A thousand generations…
In 1987, the Labour Party was fighting on two fronts. Its youthful leader, Neil Kinnock, had begun the long-haul task of dragging the party away from its crushing 1983 General Election defeat, through and beyond the brutal socio-economic traumatism of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, and the grinding internecine struggle to expel the entryist Militant Tendency organisation, towards the more centrist-left policy platform where he was convinced a working majority could be won.
To Kinnock, it was clear that if the party was to help those it aspired to represent it had to win back power. But it wasn’t going to be easy. Labour’s slow and torturous policy reform process still had a long way to go. The Conservatives, meanwhile, concentrated on lower taxes, a strong economy and defence. Margaret Thatcher, with two General Election victories under her belt, had consolidated her leadership. Unemployment had fallen below 3 million for the first time since 1981 and inflation, at 4%, was at its lowest level for almost 20 years.
As if that were not enough, Kinnock and his party were faced by an existential threat. In June 1981, the breakaway Social Democratic Party (in all, 28 Labour MPs defected) had formed an electoral Alliance with the Liberal Party. In the 1983 General Election the Alliance won more than 25% of the national vote – to Labour’s 28%. Only the first-past-the-post electoral system saved Labour from meltdown (just 23 Alliance MPs were elected, six of them SDP). But the Alliance remained a potentially potent threat throughout the 1983-1987 legislature, with the SDP, led by the cerebral David Owen, winning two notable by-elections and seeming to gather momentum. Moreover, for as long as the centre-left was split, the Conservative party would continue in government. Thus, Kinnock’s first and most fundamental challenge in 1987 was to see off the SDP threat, preferably for once and for all.
In the campaign, Kinnock played to his strengths; energy, passion, emotion, morality and vision. Among all those strengths, his passionate oratory was surely the strongest of all. Philip Gould recalled how Kinnock approached the campaign ‘with an energy and power that had been waiting to be released … His anger and intensity were awesome.’ Kinnock saw the government’s policies as a moral outrage. Thatcher, he argued, claimed to stand for freedom, but the freedom she stood for was the freedom only of the fortunate few. Her deliberate rejection of the post-war consensus was returning Britain to a Dickensian world in which the marginalised and disadvantaged were increasingly denied state help. Jon Snow, then an ITN journalist, described how ‘1987 was a brilliant campaign from the lowest of ebbs. It was breath-taking, bold, courageous, outrageous. It was against ludicrous odds. During this period, Kinnock’s oratorical style was fantastic. It was the high point of his oratory. ... 1987 was the last time we saw a politician rampaging around the country telling it like it is.’
Nothing better illustrated Kinnock’s oratorical skills than his first speech of the campaign, to the annual gathering of the Welsh Labour Party at Llandudno, on 15th May. Kinnock habitually worked hard on his set-piece speeches, aware of how every word, every nuance, would be parsed and analysed, as he sought gradually to shift his party’s policies. But in Llandudno it was an inspired piece of improvisation that transformed his speech into an enduring example of great oratory. This is how Kinnock recalls the scene:
“I had – in my usual deadline-defying fashion – written my speech overnight. The main theme was the real meaning of the individual freedom we stand for as socialists and I used some authentic references to my constituents to demonstrate how they lived in a free country, but economic and social insecurity, poverty, and disadvantage prevented them enjoying full freedom. The audience was attentive and comprehending, but in my bones, I felt that I hadn’t really ignited inspiration. I therefore left the text that I’d written and launched into off-the-cuff ‘Why am I the first Kinnock…’” (24 March 2017 - interview with the author)
It was an electrifying moment, moving everyone who heard it, as it moves still to this day (even Kinnock’s Special Branch officers were said to have shed a tear or two). The speech not only lit the Labour Party’s blue touch paper but asserted in incontestable fashion the Labour movement’s moral and social authenticity. As one person recalled: ‘In asking those questions, Neil Kinnock spoke for all of us. The sons and daughters of the miners, the farm labourers and factory workers, the shop workers and secretaries whose parents desperately wanted their children to have the opportunities so systematically denied to them.’ (David Chaytor, Guardian, 23 January 2004) Like all great speeches, it wasn’t just the words, inspired and inspiring though they were; it was the delivery.
Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire, Greystoke), who had been invited to make Labour’s first Party Political Broadcast, had already decided that the passionate, caring Kinnock should be centre stage in what would become ‘Kinnock, the Movie’ – still considered to be a landmark in party political broadcasting history. Hudson chose to splice in excerpts from two of Kinnock’s speeches. The first was his 1985 Labour Party Conference speech in Bournemouth, where Kinnock had faced up to and energetically denounced the Militant Tendency threat. The second was his 1987 Llandudno speech. The first exemplified Kinnock’s courage, tenacity and fiercely determined leadership; the second his compassionate vision of an inclusive society. Both speeches, in their different ways, inspired people and gave them hope. Llandudno invigorated the party and energised Labour’s campaign.
In the end, success on the first front (against the Conservatives) was not to be. When the results were announced, the Tories had been returned with a comfortable majority, down only slightly from 1983 and with a 1.5% swing towards Labour (and just twenty additional seats). But there was vital success on the second front. The SDP-Liberal Alliance, which had hoped to overtake Labour as the second party in the UK in terms of vote share, saw its vote drop by almost 3%, and the gap between Labour and the Alliance widened from 2% in 1983 to 8% in 1987. After the election, the SDP and the Liberals voted for a merger, but the resulting Social and Liberal Democrats Party (which would ultimately morph into the Liberal Democrats), never reached anywhere near the 1983 high water mark. It was one of Kinnock’s major achievements and, some would say, his most enduring legacy to his party. Some commentators argue that the Llandudno speech fatally undermined the Alliance’s appeal. After all, what did it represent? Llandudno made it absolutely clear on whose side the Labour Party was fighting.
There is a curious footnote to the speech’s history; in August 1987 then Senator Joseph Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, made free use of Kinnock’s words in an Iowa speech. A Dukakis campaign worker spotted the similarities and the revelation of plagiarism helped end Biden’s campaign hopes. Kinnock didn’t mind and the two met amicably the following year and joshed about the episode.
Kinnock’s 1987 Llandudno speech inspired the party and gave it hope. Though there would prove to be still a long way to go, the SDP threat was gone forever. The twin lessons behind Llandudno are perhaps also of heightened relevance to today’s party; breakaways don’t work, and those who love their party would do better to stay and fight for its soul.
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Martin Westlake is the author of Kinnock: The Biography, Little Brown, 2001. All quotations are from the biography unless otherwise indicated.