Why is Miliband struggling where Kinnock prospered?

by Jonathan Todd

On 4 February 1975, Margaret Thatcher defeated Edward Heath in a leadership ballot among Conservative MPs. The Spectator showed the way the wind was blowing four months earlier. It would seem to be of the first importance; it reported on 2 November 1974, that Mr Heath’s successor should be someone who is not ashamed of being a Conservative.

Similarly, during summer 2010, it was felt of the first importance that Mr Brown’s successor should be someone not ashamed of being Labour – except Brown has rarely been so ashamed. He was invariably more unashamedly Labour than his predecessor, Tony Blair. The ex partner that the Labour lover wanted to get out of its system had been playing the international field for three years by the time the opportunity came around to do so.

When Neil Kinnock reacted to Ed Miliband’s election as leader by saying, “we’ve got our party back”, we might presume that Blair was the primary kidnapper. But Miliband was himself a minister under Blair and new Labour was not an imposition on an unwilling party but something that grew out of its belly. As no kidnapping occurred, Kinnock was confused.

Nonetheless, reflecting on who the “our” in “our party” are may tell us something still relevant. In the view of David Marquand, Kinnock’s “skill in manipulating the symbols of tribal loyalty made him leader”. We might speculate, therefore, that “our” are those who recognise and value in these symbols.

“Labour needs its soul back,” I was told in 2010 by someone now working for Miliband. Kinnock connected with this soul via the second of the two dimensions that, as Marquand recalled, Henry Drucker saw as forming the ideology of the British Labour movement: ‘doctrine’ and ‘ethos’. “That ethos,” Marquand observed, “is almost indefinable … Perhaps Richard Hoggart caught it best with his famous evocation of the world of ‘them’ as seen from the point of view of ‘us’”:

“They’ are ‘the people at the top’, the ‘higher-ups’, the people who give you your dole, call you up, tell you to go to war, fine you, made you split your family in the ‘thirties to avoid a reduction in the Means Test allowance, ‘get you in the end’, ‘aren’t really to be trusted’, ‘talk posh’, ‘are all twisters really’, ‘never tell you owt’ [e.g. of a relative in hospital], ‘clap yer in the clink’, ‘will do y’ down if they can’, ‘summons yer’, ‘are all in the click together’, ‘treat y’ like muck”

These nearly sixty years old words sound eerily like Miliband. When Miliband tells us the dice is loaded, he’s saying that ‘they’ all in the click together, which is the same ethos that Marquand claims Kinnock revived. “As ethos returned to prominence,” so goes Marquand’s account of the 1987 election, “Labour recaptured the indispensable, if slowly shrinking, proletarian enclave which it had looked like it might lose in 1983”.

Miliband pitches to the same ethos as Kinnock but the “proletarian enclave” is now vulnerable. The counter revolution has gone furthest in Scotland under the SNP. UKIP seek similar in the north of England. And “south Wales is ripe for a west of Scotland style turning of backs on Labour,” according to a Welsh Labour friend.

Maybe the audience does not now exist for the tunes that Kinnock played. Or maybe Miliband is not playing them properly. He might perhaps do doctrine better than ethos. Certainly he faces different political competition from 1987. On Radio 4 in the past year, an old SDPer said something like “the SDP was an elite revolt, while UKIP is a revolt against politics itself”. Appeals to ethos by Kinnock against a background of elite revolt would likely play better than similar by Miliband in the context of revolt against politics itself.

While Chuka Ummuna now says that Blair was 85 per cent right, the contents of the 15 per cent are crucial. We could include lack of party reform from May 1997, contributing towards small, inactive CLPs in the “proletarian enclave”. And bequeathing an economy in which, as his wife appears to understand, property remains one of the best bets.

If Blair had gone further on party reform and economic rebalancing – assuming he could have successfully swam against the forces that have us bowl alone and the undercurrents of secular stagnation – perhaps ethos would be a stronger Miliband card. Equally, if Blair had achieved these things ‘them’ and ‘us’ might be redundant frames. No one believes that Blair got everything right. But pretending the 85 per cent doesn’t exist unnecessarily hobbles Labour, as a lingering suspicion of Heath helps sustain the Tory civil war over Europe.

