It was at Preston railway station, in September 1985, as he made his way back to London from the TUC Conference that Neil Kinnock realised his time had come.
Picking up the Lancashire Evening Post, the Labour leader read of the latest saga in the long-running battle between the Thatcher Government and the Militant-controlled Liverpool City Council over proposed cuts to the budget.
In a last-ditch effort to bounce the government into a U-turn, 31,000 redundancy notices were ready to be sent out to each of the council’s employees. It was, Kinnock told his advisor Charles Clarke, the moment they’d been “praying for”.
A few days later, Kinnock took to the sofas of TVam to warn of the “crisis of anxiety” hanging over the public sector workers in Liverpool, the very people the Labour Party was elected to represent. In response, the Militant newspaper called on the Labour movement to support them to the bitter end: “Surrender is not an option”, an editorial argued. It set the scene for the showdown of the decade.
Neil Kinnock later claimed to have had the words for his Bournemouth speech in his head for several years before he took to the stage on 1 October 1985. Twelve months earlier he had summoned his resolve not to intervene against Militant for fear that the timing was wrong and that a speech would have just “skidded off the surface”. This time the conditions were perfect, but so too the setting: the hothouse of the Labour Party Conference.
The events which took Kinnock to Bournemouth lay not in Preston railway station but seventeen miles west, in the seaside town of Blackpool, almost a decade earlier. It was there, in the autumn of 1976, that the Chancellor Denis Healey bulldozed his way through the boos and jeers of the conference floor to ask for support for “the very painful cuts in public expenditure” needed to avert a looming economic collapse. His great rival, Tony Benn, refused to clap: according to Benn’s diaries, Healy’s speech was “so vulgar and offensive”.
Verbal abuse and shouting down speakers became an essential part of Labour Party Conference
At the same conference, Benn won great applause for his analysis that the party was “paying the price” for twenty years of “soft-pedalling our advocacy for socialism”. Leaving Blackpool in a despondent mood, the prime minister’s chief policy advisor Bernard Donoughue concluded in his own diary that “the easiest way to win votes and cheers was to attack the Labour Government”. But that was just the beginning of Labour’s conference problems. With each year that passed, and as their period in opposition grew, verbal abuse and shouting down speakers became an essential part of the spectacle.
For the left of the party, spearheaded by Benn, it was the arena in which “real democracy” could be enacted. Most notably, in 1980, in what the press dubbed as Benn’s “October Revolution”, the leadership was defeated on major issues such as exit from the EEC (without a referendum), mandatory reselection and on reforms for electing the party leader.
Benn rounded off a momentous day with a speech pinpointing all the betrayals of the last Labour government. As he ticked off the policies adopted in previous conferences, and vetoed by the leadership, TV cameras zoomed in on Jim Callaghan, who could do nothing but mutter “not true” under his breath.
This animosity – what Shirley Williams called a “culture of intolerance” – was a factor in the “Gang of Four” breaking away to form the SDP in early 1981. Williams said, “It is not easy to go along and be balled down, shouted at, abused, intimidated and told you’re just a bloody Tory”. Those who stayed on to fight often did so on the conference floor, where insults of “trots”, “traitors” and “scabs” were traded. One year, the Chair, Lady Jeger, intervened to liken the actions to those of football hooligans, warning delegates that “we are making a spectacle of ourselves”.
As the Benn/Healey deputy leadership contest of 1981 heightened tensions further, Michael Foot appeared powerless to prevent the party from descending into civil war. All the while, Margaret Thatcher was slowly cultivating her image as the “Iron Lady” – praised in the media for her ruthless “Monday Massacre” of the Wets from her cabinet, which promoted hardened Thatcherites such as Nigel Lawson, Norman Tebbit and Cecil Parkinson.
Few expected Neil Kinnock to stamp his personal authority on the party
After Labour’s landslide defeat in 1983, few expected Neil Kinnock to stamp his personal authority on the party. In his first conference as leader – at the height of the miners’ strike – the press reported on a series of “personal humiliations” at his expense. One motion – that the police were guilty of “organised violence against miners and their communities” – triggered a major row with the police, as delegates voted that the next Labour government ban the police from intervening in industrial disputes. The chairman of the Police Federation claimed that the police would have difficulty working with Labour due to their “orgy of police bashing, vilification and downright dishonesty”. The Tories were quick to claim that the party had “lost control of its senses”.
