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Neil Kinnock

(b. 1942)


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(b. Tredegar, South Wales, 28 Mar. 1942)

British; leader of Labour Party 1983–92; European commissioner 1995–9; vice-president of the European Commission (with responsibility for administrative reform) 1999–2004; Baron (life peer) 2005 Neil Kinnock was the son of a coal miner and brought up in the Welsh valleys. At university he devoted a lot of his energy to student politics. He won a safe Labour seat, Bedwelty in South Wales (much of which remained in the new seat of Islwyn which he represented from 1983), and entered parliament in 1970 aged 28. Kinnock was a brilliant orator and a supporter of most left-wing causes in the next ten years. This was useful as the party moved sharply to the left, particularly after the defeat of the Labour government in the 1979 election.

Kinnock was elected to the party's National Executive in 1978 and then the shadow Cabinet in 1980. After Labour's worst election defeat for fifty years the party skipped a generation and elected him as leader in 1983 in succession to his close friend Michael Foot. He was elected under the new electoral machinery which gave 70 per cent of the vote to the constituency parties and trade unions. It was this extra-parliamentary support that helped him to win.

As party leader Kinnock was faced by a formidable Prime Minister in Margaret Thatcher and huge Conservative majorities in the House of Commons. The Thatcher government broke with the post-war consensus and moved the agenda sharply to the right. Labour had to come to terms with the changes and was dispirited in these years. Kinnock also had to face down challenges from determined left-wing Labour local authorities and trade unions (notably the National Union of Mineworkers) who robustly contested Conservative government policies. He showed great courage in defying activists' demands that he support actions which broke the law. He had few heavyweight supporters in the party. Before the 1987 election Kinnock persuaded the party to accept a number of policy changes including the sale of council houses to tenants and Britain's continued membership of the European Community.

After another clear election defeat in 1987 Kinnock moved party policy further to the centre ground. For Labour to come to terms with the social and cultural changes and win another election, it would have to change itself radically. This involved abandoning a unilateralist defence policy, accepting a number of the Conservative policies on privatization, tax, and industrial relations, and trying to appeal to the skilled working class. The party's left wing criticized the policy changes, as well as the reforms in the party organization, which were designed to weaken the influence of left-wing activists, and the use of public relations. He was challenged in a leadership contest in 1988 by the left-wing Tony Benn, and won 88 per cent of the electoral college vote. In the 1992 election a Labour victory seemed highly probable and Kinnock was bitterly disappointed when the party failed to win. He knew that he was widely regarded as an electoral liability and resigned the leadership soon afterwards.

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Subjects: History — Politics.


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