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Tuesday, 22 February, 2000, 10:37 GMT
Neil Kinnock: Bitter fight to a new dawn
Neil Kinnock was Labour leader from 1983 to 1992 and is now a European Commissioner.
Writing for BBC News Online, he tells of the trials and tribulations which characterised his period at the head of the party.
In the June 1983 general election, Labour polled 27.6% of the vote compared to the Tories' 42.4% and the Liberal/SDP Alliance's 25.4%.
Economic upturn, a real war in the Falklands and the splits and stupidities with which Labour had become associated in the public mind inflicted devastating defeat.
The tasks which faced us in October 1983 were obvious to me, to most shadow cabinet members, and to many in the movement inside and outside Parliament; Bind the party as a credible, united organisation; change or drop policies which alienated the voters; retain the essential values of democratic socialism that make it worth belonging to the Labour Party; reach out to reassure and regain supporters.
A tall order by any standards. And it was made taller by two factors; First, some in the Labour Party comforted themselves that our pathetic 8 ½ million votes had been "for real socialism" and learned nothing from the nature and scale of the defeat.
Second, I made two hideous mistakes - acting with an ebullience that provided ammunition for allegations of a "gravitas deficit", and failing to publicly demand that the miners should have a democratic ballot before engaging in the ruinous sacrifices of the 1984-85 strike.
The effects of both took root. Even as we peeled away our policies of opposing council house sales, of threatening withdrawal from the European Community, and of seeming to offer public ownership and import controls as answers to just about any economic affliction, the struggle for credibility continued to be arduous.
I had hoped that the 1987 election would enable us to capture 40 Tory seats in the first innings of a "two innings match" that would be needed to regain government.
At the opening of the election campaign we actually lagged behind the Liberal SDP Alliance in the first opinion polls.
The policy changes that we'd hacked out, the modernisation of organisation and appeal and the onslaught on the ultra-left parasites in the party had seemingly not recaptured support.
In the political biopsies that followed, I told the party to remember the obvious realities that "elections are won in years, not weeks", that "political self discipline is demanded by voters and a duty for socialists", and that the "'do not disturb' notices have to be taken down from every mind".
We then began a policy review that covered every area. By 1990 we had adopted workable economic, health care, environment and other policies, and finally peeled away unilateral nuclear disarmament and other lingering commitments that had continued to repel a wide spectrum of voters.
Seismic changes, including the Gorbachev-Reagan détente and the crumbling of Soviet Communism, began to alter the political environment. Party in-fighting faded or was throttled, and one-member-one-vote began to inflict casualties on the ultra-left in a National Executive that gave me consistent majorities for change and reform.
Then Margaret Thatcher resigned. Moderate Tories rejoiced. I had my bleakest moments among the many dark periods of my years as leader: I knew that our greatest single electoral asset had gone, and whoever replaced her would be able to give the impression that the change that Britain wanted had come.
The Tory poll recovery was quick and lasting. The "softer" Conservatism of John Major and the ejection of the poll tax recaptured support.
The Conservatives brought it back in the closing weeks of the April 1992 Election and, supported by an unprecedented tabloid alliance to stop - they thought - a majority Labour government, their attack was too much for us. The doubting marginals stuck with the Tories.
That, by itself, was not enough to bring them victory. My perceived weaknesses played a part and it would be vain to ignore that reality. For every couple of voters who gave us credit for transforming policies and conduct, there was one who thought the changes "opportunistic" and shallow - a risk that we had to take.
'Time to go'
The prolonged recession didn't radicalise most voters (it never does), rather it made them more cautious. John Major's celebrated soap box "ordinariness" appeared to emphasise the distance from Margaret Thatcher. The economic shambles of autumn 1992 was still in the political womb.
As Robert Worcester of MORI pointed out: "In the 11 most marginal Tory seats, if just 1,241 voters out of the 32.8 million who voted in Britain had voted for the opposition, the election would have resulted in a hung Parliament".
That near. But never near enough. It was time for me to go. So I went.
Five years later, the elan of Tony Blair and, some say, the foundations laid between 1983 and 1992, brought the New Dawn.
The whole country showed that it had learned to vote tactically. Landslide came. The roar of it will always be sweet remember'd music to me.
22 Feb 00 | Labour centenary
22 Feb 00 | Labour centenary
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