Kinnock was forced to reaffirm Labour’s commitment to both democracy and the rule of law, but, in the eyes of Benn, enjoyed merely a “standing ovation of the forced kind”. In contrast, Arthur Scargill won a “spontaneous and passionate ovation” after attacking those “whose hearts are too weak for the most important labour struggle of our age”. The Daily Mirror drew a different conclusion, accusing the party of indulging in its favourite game of “kicking the leader”: simultaneously humiliating Kinnock while managing to treat Scargill “like a war hero instead of a remorseless vote loser”.
Throughout 1985, events would seemingly turn in Kinnock’s favour. Tony Benn’s demands for a General Strike to support the miners failed to gain any traction beyond the fringes of the Labour movement. The miners returned to work defeated in March 1985 after the harshest and longest industrial dispute in history. A “second front”, of left-wing councils resisting the introduction of rate capping broke down, leaving just Lambeth and Liverpool to fight on. Liverpool City Council’s deputy leader Derek Hatton called for solidarity: “If we stick together, I’ve no doubt we can bring Mrs Thatcher down”.
As September approached, the Council’s demand for an extra £25 million from central government to keep services running was non-forthcoming. In a last roll of the dice, the council voted to issue redundancy notices to its own workers. Hatton urged the Labour movement to hold firm: “This is a war of nerves,” but Liverpool, he argued, “is used to living on its nerves”. It was in pursuit of this – of what Kinnock would call “impossible promises” – that finally forced his hand.
Kinnock understood that he only had one shot to separate Labour’s soft left from the hard left
As Kinnock took to the stage in Bournemouth, he understood that he only had one shot to turn the tide in his favour and separate the soft left in the party from the hard left. First, he took aim at those calling for extra-parliamentary action, citing that it was an “unavoidable, total and insurmountable” precondition that the party win a general election. To do so, the party would have to give up false promises “that are so fanciful, so self-indulgent, so exaggerated that they can be completely falsified by the realities in which we live and the realities that we know we shall encounter”.
He went on to argue that it was not just policies holding the party back, but its culture: its way of speaking to the people, of treating politics as a public-school game. He urged members to speak to the “real people” in the country, not to “dogmatise and browbeat”, but to “argue and persuade”. That, he argued, “is what people expect. That is what they’ve got a right to expect, and you know that”.
As the cameras turned to an increasingly animated Derek Hatton on the conference floor, Kinnock reached for the now immortal passage:
I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, outdated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.
As an initial storm of applause then morphed into a series of heckles and jeers from the floor, Hatton could be seen shouting “Liar!”, as Eric Heffer walked off the stage. It took over a minute for Kinnock to begin his second passage (after he rejected an offer from the Chair to intervene and call for calm): “I’m telling you, no matter how entertaining, how fulfilling to short term egos…I’ll tell you and you’ll listen…I’m telling you, you can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services.”
The Labour MP Bryan Gould would later remark that the conference then omitted a curious sound “as if it had been wounded”, observing that “it didn’t know what had happened to it”. One delegate had to be restrained from launching themselves onto the stage in a fit of anger. Sat behind Kinnock was Dennis Skinner, who looked on in stony silence as the Labour Leader took in a standing ovation. Shell-shocked, Tony Benn was reduced to tears as he comforted a young girl: “I just can’t understand what they’ve done to our party”.
In just one passage of speech, Kinnock flipped the trajectory of the party and, most importantly, the dynamics of party conference on its head. The left – for so long used to a monopoly on the righteous anger of leadership betrayal – was now being told to wear their own failures of the working class. Sensing an immediate shift, a stunned Benn wrote in his diary that evening how it was becoming “more and more apparent what a misery it is to be in the Labour Party.”
The left was taken aback by the sheer force of the response from the audience. It would take almost thirty years – and the arrival of Jeremy Corbyn – for their message to resonate in the Labour movement again. Throughout the Corbyn years, Kinnock’s speech regained some of its mythological status, leading to calls for Sir Keir Starmer to reach for his own “Kinnock moment”; to communicate to the public that the party has understood why it has suffered four consecutive electoral defeats.
However, such an attempt would be unlikely to match the gravitas and the spectacle of Bournemouth in 1985 where events and the setting perfectly aligned to create a moment of pure political theatre that still endures its legacy thirty-five years on.
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