Leader's speech, Blackpool 1984
Neil Kinnock (Labour)
Commentary:This was Kinnock’s first conference speech as Party Leader. The central theme of this address was the miners’ strike over the threat of pit closures, which at the time of the conference was seven months old, and Kinnock condemned the National Coal Board and Thatcher’s government for keeping the dispute going. He also criticised the Conservatives for allowing interest rates and unemployment to rise, cutting spending on public services, and banning trade unionism in GCHQ.
Chair, comrades, as you say, for the first time but certainly not the last I rise to move the parliamentary report for the past year. Frankly, after the last half hour, I was rather more disposed to simply get up and move a vote of thanks to our guest speakers.
For us it has been a year of advance. Twelve months ago we came to this conference licking our wounds in defeat. We stood at 24.5 per cent in the opinion polls; we were stunned by our worst post-war election defeat.
The commentators, with all of the insight and foresight for which they are famous - at least among each other - were talking about us in deathbed terms. Now, in 1984, we have made great gains in the European Parliament elections, and in the local government council elections in the spring of this year. In the four GLC by-elections, which our party correctly called, Labour scored huge victories and - more important, in many ways - we completely vindicate our belief in using democracy to try to defend democracy, in London and everywhere else.
That in anybody’s book should be strong evidence of substantial and sustained recovery, and it is. Only one thing could possibly arrest that recovery: amnesia, memory loss. It is an awful affliction for anyone, but for a political party it can be an absolutely crippling disease. Indeed, a political party cannot afford any degree of infection by amnesia. It must vaccinate itself completely against such an event. It cannot afford any loss of memory. And in this party, the vaccine is simply to recall what defeat felt like last year, and that should immunise each and every one of us completely against any attitude or activity that can impede our progress towards victory.
And all of you who have been winning those European, local and by-elections, know the great feeling of taking an extra pace towards the victory we must achieve at the next election.
That is how it has been in this Labour Party, and that is how it must go on: with patience, with understanding, with persuasion, with co-operation, with campaigning, with hard work. Turning outwards, listening to people, and learning from them. Working for the people, working with the people. That is the way the Labour Party will win the election.
The prize for that effort is great: it is the democratic power that we need to save our country. And the prize is there for us to win. Think about it: we have to advance as much in three years as we already have in one year. That is the knowledge that spurs our effort, that gives us confidence and sets our course for victory.
Every month that passes increases the need for that victory. For in this year, whilst we have been building recovery, our country has been pushed further into slide and shambles by the government elected in June of 1983.
In this year in which the government kept on telling us that the economy is recovering, unemployment has risen by 125,000.
In this so-called year of recovery, an extra 350,000 young people under 25 find themselves unemployed for more than a year.
In this year of recovery 91,000 more manufacturing jobs have been lost, to add to the 1.7 million manufacturing jobs lost since 1979.
In this year interest rates went up by a third, and mortgage rates soared to 12.5 per cent as the government further applied the very policies that brought the pound tumbling in the first place.
In this year industrial production has stagnated - fewer cars and commercial vehicles, steel and ships have been produced in this country than in the previous year.
This was a year when our trade deficit in manufactured products - in this country of makers and traders, that for all the foreseeable future must try to live by selling the things that it makes for the rest of the world - doubled to a rate of over £4,000 million.
As for the so-called sunrise industries, we heard this year that in Britain the sunrise industry of information technology is being eclipsed before it has properly risen.
These are the statistics of slump, and not the records of recovery. I register them with misery - for our people are the victims of that shrivelling economy. I wish with all my heart that it was true that we were experiencing a recovery - even Mrs Thatcher’s recovery. For there is no profit, no comfort, no joy for us in this labour movement in the drudgery, poverty, despair, and insecurity of anybody’s unemployment.
This was the year, too, when tax was introduced on fish and chips; and, in an industry with over 400,000 unemployed, tax was introduced on home improvements.
This was the year when farmers slaughtered milk cows.
This was the year when old age pensioners were charged for their spectacles and lens replacements.
This was the year when the health service – ‘safe in their hands’ - was squeezed into further closures and contractions.
This was the year when the school class-sizes stopped falling; when university admissions kept on falling; when medical and technological research was cut back by the government because of its cut.
This was the year in which cruise arrived. This was the year in which the cost of Trident soared past £12,000 million.
