Neil Kinnock

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Neil Kinnock

The British Labor Party politician Neil Kinnock (born 1942) served as a member of Parliament beginning in 1970. He also served as a member of the Labor Party's national executive committee beginning in 1977 and was elected party leader in 1983.

Neil Kinnock was born in Tredegar, South Wales, on March 28, 1942. His father, Gordon Kinnock, began his working life as a coal miner but subsequently changed to work in a steel mill due to a chronic skin disease brought on by the working conditions in the mines. In 1939 he married Mary Howells, who was the district nurse for Tredegar. Both parents were staunch Labor supporters. His first distinct political memory was being taken by his father to hear a speech by Aneuran Bevan, the town's member of Parliament (M.P.). Kinnock joined the Labor Party at the age of 15.

Mary Kinnock saw to it that her son attended the best schools in the district. Although Neil passed the entrance exam known in Britain as the "11 plus" with flying colors, his years in secondary school were neither happy nor academically successful. However, he did well enough in his final year to gain admission to University College, Cardiff.

At the university, Kinnock immediately threw himself into the whirl of student politics. He organized protests against apartheid in South Africa and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, campaigned for James Callaghan during the 1964 elections, served as chairman of the campus socialist society, and in 1965 was elected president of the student union. During his college years he developed his skills as a fluent and quick-witted speaker. He also met Glenys Parry, the daughter of a North Wales railway worker and student activist. The two were married in 1967.

Because of his political activity, his studies suffered; in fact, he only barely graduated after failing his exams the first time. Shortly afterwards he became a staff tutor and organizer for the Worker Education Association. He gained a reputation as a gifted teacher and lecturer on economics, and as early as 1967 his name was being mentioned as a prospective candidate for Parliament. When the incumbent Labor M.P. for Bedwellty, South Wales, unexpectedly announced in 1969 that he would not be running for reelection, Kinnock decided to seek—and narrowly won—the local Labor Party nomination over an endorsed candidate of the National Union of Mineworkers who was twice his age. In the 1970 general election Kinnock won by 22,000 votes and held the seat by massive majorities through the mid-1980s.

On entering Parliament, Kinnock joined forces with the left wing of the parliamentary Labor Party grouped around the newspaper Tribune. His maiden speech was an abrasive attack on the Tories during a debate on the National Health Service. During the 1970-1974 Parliament he spoke frequently in debates and conscientiously attended to the needs of his Bedwellty constituents. Thereafter, however, his attendance in Parliament dropped off; and by the early 1980s he had one of the ten worst attendance records of all contemporary M.P.s.

In the years 1974-1979 Kinnock had gained a national following among the left wing of the Labor Party and in the country at large. He appeared frequently on television and spoke at many local Labor Party and trade union meetings. A sharp critic of the Wilson and Callaghan administrations, he turned down offers of ministerial positions, although he served briefly as Michael Foot's parliamentary private secretary. He unsuccessfully opposed Britain's entry into the European Common Market (European Union), which the British electorate approved by a large margin in a 1975 referendum. He led the Welsh opposition to legislation providing for limited self-government for Wales, arguing that the misfortunes of Welsh working people could best be redressed "in a single [British] nation and in a single economic unit." His stance was triumphantly vindicated in March 1979 when Welsh voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposal in a referendum. He was also associated with Labor Party M.P.s and activists who were calling for constitutional changes in the electoral method by which the Labor Party selected its leader. He won election to the Labor Party's national executive committee on his second attempt in 1977 and was subsequently re-elected until his emergence as party leader. As a Conservative newspaper said of him in 1978, Kinnock was "a left wing fanatic who looks and sounds like a reasonable man."

Following Labor's defeat in the general election of 1979, Kinnock's political orientation underwent an abrupt change. He agreed to enter the shadow cabinet as spokes-person on education, thus ending his years as a back-bench "rebel." Distancing himself from the far left of the Labor Party, he opposed the candidacy of Tony Benn for the post of deputy leader in 1981—a bitterly fought contest that Benn lost by the narrowest of margins. In Kinnock's opinion, "We needed the contest like we needed bubonic plague." He also denounced as demagogic promises that a Labor government could fully restore cuts in educational and social services spending given the parlous state of the British economy. These and other positions of his cost him considerable support on the Labor left, and by the 1982 party conference he had slipped to fifth place in the balloting for election to the national executive.

The 1983 general election was a disaster for the Labor Party, which saw its proportion of the votes cast reduced to a post World War II low of 27.6 percent. Nevertheless, it was Labor's defeat that provided the context for Kinnock's election as party leader in October 1983. He had been an unswerving supporter of Michael Foot, and, partially as a repayment for his loyalty, Foot let it be known following his resignation as leader that he wanted Kinnock to succeed him. In a smoothly-run campaign held under the terms of the new electoral system he had been one of the first to advocate in the 1970s, Kinnock easily defeated three opponents with 71.3 percent of the votes. In his tenure as leader he continued his attacks on the Conservative administration of Margaret Thatcher, as well as his opponents on the left—most notably Arthur Scargill of the National Union of Mineworkers, whose leadership of the 1984-1985 nationwide coalmining strike he sharply criticized at Labor Party conferences. In the opinion of the Economist of London his personal dominance within the Labor Party had by 1986 come to exceed that of any Labor Party leader since Clement Attlee in the 1940s and 1950s.

By 1992, Kinnock had resigned as Labor Party Chief. The Labor Party was defeated in the April 9, 1992 election. Kinnock now serves as European Commissioner for Transport.

Further Reading

Two currently available biographies are Robert Harris, The Making of Neil Kinnock (London, 1984) and G. M. F. Drower, Neil Kinnock: The Path to Leadership (London, 1984). B. Pimlott reviews both books and adds his own analysis in the Times Literary Supplement (London, October 12, 1984). The Economist (London, May 17, 1986) contains a useful survey and analysis of his career. Since Kinnock speaks better than he writes, Hansard's Parliamentary Debates should be consulted in order to catch the full impact of his style. See also: "The Labour Party leadership and deputy leadership elections of 1992," by R. K. Alderman in Parliamentary Affairs, January 1993, vol. 46, no. 1, pp. 49-65; and "Neil Kinnock: European Commissioner," by David Lennon in Europe, October 1995, pp. 12-16. □