The latest editorial of Progress concludes that “until it develops a better account of its past, Labour will continue to be muddled about its future”. But it isn’t just the relationship between Blair’s past and the present that Labour should better understand. It’s also Kinnock’s and – as Hopi Sen has long maintained – the leader sandwiched between Blair and Miliband.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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8 Responses to “Why is Miliband struggling where Kinnock prospered?”

  1. John P Reid says:

    It wasnt actually Kinnock who said we’ve got our party back,someone said it to him, and Kinnock said that could be right,
    It could be argued Gaitskellites felt when John Smith brought in OMOV, that the right of the party felt they’d got their party back, after the Wilson, Foot Kinnock years, had kapart from a period in the 60’s and 70’s seen 16 years of opposition.

    Regarding the Spectator,they were Erlys supporters of Mrs T, Maggie having noticed earlier than most that the swing towards extreme that labour took in the early 70’s was more left wing than the swing abe an encouraged in the early 50’s when Labour was arguing with itself,,and Thatchers early ideas on monetarism, and mortgages at the 74 election, helped keep the tories from losing by a mile,and the Spectators support of Mrs T, from then onwards was an admiration for spotting the sea change,

    Ec miliband did realise how unpopular labour were 4 years ago,and David didn’t,but the comparison with the Energu Kinnock showed in 1987′ to now is a bit misleading, we’ve had 13 years of power,fighting to not let the Toeies win in 2010 and also the disappointments of 92′ many labour people were burnt out,but the 1987 election consisted of many people in the 20’s 30’s resigned too the fact labour we’re going to lose in 79′ and 92′ fight the fight, the opinion polls were inaccurate making us think we had a chance, many working class people had abstained in the 83′ election ( possibly because they’d bought council homes, thought ,they’d have to give them back) and labour did well in a high turnout up north, but even with a slick campaign in 87 Labour did worse in some parts of london than in 1983′

    The SDP may have consisted of academics, but in working class seats like Greenwich, Plymouth mwoolwich, labour scored high, I believe that as many ch as many SDP voters were opposed to the poverty caused by unemployement and possible levels of crime that went with it, they supported the privatisation, and Union reforms, as such the idea that had the SDP not existed, that those voters would have voted labour is daft, if the liberals hadnt existed either, the Alliance voters mostly would have had the Tories as their second choice, and as Labour when at the 87 election we said to ex Labour voters who voted SDP in 87′ we’ve kicked out militant, we’re not going to buy back your ciuncil homes, vote for us, we were shocked,that those SDP voters,simply said no chance.

    I see the irony in we lok like doing well in London next year and not so well in the other countries in the UK, but that’s partly due to us not having done well in London in the past, by comparison, a good team in london,and the boundaries,so I except that we have to go back to our routes up north, but that doesn’t mean a 1987 manifesto, actually Blue labour is massive up north, and as it happens if you look at the 1980’s results, the tories did o.k up north because a strong economy, low interst rates, we’re just as important to those in the declining northern industrial towns, as they were to the Yuppie South.

  2. Madasafish says:

    An interesting article with no firm conclusion I think. I tried to read Hopi Sen’s lonnnnnnggg article referenced in the last paragraph. As usual he writes sense – even if you don’t always agree with him, he tends to be logical and careful in his arguments..

    But neither answer the question: Why is Miliband struggling where Kinnock prospered?

    I lived through the entire Kinnock period : it was a period of extreme changes both economically and politically. Kinnock was faced with the SDP trying to split the party form outside and Militant trying to overthrow it from within. He won the internal battle against Militant and eventually the SDP started to run out of steam.

    So Kinnock was brave, stood up and took harsh actions – and won. He was an emotional and good speaker and wore his heart on his sleeve. You know where he stood on issues.