This was the year when cuts pushed public and local services below the level of legality, while simultaneously government threatened prison to those who tried to spend to keep services up to the levels of decency and service to the community. (Applause)
This was the year when the elections for the Greater London and metropolitan county councils were abolished: Why? Because the results would be politically embarrassing and devastating for the government.
This was the year when the government banned trade unions at GCHQ, Cheltenham. Why? In order to demonstrate its view that security, patriotism, commitment to the national interest, is incompatible with trade unionism. What vile rubbish, utterly unacceptable in any democracy.
This is the year when Sarah Tisdall went to jail with a punishment vastly in excess of anything that was merited by the offence.
This was the year when Clive Ponting is on trial and being prosecuted by the government.
This was the year when national policing was introduced in Britain.
This was the year in which young mothers were refused help with maternity costs, and families were denied help with funeral bills, because the fathers of those families were on strike.
This is the year when soup kitchens came back to Britain: 1984, the fifth year of Thatcherism.
And for seven months of this year, all of those elements - the erosion of civil rights; the withdrawal of welfare support; the cutbacks and closures; unemployment and civil disorder - have all been brought together in a great turmoil of the miners’ dispute.
That turmoil is the product of Thatcherism - the combination of ignorance and arrogance, of pride and prejudice, that now rules and overrules this country and makes Britain in this fifth year of Thatcherism less free, less fair, less productive than it was for years before 1979.
The erosion of our economic standards, our standards of liberty, of compassion, of care, and of opportunity; it is all that which is, of course, part of the reason for this dispute. Families and communities in the coalfields, like those in my constituency in South Wales, know that pit closure would trap them, entomb them, in unemployment and deprivation for all of the foreseeable future under Toryism. They know that under Thatcherism no alternatives exist and no alternatives are coming to their areas. That is why the resistance has been so determined. People who do not comprehend it should understand that the communities now engaged in this dispute are like someone fighting for air to breathe. That is literally the case under Margaret Thatcher.
Let everybody be clear. This dispute was caused by the fact that the National Coal Board wanted to impose production targets on the industry which would in this year, by the spring of 1985, bring the closure of 20 pits, the loss of 20,000 jobs, and the reduction of output by four million tonnes - and that was just for starters. They said that the cutback was to bring production into line with the market for coal - that was the phrase they used; they said that the closures were necessary to save £350 million - that’s what they said.
As it happens, that programme could not have benefited Britain in any event. In Britain’s coalfields now, the male unemployment rates are 15, 18, and 20 per cent. There are no jobs for redundant coal miners to go to. That is the simple, sour fact. And that means that closures would simply turn producers of coal who pay taxes into producers of nothing who have to claim benefits. (Applause) That’s the loss we would be making. It would cost the country more; the whole scheme would, to coin a phrase, be ‘uneconomic’ for Britain. Even apart from that plain argument of arithmetic, the fact is that this dispute itself has torn the purposes claimed by the board for their cutback and closure programme into absolute ribbons.
Since the Board tried to impose those demand early this year, there has been a seven-month dispute which has cost at a minimum the country a minimum of nearly £2,000 million in extra oil-burn, in lost taxes, in lost production and in policing costs. Since those demands were made by the Board early this year, there has been a seven-month dispute and 54 million tonnes of coal production has been lost. I want this conference, the whole country, and the government to get hold of the facts that the loss of coal production in this dispute is 14 times more than the loss originally required by the NCB. I want the whole country to get hold of the fact that the financial costs of continuing the dispute are six times as great as any so-called savings that were anticipated from the programme of closures and contractions. (Applause)
If people understand that, they will comprehend that those are the unrelenting facts which would now persuade the board and the government to get away from their stupidity and their inflexibility, from their vanities and their posturing, and step out of their ‘B’ movie script, and act like responsible people and go back to the arrangements before the compilation of the hit-list. That is the pre-condition, the basic requirement, of saving this country and the coalmining communities and much else, from the awful pain of the continuation of this dispute. The government and the Board should get back to the system, and restore confidence in the system of negotiation about exhaustion, which has stood the industry in good stead for many years. They should understand that the National Union of Mineworkers has been prepared to make its case for new investment, and new development of workable reserves, when pits were reported as exhausting. They should remember that, on those ground of foreseeable and acknowledged exhaustion, agreement had already been made before the dispute started, between the NUM and the NCB, to close about a dozen pits in the next two or three years.
