My attention was drawn yesterday to a brief TV interview with Neil Kinnock, former leader of the Labour Party. The programme was only tangentially to do with him; it was in fact a semi-serious autobiographical documentary by comedian and actor Alan Davies (best known for his role as Jonathan Creek) dealing with his teens and 20s when he was “a bit of a rebel”.
Alan was recalling Neil Kinnock’s fiery speech to the 1985 party conference.
For several years there had been an internal struggle between the left and right of the party, in particular a left wing faction known as “The Militant Tendency” which was accused of being entrist and a “party within a party”. From 1964 onwards this faction published magazine called Militant, and publicly stated that its policies were in the tradition of and its agenda was towards the furtherance of the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky. The faction abandoned the Labour Party in 1991, declaring that Labour had lost its working class base and had become a wholly capitalist party.
One of the pivotal moments at which the right of the party and the self-styled “Modernisers” began to tip the balance was Neil Kinnock’s 1985 speech, when he took on the left head-on. It was a courageous and vigorous speech, typical of Neil’s style – whilst admirers of his oratory found him stirring, others thought of him as “The Welsh Windbag” – and if you came into it in the middle when he is talking about his Welsh Labour roots you might not guess that his target was the left of his party. Though it was courageous and though he held his ground, the left have always considered him nothing more than a class traitor.
I think his courage can be seen in the way he stood up to the reactions in the conference hall. Derek Hatton, Leader of Liverpool City Council, repeatedly barracked him with loud shouts of “Liar! Liar!” Veteran Labour MP Eric Heffer walked out. Dennis Skinner, one of the most entertaining “old Labour” MPs sat shaking his head. Arthur Scargill, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, sat stony-faced throughout. There seemed to be as many boos as there were cheers.
In the run-up to the 1987 election the Labour Party was 7 points ahead in the opinion polls. With a few days to go they held an election rally with almost-American razzamatazz. A beaming Neil Kinnock at the podium shouted “We’re all riiiight!”, to cheers. Again’ “We’re all riiiight!”. Cheers. A third time, “We’re all riiight!”. Cheers.
Next day the Tory press crucified him, and the electorate bought it. It was as though everyone had said “Ooh, I’m not voting for him – he’s silly!”, the poll lead evaporated overnight, and Margaret Thatcher won a third term as Prime Minister.
Two things happened subsequently, one a seeming victory for the left, the other a victory for the right. The first was that Militant Tendency spearheaded the resistance to Margaret Thatcher’s imposition of a “Poll Tax” on the citizens of the UK; demonstrations were so fierce that many became riots, and ordinary citizens – not just left wing opponents – refused to pay. This resistance is thought to have led to the downfall of Mrs Thatcher as PM. The second was that the Labour Party won the general election in 1997, but it was an unrecognizable Labour Party. Under Tony Blair it had ditched most if not all of its socialist principles and was, as one of my friends puts it, “a Thatcherite party with an irritating gloss of ‘political correctness’”. That seems to have been a vindication of the Militant Tendency’s 1991 analysis of the state of the Labour Party.
Back to the short interview last night. Neil Kinnock referred to the left wing of his party with the words “an infantile disorder”.
“Good grief!” I thought. “He’s quoting Lenin!” and indeed he said in an aside: “Know who said that? Vladimir Illyich Lenin!”
I think he must have been unaware of the irony. Lenin’s creation in Russia was a one-party oligarchy which crushed all opposition, demonized the Kronstadt mutineers and the free soviets of the Ukraine, annihilated its dissidents, and paved the way for an easy slide into Stalin’s reign. I shake my head when I read Trotsky’s assessment of Stalin – the gravedigger of the revolution – when earlier Bolshevism had already dug that grave, when Trotsky himself had overseen the liquidation of opponents.
I am not going to say who are the white-hats and who are the black-hats in the Labour/Militant struggle. I think they all lost. I think the days of left-wing politics in parliament are over and that opposition to capitalism and to right-wing parties will have to begin again from scratch and be a movement of ordinary people resisting outside conventional politics. The prerequisite for this will have to be a re-awakening. It will have to be spontaneous, and not led by the cadres of some “party” saying “Comrades, let us think for you!”. Therefore it will have to come about in the teeth of our existing culture which convinces us that there is no better political way than that we have already, and of the power of the press, which is still overwhelmingly right wing. We’ll see. No rallying cry from me. Not today.