The Return of Neil Kinnock

Wales may see a lot more of Neil Kinnock in the run-up to the National Assembly elections.

This is because the May 5 contest coincides with the referendum on the Alternative Vote and the Labour peer will head-up the campaign in Wales.

According to the Labour Yes campaign, 33 of Wales’ 40 MPs were elected without the backing of 50% of the voters.

Labour leader Ed Miliband is a supporter of AV but there are many figures in the party who strongly oppose a switch to this voting system – not least Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett and John Prescott.

Mr Kinnock’s powers as a campaigner should not be underestimated.

As a young, firebrand MP he fought for a No vote in the 1979 referendum with devastating effect. It will be fascinating to see if he can persuade people to vote Yes with equal success.

Anyone wanting to recall the bullish optimism he inspired in the party when he won the leadership should track down a copy of Robert “Fatherland” Harris’ 1984 biography The Making of Neil Kinnock.

His battle with diehard left-wingers for the soul of Labour was a desperate and passionate struggle. In winning this fight, he prevented the party sailing far out of the political mainstream; in losing the 1992 election he gave Mandelsonian modernisers the mandate they needed for the internal revolution which led to New Labour.

But had he beaten the Tories in either 1987 or 1992, it is possible that Britain would have been introduced to coalition politics long before David Cameron and Nick Clegg walked into the Downing St rose garden together.

Economists and political scientists can debate long into the night as to whether he would have been able to take Britain in the direction of a European social democracy. Would he have become stuck in industrial strife, or could the country have successfully modernised without embracing mass privatisation?

His interventions in Welsh politics have been rare in recent years. His endorsement of Huw Lewis in the last Welsh Labour leadership contest was a rare breaking of silence.

But when he looks at where the Assembly Government has taken Wales under Rhodri Morgan and Carwyn Jones he may see something of the Britain he hoped to forge. The “red water” agenda with its commitment to universal benefits stands in deepening contrast with English policies.

But social democrats who see such reforms pushed forward in the devolved regions must also wonder whether a Welsh or Scottish MP will ever again lead the UK. During the course of this latest referendum campaign we may discover if he has cultivated a federal vision for Britain.

A Thursday column