They should revise their coal investment strategy to improve existing pits capable of development, and stop the distortion whereby eight-tenths of investment is going into a small number of coalfields, including pits that will not even produce coal for the next 10 years. (Applause)
And, in Mrs Thatcher’s case, she should stop saying about the miners, as she said to the Financial Times: ‘Some of their arguments apply just as much to exhausted pits as to uneconomic ones. If you listened to their arguments [though I never know when she did] you would go on producing mud to keep a community going.’
She ought not to have said things like that, because it only demonstrates her crass ignorance of miners and her gross misunderstanding of the issues in this dispute. There is not a miner who wants to take the purposeless risks of working an exhausted pit or a seam that is anywhere near to such uselessness. There are other occupations devoted to provide fruitless fripperies, and Mrs Thatcher may be used to them and paying exotic prices charged in those occupations; but they don’t include coal mining.
The fact is that there is no rational, financial, technical, economic or market reason for the Board and the government to keep the dispute going. Mrs Thatcher has no rational economic case for maintaining the dispute. She has no case based on costs; she has no case based on savings; no rational case. But she does have an irrational purpose in continuing the dispute: it is the purpose of political vanity on a manic scale. And she can only sustain that cause by uproar. That is all she has left now. That is the game.
We must not play the game: we never have; we never will. It is their game not ours. They have used it through the ages. They have always created the conditions of disorder and then sought political credit out of the use of force against that eruption. (Applause)
It is 50 years or more since they did it last. Fifty years in which people thought those days had gone for ever; fifty years in which another kind of Toryism which remembered the conflict and chaos of that system actually refused to operate that tactic.
But now there is a different Toryism: one that is empty of all of the subtle and genteel concern; one that is devoid of consensus values; one that has no compassion, no instinct for conciliation. It is a Toryism that is all spite, bile and arrogance; it is a Toryism exhumed from the past - a Toryism led by an historical throwback, Margaret Thatcher.
Ask the assorted retired senior civil servants; ask one or two bishops; ask the odd judge or two who in an assortment of statements (some with great salvos of publicity, others more subtly) are demonstrating that right across this society - yes, from the men and women struggling in the coalmining communities now, up to the lords and judges and all stations and classes and ages and sexes in between - the comprehension is growing of the nature of the government that is ruling this country.
The fact that she is tearing the society apart is therefore increasingly obvious: but perhaps what is less obvious is that it is exactly what Mrs Thatcher promised to do.
This conference didn’t need warning. This party tried to warn people. They thought we were exaggerating; they thought we were simply engaging in the partisan knock-about; they thought we were just trying to frighten people. There are millions in this country now who wished they had heeded our lessons, and understood that Thatcherism is a personal fixation turned into a system of government.
That is the state of affairs. And in all economic policy, in all social policy, in their very appearance and their conduct of government, this government creates the climate of confrontation, the conditions of conflict: it speaks only the language of conquest. And, in the midst of all of that chaos, in the midst of all that assault on the essentials of civilised life in this country and of values of this country, they call for the condemnation of violence.
I do not respond to that, because it is a taunt, a call to forswear intimidation from a government that bases its whole policy on intimidation. (Applause) I do condemn violence. I condemn the violence of despair; I condemn the violence of long-term unemployment; I condemn the violence of loneliness, decay, ugliness, and fear. I condemn the violence done to hope, the violence done to talent, the violence done to family security and family unity. I condemn the violence done to civil and personal rights in this country.
I condemn the violence, too, of the stone-throwers and the battering-ram carriers. And I condemn the violence of the cavalry charges, the truncheon groups, and the shield bangers. (Applause) I condemn violence, I abominate violence, I damn violence - all violence. All violence, without fear or favour. That’s what I do, and that is what makes me different from Margaret Thatcher. I don’t have her double standards (Applause). I do not take her selective and blinkered view of conflict.
Of course, I do take sides in this dispute. I couldn’t do otherwise with my background. But in any case, even if I didn’t come from where I came from, I would find the case for coal compelling, and the case for the communities overwhelming. So I take sides in this dispute; this movement takes sides in this dispute. But the only side I am prepared to take when it comes to violence, is to oppose it. The prime minister should do the same thing, instead of delighting in turmoil and using the police as a replacement for policy.
Yes, that she is doing, and the police know it too. (Applause) They realise that they are being made into the ‘meat in the sandwich.’ They realise the pressures are on them to make them depart from the most basic, resilient and most orderly value of British policing - the feeling that they have that they are citizens in uniform. They know that pressure is being applied by the government to make them move away from that tradition; and they also know what the cost, the bitter cost, of being the ‘meat in the sandwich’ will be. We will be paying that cost for a very long time to come in many of the mining communities.
