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‘Labour must abstain and explain’ – Neil Kinnock on Starmer’s EU deal choice

Former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock - Credit: Getty Images

Neil Kinnock is laughing heartily. “Oh God! I never knew about that,” he says. I’ve just informed him that there’s a punk band that plays around Cardiff by the name of Surreal Kinnock.

“Bloody hell,” he laughs. “My wife thinks she’s been married to him for 50-odd years.”

We speak by phone, Kinnock from his home in Tufnell Park, North London, “in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency”, he says, acknowledging the irony. Kinnock, of course, was the last Labour leader seeking to steer the party away from its hard left, a task which now falls to Keir Starmer. I’m interested, I say, in the 78-year-old’s view from his unique vantage point.

“By unique vantage point you mean I’m very old,” he laughs, again.

Of Starmer, Kinnock says: “He’s a man of huge talent and very calm judgement and I support and admire him greatly.

“The party issues that face him are rather different from mine. The overlap in terms of disciplinary action and organisation are obvious but not gigantic. I mean, he’s got – and I think he should be eternally grateful for this – no Tony Benn to deal with, no miners’ strike to deal with, no Arthur Scargill. 

“And the breadth of the Momentum movement means that it includes a large number of young people who are impatient for change, but not misled into deluded revolutionary ideas and propositions. So he can make a very strong appeal to those youngsters who desperately want a Labour government and progressive change with justice, decent housing, proper funding for essential services including health. And I think he’s doing that.”

But he warns that Starmer has an early and vital decision to make. With a possible post-Brexit deal arriving in parliament very soon, the Labour leader must work out how his party should vote.

“There’s one area, of course, where the pressure on him is particularly heavy, and that’s the treatment of whatever deal – if you can call it that, I stick it literally and figuratively in inverted commas – Johnson manages to cobble together,” says Kinnock. 

“And I understand the dilemmas of the leadership when confronted with what is, on a very good day, going to be as thin as the average cigarette paper.

“So what I’m hoping – I make no bones about it, and he and lots of other people know my view – I hope that, confronted with an appalling yes and a disastrous no, the Labour Party will abstain and explain. And therefore keep its powder properly dry for the very long and arduous fight that is to come.”

Starmer, he says, “has got to make up his mind, and his party’s mind, on the basis of his judgement of the facts and the political alternatives. But in his position, that’s what I’d be doing”.

A former European commissioner, Kinnock sees Labour’s decision not in terms of the next YouGov poll, but how it will be viewed long-term on the continent. The party needs to be in a position to work with EU bodies, he says, which is not compatible with dipping its collective finger in the Brexit blood or appearing to prefer no-deal.

“The first thing they’ve got to understand is, so far as the European Union and reality are concerned, we’re not really more sovereign, we’re just more foreign,” he says. “And there’s a major job of ensuring that our relationships with party groups and with wider civil society in the rest of our continent remain steadfast. And I think that’s going to be a necessary task in the wake of this rupture that’s been brought about by Brexit.

“The second thing is, the phrase ‘the closest possible relationship’ is bandied about. But I think that Labour is in the best position to put flesh on those bones by constantly making the informed argument for engagement of some direct kind with the single market. And I really do think there’s a realistic possibility that we could negotiate, in good faith, an association, a partnership with the EU, simply because of their interest in maintaining our single market relationship.”

Boris Johnson has, Kinnock says, “totally blown that, both in his fancies and his fraudulence, and so the EU is going to be very reluctant to develop any kind of constructive alternative relationship”.

But, he adds: “I think we could do it. A very, very British form, if you like, of the Norway position, simply because our economy is much bigger than that of Norway’s, and our significance in the European Union is obviously much greater. So I think there’s a real basis for developing that economic relationship. 

“The best that Johnson can get now is some kind of tariff arrangement which doesn’t deal at all with the massively important non-tariff impediments and costs that we have to deal with after leaving the European Union. So there’ll be an enormous amount of constructive work to do, even in opposition, in the wake of January 1.”

We speak a couple of days after António Costa, the prime minister of Portugal, reopened the debate about a “two-speed Europe” with talk of a smaller EU of “values”, with other countries – unspoken, Hungary and Poland – frozen out of future integration because of objections to debt transfers, migrant quotas or demands over the rule of law. Portugal takes over the EU’s rotating presidency in January.

“So-called variable geometry has been a theme of the European Union, and before it the Community, since the 1950s,” says Kinnock. “The recognition that disparities in size, tradition, aspiration, culture might mean that the Union is best served by having very strong agreement on common policy and action in some areas and a different level of cooperation in others. So that’s an ongoing debate.

“I mean, António Costa is a very, very sensible, feet-on-the-ground sort of fellow and he’s got that in common with lots of other people, not least Angela Merkel. But I don’t know, really, if this is a debate for the next two or three years as the Union recovers from the awful impact of coronavirus. I think that’s for longer debate and determination.”

I wonder, I say, if Kinnock can foresee any UK-wide political party adopting a policy of rejoining the EU, in, say, the next decade.

“That’ll depend, if I can quote Macmillan, on events, dear boy, events,” he says. 

“If the effects of Brexit turn out to be as bad as I think they are then common sense will outweigh just about every other consideration. And I think that the moves towards negotiating, first, a different relationship, could begin in five or six years. That’s the only thing that I can guess at, and it is a guess at this moment.”

Can we end on some good news, then? Neil Kinnock is more than a footnote in the life story of US president-elect Joe Biden. Biden’s first bid for the American presidency, in 1987, ended when he was caught out lifting passages from one of Kinnock’s speeches in his closing remarks at a Democratic primary debate without attribution. The pair have since got to know each other.

“I’ve met him a few times,” he says. “It would be wrong to describe us as buddies. But within minutes, when we first met, we got on with each other, we agreed about a lot of things. Similar sense of humour and, you know, basic values, things that you pretty much immediately pick up just from a normal conversation. He’s a good guy, and I’m ecstatic about the fact that he won, but I’m absolutely beyond delight at the fact that he beat the lying, cowardly, narcissistic orange menace.”

Does Biden’s victory give us something to hold on to ask, I wonder, that here too people could reject populism for a candidate from the liberal, internationalist centre-left?

“Oh, it’s bound to,” says Kinnock. “It’s not the only evidence in the world now that people are beginning to understand the superficiality, the shallowness and the fraudulence of populism. So we’ve got to persist with continuing to oppose it and putting forward policies and conduct that really have got a broad appeal. 

“That challenge has always been there, but I think that we’re witnessing a gradual turning in one of those historic tides, and Keir Starmer is in a very good position to take advantage of that.”

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