Neil Kinnock

Neil Kinnock

Last updated: 23 September 2008

The leader of the Labour Party from 1983 to 1992 contested two elections but lost both. He is widely credited for saving Labour from electoral irrelevance, but he has his critics.

Neil Kinnock was born in 1942, becoming an MP for Bedwellty in 1970. His father has been quoted as giving him advice on his election: "Remember Neil, MP stands not just for member of parliament, but also for Man of Principle."

His principles during his time in the shadow cabinet were rarely questioned, and his reign as Leader of the Opposition is largely remembered for the Labour Party's transition from the 'Loony Left' cliché of the 1970s to an electable force, remaining true to 'core' Labour ideals.

Kinnock arrived in the upper echelons of the party at a time at which Labour's official stance was in favour of devolution for Wales, but he was one of six South Wales who campaigned against it. A 1979 referendum in Wales rejected devolution.

He became a member of Labour's National Executive Committee (NEC) in 1978 and after Margaret Thatcher's victory for the Conservatives in 1979, Kinnock was appointed education spokesman by James Callaghan.

A pragmatic acceptance of the realities of real-politik saw him severing most of his ties with the left wing of the party when he became a member of the shadow cabinet.

Michael Foot lost the 1983 election against Thatcher, and Kinnock was elected leader in his place. Almost straight away, he was thrown into the maelstrom the miners' dispute and strike action. The Conservative government's tactics in the miners' strike of 1984 have become legend, as have the effects of the mine closures on South Wales, but Kinnock could not get fully behind the miners.

Instead, while he supported the miners' case and the importance of preserving livelihoods in areas like his own constituency, he was critical of the tactics employed by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The Labour Party conferences of 1984 and 1985 saw him deliver two widely-praised speeches, criticising both the NUM and the 'Militant' movement of ultra-left wingers.

Kinnock's purge of the left-wing extremities of his own party can be seen as the groundwork for New Labour in the following decade as he implored, cajoled and ordered Labour to modernise.

But with traditional left-wing policies such as nuclear disarmament in the manifesto for the 1987 election, the electorate still viewed Labour as unable to shake the shackles of their more extreme past. They came second once more to the Conservatives.

This was by no means a disaster for Kinnock's Labour, and he remained as leader, once more with a mandate to continue the modernisation process of the party.

Not that all elements of Labour supported him - Tony Benn challenged Kinnock for the leadership in 1988 but was humiliated, and the far left wing was broken as a force to be reckoned with.

Assisted by the Poll Tax debacle and his increasing ability to score points in the House of Commons off Thatcher, Kinnock moved Labour ahead of the Conservatives in poll ratings. This didn't translate into electoral success 1992, however as public reaction to the new Conservative leader, John Major, and a famous Sun newspaper front page relegated Labour to second once more.

He resigned as Labour Party leader in 1992, to be replaced by John Smith. He remained as an MP until 1995, then was appointed to the European Commission as transport commissioner.

In 1999 he became vice-president of the European Commission then in 2004 he became head of the British Council, then a peer of the realm as Baron Kinnock of Bedwellty, explaining his change of heart on the second chamber by talking of the Lords as an opportunity for campaigning.


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