In our society on every side we see things being torn apart. We see terrible wrongs done to the young and the old, we see wrongs done to the poor and the disabled; we see industries decimated, communities deprived, liberties lost. We see unjust laws - laws which are nothing more than prejudice made statute. And every fibre rages against the injustice and the waste of all that. And we ask ourselves: what we can do about it? For socialists that is the question of the ages - because it is in our very nature, in our conviction, that we want to do something. Especially when it is injustice. It was a question faced by our movement in the 1930s; and they came back with the answer that the democratic road was the only route for British socialism. All other options, they said, were closed since socialism by insurrection was pure fantasy, and socialism without the ballot box would simply never secure the support and understanding of the British people. They were right. (Applause) They were right in times even more dangerous than ours, when fascism was pressing of every gate of liberty. Democracy is the first premise of our socialism; it is a matter of principle, not of convenience; it is a matter of commonsense, not of tactics.
With its absolutism, its dogmatism, its controls on local councils, its destruction of opportunities, its war on trade unionism, it is Toryism which defaces and relegates democracy in our country - not Labour, or the cause of Labour. (Applause)
In saying that, we are not being smug and cosy, and giving in for the duration of the Tory government, when we hold to our belief in democracy.
We are upholding the only system which can give us power; the only system that we want to give us power; and the only system that we are prepared to wield when we have that power. Democracy is our cause at all times and in every respect. (Applause) That is not a call to wait in idleness; it is not a call to relax until the election comes along. On the absolute contrary, it is a call to action - action to articulate and publicise the complaint of the people, for if they cry quietly, they will cry alone; action to break through the indifference to the scandals of social deprivation and industrial destruction in this country; action to pressure ministers and promote concessions; action to rouse and rally and resist; action to protect and promote the interest of the people that we are in politics to help; action that is continual; action that recruits and mobilises new people in our cause.
That is the action of democracy. We are democrats.
At the earliest possible time we want to pass and enforce laws to redress grievances; to promote justice and opportunity, to punish race and sex prejudice; to change economic ownership and rewards. We want the power of the law to do that - so we cannot sharpen legality as our main weapon for the future, and simultaneously scorn legality because it doesn't suit us at the present time. (Applause)
To recognise that is not to be defeatist. It is to recognise the facts as they exist and as they are supported by the great mass of Labour people and Labour supporters in this country. To recognise that is not to bow down before a vague and variable idea called the ‘sanctity of the law,’ because we all know how that can be built and bent to defend massive interests. It is to acknowledge that our greatest service to those who need our protection and provision from different laws, is to get power and turf out the authors of the present injustice.
We have to work for that incessantly, single-mindedly. It is a great cause but it is a careful and cool-headed cause. The people who need the support and safeguard of trade unionism and of public services, cannot afford to be part of any political ‘Charge of the Light Brigade.’ There is no glory in defeat for them; there is just nothing but extra miserable burdens of insecurity and insufficiency. In those circumstances, it is they - the poorest, the weakest, and the most needy - who are the martyrs. That’s the fact.
Our political mandate to change the Tory laws and conditions arises partly out of the evidence of their injustice. That exposure must be fierce and relentless; and, when we gain that mandate, we will use it with the full rigour of our power to promote fairness and freedom, and to punish those who dodge their taxes, or pay sweatshop wages, or practise racialism, or any of the other evils of our society. We will do that, we will have the right to do it, and we will have the power to do it. And we will need that power. You see there is not an aspiration listed this week, or any other week, by this labour movement that will be fulfilled unless we achieve the power of democratic government. (Applause)
Our ideals inspire, our policies offer the answers; but however much they intrigue us and encourage us, they are adornments, even entertainments, unless we have power to put them into practice. That is the reality. (Applause) That is what we know. That is the understanding. Grip it like you would grip a weapon, that reality; hold on to it as we, work for an election. Understand that we must have power to house the homeless; we must have power to release the poor; we must have power to provide care for the sick, to refashion and extend the National Health Service.
