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Release of MT's private files for 1985 - (2) Labour's recovery, Mar-Dec 1985

Improbably enough the Labour Party was a major beneficiary of the strike's ending, its leader reinvented as a scourge of the far left

1985: from Scargill to Mandelson - & Corbyn

News from the left: extract from Ingham's press digest, 31 Jul 1985

To many at the time it seemed obvious that victory would lift the fortunes of the Thatcher Government. How could it not? Here was the final defeat of a union so powerful in many eyes that it threatened parliamentary supremacy itself. Replying to a letter from James Hanson congratulating her on beating the strike, MT herself commented: “we have shattered the myth that the miners can always bring a Government down. And it is clear beyond all doubt that we will never give in to violence” (8 Mar 1985).

It is surely true that failure to defeat Scargill would have ended Thatcherism. Victory entrenched profoundly the government’s union reforms, and opened the way to more. Yet there was surprisingly little short-term political dividend to the government from the defeat of the strike, however profound its long-term significance. In fact MT’s papers for 1985 suggest that in many ways the reverse was true. For one thing the strike had gone on so long, and by the end some form of government victory had been taken for granted, “priced in”, even though MT and ministers did not share such a complacent assumption. Worse, the defeat of the NUM liberated Labour from one of its biggest burdens and opened the way for Kinnock to reinvent himself as the scourge of the irresponsible left.

There are a few interesting things in her files about Neil Kinnock during 1985. There were very sharp public exchanges between them over the Ponting case at the beginning of 1985 – face-to-face in the Commons and in many published letters - when she felt he had accused her of lying. There was the Confidence Debate of 31 Jan 1985 when she mocked him as “Little Sir Echo” and referred angrily to his calling her “nothing short of evil”. Her private view of him was contemptuous. Reading an account of Kinnock’s remarks on a visit to NATO in early March, she wrote: “Pushover for the Soviets”. “Our nuclear deterrent in return for 3 per cent of the Soviets. Alliance – honour all the obligations”. Her Press Digest on 7 May told her of a speech in which he accused her of “breeding fascism”. When she agreed to look in at a charity event for the Variety Club on 26 Jun at the Commons, her staff noted carefully that she was arriving just as Kinnock left, so that strict timing was required in order that they should not meet.

But Kinnock perhaps got the best of it in 1985. On 26 September an internal Central Office memo (Dunlop to Tebbit) copied to No.10 discussed “Changes at Walworth Road”, Labour’s then HQ, noting in particular the appointment of Peter Mandelson as director of Campaigns & Communications. “Former colleagues of Mr Mandelson say he is very able and therefore an unwelcome choice from our point of view. He will however have to prove he is tough enough to push through changes in the face of any left-wing opposition from within the NEC”.

Follow-through there certainly was. At the Labour Conference days later a wholly new approach was evident. Kinnock delivered his famous attack on Militant, and Ingham did not spare MT the admiring headlines. “Mail leads with ‘The courage of Kinnock’”. The Labour leader immediately followed up the next day with sharp words about Scargill, less well-remembered but well reported at the time, winning him plaudits even in the Sun, also spelled out by Ingham. By contrast a Conservative briefing on the Labour Conference made propaganda points about Kinnock’s inconsistency (a perennial), all too revealing of the difficulty he was now creating for them. And it went on. At the end of November Ingham’s press digest told her that the Liverpool Labour Party had been suspended and that Kinnock had described Militant a “maggot in the body of the Labour Party”.

Kinnock’s conference speech created an immediate problem: how to handle him in MT’s own, the following week? Thought was given to rebutting the crop of comparisons to Hugh Gaitskell, a line urged by the party machine and Charles Powell. But “Neil Kinnock is no Gaitskell” would have been an exercise in ancient history to many voters. Instead MT opted for a blunt reminder of his stance during the coal strike, a living memory. We have her marked up speaking text: “What do you think would have happened if Mr Scargill had won? I think the whole country knows the answer. Neil would have knelt”. The phrase almost certainly came from Ronnie Millar, who gave her “not for turning” and St Francis.

The sharp tone continued in her speech for the Debate on the Address the next month. She attacked Kinnock on a letter he had written to Bernie Grant after the latter had blamed the police for the Broadwater Farm riot, saying that it was not ‘exclusively’ their fault, and offered a critique of Labour as a “party of the past: it is reactionary in the truest sense of the word”, a powerful assertion of the Conservative claim to be the party of modernity.

It seems that Kinnock was now being watched with closer interest and attention by his opponents. On 13 December MT’s Political Secretary, Stephen Sherbourne, sent her an article about Kinnock by the Sun’s respected political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, somewhat apologetically, saying that normally he would not bother her with such things “but I gather that the details are more than tittle-tattle./ He is, apparently, really feeling under pressure; feels he has to do everything himself; and has little confidence in his aides”.

A future Labour leader was mentioned in Ingham’s press digest for 31 Oct, in a series of eye-rolling/loony left type stories: "Robert Kilroy-Silk in Commons scuffle with Jeremy Corbyn".

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