation speech, Kinnock had blamed the right-wing media for Labour’s defeat. He pointed the finger at the Sun, which ran with the frontpage headline of ‘If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’ on the day of the election.’
Neil Kinnock’s ambition of moving the Labour Party out from the hands of the militant left-wing members was a plan which he did partially achieve by the time of his resignation as leader. From 1982 through the late 80s the hard core left wing still had a grip on the party.
By the time he stepped down as leader in 1992 although he hadn’t completely achieved his goal, Kinnock had been able to bring Labour closer to the Conservatives. Five years later, in 1997, Tony Blair would be the first Labour Prime Minister in 20 years. It would be one of the biggest shifts within the party since its creation.