Power to change the balance of power itself, to restore and develop the structure of democratic government in this country - so that local authorities can have real rights, and so trade unionism can have real rights in this country. We need the power to provide girls and women with the full practical entitlements of equality and no less. We need the power to take prejudice and partisanship out of industrial relations and trade union legislation. We need that power to respond to the needs of pensioners, and to give liberty, choice, comfort, and security in old age. We need the power to meet the justified demands of black people; that they shall have personal and economic status that is equal to any of this country’s citizens - regardless of their colour or creed. We need the power to provide the full equipment of educational training for our children. We need the power to provide the effective defence of our country and our values, by meeting the obligations of modern conventional defence and of alliance - without nuclear weapons, which by their possession make us a nuclear target and would by their use terminate our existence and all future forms of existence. (Applause)
We need the power to work for peace and coexistence between East and West and to make it resilient and dependable. We need the power to achieve a new contract between the North and South of this planet, power to ensure that those countries of the Third World do not use up all of their pitiful earnings in debt repayments to the financiers of the industrial countries, but are able to achieve economic progress and freedom by using what they have and what they can be given to sponsor development, and become consumers instead of supplicants.
Most of all, comrades, we want and we need power to operate a full policy for employment. It will not be the full employment conceived in the 1940s. It will not be the re-establishment of a society which is ethically, socially, and economically depended upon work for over 40 hours a week between the ages of 16 and 65 for most people - or, more accurately, for most men. Those days have gone, and they are not coming back. You and I know it, but what we need now is a policy for employment in this decade, and in the 1990s, and in the 21st century.
This must have three main elements. First, it must be led by a strategy for investment that means that in the very course of expenditure we add value and strength to our economy. That means investment to use and to develop new technology, so that it is a servant and never a tyrant. It means investing in our economic infrastructure of transportation, communication, construction and energy: Second, it must sponsor the growth of production and demand in order to deliberately generate jobs in our country. Third, it must also decrease the supply of people seeking employment through a shorter working year and a shorter working life. (Applause)
The tasks of the modern world need extra preparation and we can get it by the comprehensive provision of extended education and training for youngsters, with reasonable pay so that they as individuals and their country collectively are better able to conquer the challenges of future employment, future, technology, and future development.
And at the other end of working life, we need to provide for the gradual voluntary and systematic reduction in retirement age - both by the provision of proper pensions, and by ensuring that the extra years of leisure are attractive and fulfilling, and not a condemnation to loneliness and semi-poverty.
When people hear that message of a rational way of approaching the real employment, economic and technological requirements of our age, they say ‘yes, we like that. Sponsor jobs and at the same time reduce the number of people needing to look for jobs in any given generation. We like that.’ But, they say: ‘Can it happen?’
My answer is: ‘It’s happening now.’ But it is happening in the most clumsy and cruel way. Men and women in their early fifties are now being forced through redundancy into terminating their working life. Nobody asked them if they wanted to; nobody planned it; nobody made additional provision. They are out - and it’s happening now. And for the youngsters, over a million under 25 year-olds in our country are out of work, and many have never experienced full-time work. Can it happen? they ask. It is happening now, in the worst possible way. Better to civilise it, to turn it, to organise it; to make it supportive to the needs of the people, instead of making that change trample all over the people. That is why our approach is rational.
And then they ask: ‘Can we afford it?’ I say that we are paying the price now, both in the direct £17,000 billion bills of unwanted idleness, and in the indirect but massive postponed costs of despair, of frustration, of conflict. The rational course is to recognise the change, and then to make it work to the advantage of the people. That is why we are socialists; that is why we seek power - to seek that mastery of change for the benefit of the people. If we don't, we shall see with terrible speed, and with awful results, the irrational response to technological and economic change which the market economy and he social market economy makes, and has always made - huge numbers of unemployed, millions more who live in a constant fear of unemployment and the insecurity which it brings; and an affluent few who are safe in their jobs but in danger everywhere else.
That isn’t the society we want. In short we want a new concept. Modern full employment by these means before we allow the advent of an unprecedented scale of mass unemployment. That is not an option which we will tolerate. I’ll tell you why I won’t tolerate it, in the simplest terms: it is not an option that I am prepared to offer my children, and therefore it is not an option that I am prepared to offer my children, and therefore it is not an option I am prepared to offer anybody else’s children, either. (Applause)
That, above all, is why we need power. Let us in this labour movement together with the people of this country plan for it carefully. Let us have the courage to make honest choices and practical priorities; let us work for it together. And when we win, let us use that power to keep our promise of liberty and of peace. For that isn’t just the way to get power, it is also the way to keep power. (Applause)