    Can you say the same for Ed Miliband? You cannot. Where is the policy on immigration and the EU. It’s basically steady as you go, nothing to see , move along there. He’s an analyst not a Leader.

    As for acknowledging the errors of the Brown era as Hopi does suggest … that’s a joke. All we have to see is a confused mush.. Some good ideas shine through . BUT where is the leadership, the organisation and the planning needed and that Kinnock gave? Answer: it is not there.

    And that’s why Kinnock prospered and Miliband does not.

    And despite all that Kinnock prospered , he still lost… but he prepared the way for Tony Blair to win three General Elections… the first Labour leader to do so.

    Unlike Kinnock, Miliband is not resolving anything and is in danger of leaving a mess for his successor to sort out.

    Labour should be miles ahead of the Government given austerity. But all they have just done since 2010 is effectively prove to swing voters that they have no idea of running a country .

    If you cannot persuade the country you can manage its finances successfully, you are not worthy to lead it. Kinnock had John Smith as Shadow Chancellor. Milband has Ed Balls.. Say no more.

  3. paul barker says:

    I apologise in advance for going slightly off topic but I have noticed something odd. As the slow decline in Labours Vote share in The Polls has accelerated over the last few weeks all talk about The Polls on Labour sites seems to have stopped. Is this because Labour, collectively, thinks that if you dont mention The Polls they will go away ?
    I had expected a few comments at least.

  4. swatantra says:

    It really is saying much when EdM is found to be more unpopular than Michael Foot.
    We saw the signs 3 years ago and said something should have breen done about it.

  5. anne says:

    For once I agree with Madasafish. What I remember of Kinnock – he was a great speaker – he commanded an audiance – and many people said that Gordan did better fighting for better together that he ever did as PM.

    I think it comes down to personalities in the end – Ed does not come across as a natural leader – he reacts to situations rather that leads them.

  6. Peter Kenyon says:

    Aren’t you being a bit harsh on Miliband, he is only facing his first General Election. His main problem is having a shadow chancellor in Ed Balls who wasn’t his first choice and to whom he is now shackled. http://www.chartist.org.uk/the-pressure-on-ed-balls-mounts/

  7. Madasafish says:

    Peter Kenyon

    To blame Ed’s problems on Ed Balls is as wrong as suggesting Ed Balls has any economic credibility as he has proven to be consistently wrong in Government and Opposition.

    I read your articles and know you don’t hold Ed Balls’ economic competence in high esteem – to put it politely. But then you think Ed Balls should borrow more to spend more. As has already tried that and failed miserably….at least give him credit for not repeating the same mistake three times – it was of course his policy when he first became Shadow Chancellor…

    But to blame ED Balls for indecision, policy silences on key areas, absymal speeches, and a public persona which repels people (however much you dislike it, persona matters) is risble – in my view..

    For the record I think Labour may win most seats at the GE despite both Eds’ visible failings. I just shudder at the possible results .If you cannot run an effective campaign when in Opposition , how in all the world can you cope with the far more arduous demands of running the country?

    Finally I will say, the political situation today reminds me of the 1970s when the UK political world was in flux, the economy was in dire straits and Governments changed regularly and had thin majorities or Coalitions.

    Finally one Party got its act together and had eighteen uninterrupted years in Government, basically through changed economic policies… which you want to reverse.

    I expect the 2010s will be like the 1970s in many ways.

  8. Tafia says:

    Tony Blair to win three General Elections… the first Labour leader to do so.
    Harold Wilson with his 4 wins might be tempted to disagree.

    all talk about The Polls on Labour sites seems to have stopped.
    Think this is because an uncomfortable truth is starting to dawn on Labour. Labour firmly believe (and are probably correct) that UKIP do more harm to the tories than to them. But that in turn means that if it wasn’t for UKIP, the tories would probably be around 50% in the polls now and on course to an absolutely crushing majority – in short, right-of-centre politics is the choice of the biggest share of the electorate after nearly 5 years of a supposedly unpopular cuts and failed economic policies.

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