Neil Kinnock trips

Neil Kinnock had the thankless task of leading the Labour Party during its protracted years in wilderness. He inherited Labour party in its nadir; the right of the party broke away to form Social Democratic Party, and it had suffered its worst electoral defeat in 50 years. Kinnock, who replaced Michael Foot moved the party towards the center, firmly reestablishing the party’s standing as the second political party in Britain, while laying down the groundwork for New Labour.

However, one event that happened just before his claiming the mantle of the Labour Party remained more vivid on the collective memory than everything he did as the party leader. On Sunday 2 October 1983, just before that afternoon’s Labour leadership election, Neil and Glynis Kinnock were strolling along the Brighton seafront. Kinnock believed his victory in the leadership election was certain, and not newsworthy. He joked to the press, “If you want a real scoop, I’ll walk out there, on the water.”

And he did. Well, sort of. Posing on the beach, Kinnock is caught by an onrushing wave; he stumbles, and topples over in an undignified heap. It becomes the iconic image of the conference, and of Kinnock’s leadership – a man utterly out of his depth, shamelessly courting the media and making a complete fool of himself in the process. His collapse on Brighton beach prefigured his defeat in the polls — twice. Although he managed to slash the Tory majority to 21 in 1992, the overconfident style he showed throughout the campaign was the final nail in Kinnock’s political coffin.

Photographer Brian Harris of the Times, who took the photo remembered:

As is tradition at all party conferences by the sea-side, the leader and his wife always have an ‘impromptu’ heavily stage-managed walk along the promenade preceded by photographers and television crews, all very contrived and set up. The situation nearly always results in a set of dull predictable images….

I was nominated by the other photographers, as ‘the man from The Times’, to ask Neil and Glenys if they would like to go for a walk on the beach. Neil looked hesitant and his press office minder, the moustachioed Peter Mandelson, wasn’t sure either. I mentioned a beautiful photograph taken of the young Bobby Kennedy running along a beach in Oregon with his dog shot for Life magazine by Bill Eppridge, and how he, Neil, being the new young leader of the labour party could perhaps reprise the picture….

The photographers and TV crews zoomed in on the couple skipping merrily along using telephoto lenses when all of a sudden Neil and his wife went over the final shingle edge at breakneck speed….

The [Press Association photographer was] issued with 20 exposure cassettes of film. He was on frame 18 as Kinnock started his run down the beach…..all I could hear as he ran out of film after two frames was. ‘f**k, f**k, f**k’. Another photographer was using a new telephoto lens for the first time and although he could see what was happening with his open eye he couldn’t find the subject through the viewfinder. The Daily Mail snapper had his camera on ‘auto exposure’ and as a consequence had a beautiful set of silhouettes as the white surf completely blew out his auto exposure settings. Another photographer who shall remain nameless to save his shame never even made the ‘photo-call’….

I and a couple of the other photographers had the complete set…. Neil and his very dry wife walked towards us as they came off the beach and asked ’I trust you boys that none of those pictures will get published’. Yeah, right oh, boyo ! The following morning my paper, The Times, ran the 4 pictures across the entire 8 columns of the front page. There were cartoons alluding to Kinnock walking on water and the popular satirical TV show ‘Have I got News for You’ ran the TV footage every week…..for about 20 years!

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2 thoughts on “Neil Kinnock trips

  1. I’ve often wondered about allegedly democratic political parties willingness to continue to hold on to leaders who are clear losers. I’ve watched the democrats in the U.S. do that again and again.

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