POLITICS

Stephen Kinnock Interview: 'I Always Felt I Had To Be Twice As Good As The Next Person'

28/11/2014 13:53 GMT | Updated 28/11/2014 13:59 GMT

It might be an understatement to say that the Labour Party's parliamentary candidate for the safe seat of Aberavon, in south-east Wales, isn't your typical Labour candidate.

His father happens to be a former leader of the party; his wife is a Social Democratic prime minister.

Meet Stephen Kinnock, son of Neil and husband of Danish premier Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Oh, and also son of Glenys, former Foreign Office minister and ex-MEP, and brother of Rachel, adviser to current Labour leader Ed Miliband.

Like Will Straw, son of Jack Straw and now Labour's candidate in Rossendale and Darwen, Kinnock Jnr has been dismissed by some critics on the right, including Tory minister Liz Truss, as a "red prince".

Does he think his surname, and his family background, have helped or hindered his nascent political career?

"It's break-even," Kinnock tells me, with a wry smile. "If I look at my selection, there were houses whose doors I knocked on - and I think I knocked on the doors of every single member of the Aberavon Labour Party - where I got a very warm welcome from people who I had not met before.. who had a huge amount of respect and affection for my dad. But there were just as many people who were disillusioned and.. did associate him, and my name, with the Labour Party establishment.

"In many of those cases, I had to win those people over and say.. don't vote for me because I am a Kinnock and don't vote against me because I am a Kinnock, vote for me because of who I am and what I've done.. Vote for me on that basis."

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Stephen Kinnock with his parents and sister in 1987

We are sitting across from one another in a noisy cafe in central London. I order a whopping chunk of chocolate mousse cake; the tall and wiry Kinnock, dressed in a crisp, white, open-neck shirt and light grey suit, quietly asks the waitress for a "tiny sliver" of carrot cake. He looks much younger than his 44 years.

What was it like growing up in the the politically-charged home of Neil and Glenys Kinnock in the 1980s? Under the constant glare of the (right-wing) media spotlight?

It was "surreal", he admits, because you "see somebody you have your breakfast with, your lunch with, your dinner with, and their face is all over the front page of the newspapers. That is a bizarre experience."

There was also, it seems, the bullying he had to endure in school on account of his father being the (much-mocked) Leader of the Opposition. His classmates at the local comprehensive were "merciless" and there was a "lot of pisstaking" of Kinnock Jnr. "Every single Sunday night, [Spitting Image] would be on and then every single Monday morning, some smartarse in school would make a few comments about [my dad]."

Nevertheless, he adds, "Dad becoming a public figure was a good thing for me because it made me work even harder and try even harder as I always felt I had to be twice as good as the next person in order to prove myself.

"There is an inbuilt assumption in people that if you've got a famous father or mother you somehow get preferential treatment. And I realised from a very young age that I would have to be twice as good as the next person in order to prove myself."

Kinnock was selected as the Labour candidate for Aberavon, in March, by the narrowest of margins - 106 votes to 105. If elected to parliament next May - which is pretty likely, given the 11,039-seat majority he inherits from retiring MP Hywel Francis - he will be the first child of a Labour leader to become an MP since Arthur Henderson Jnr in 1966.

What made him want to ditch a well-remunerated career in the private sector for a a very public life in parliament?

His answer is pretty blunt and will, I suspect, hearten those on the left of his party: "We live in a country where the wealthiest five families are richer than the entire bottom 20% and that's motivation enough for me to want to be actively involved in politics for the Labour Party."

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Kinnock campaigning with local Labour activists in Aberavon

He also says he wants to bring greater diversity to the Parliamentary Labour Party. But can a white, middle-class man in his 40s really help further the cause of diversity in the Commons?

"I think diversity is diverse," he responds, "and that means a range of different things. Of course, it's about gender balance, it's about having the right mixture in terms of black and ethnic minority [politicians], and of course we have more to do on that and I can't offer much on that side. I totally and readily accept that.

"But I do think diversity is also about our professional backgrounds and where we're coming from and what we can contribute in terms of our experience and it's really important that the Labour Party has good connections into the private sector and understands where business is coming.. and I think that I can add to the mix and bring diversity from the point of view of my professional background."

Kinnock is a managing director at Xynteo, a strategic advisory firm based a few hundred yards from the cafe in which we're sitting, and focuses on the green agenda and what he calls "better corporate citizenship". Prior to joining the firm, he worked for the British Council in Brussels and the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Geneva.

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Kinnock worked on the continent for the World Economic Forum and the British Council

From his vantage point at Xynteo, Kinnock believes "business is changing" and Labour needs to change the way in which they "frame" their conversation with the corporate world. "There is an increasing number of CEOs out there who get it; they understand the appalling stuff we see from the banks [and] the fact that the global economy was brought to the brink of catastrophe in 2008 because of a 'get rich quick' mentality.. There is an increasing number of business leaders who get that. I'm not sure the Labour Party sees that the tectonic plates are shifting.

"So there is a potential new alliance with business that can be forged but it doesn't start with going in and hectoring business about all the things they're doing wrong.. If we go in with [a] positive approach, we will get much more traction with the business community."

There are those on the right of the party who say Labour, despite a latter-day 'prawn cocktail offensive' from shadow chancellor Ed Balls and shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, hasn't done enough to woo big business. The likes of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson have warned that the Labour Party can't afford to go into another general election without any public endorsements from the UK's leading captains of industry. Does Kinnock agree?

"I accept that we are not where we should be," he replies. "We are missing a trick. I don't think it is too late. There is time to do some of that outreach and get two or three big business leaders to endorse us, and endorse what we stand for, going into the next election."

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Kinnock warns Balls and Umunna against 'hectoring' big business

He wants to reach out to business but he also wants to fight inequality - is Kinnock on the left or the right of his party? Is he New, Old or even Blue Labour? The candidate for Aberavon tells me he doesn't like such "labels" before conceding he is on the "left, the centre-left" of his party. His argument is that "British politics, for the past 30 years, has been dominated by a Thatcherite orthodoxy and Thatcherite consensus and what it's done is... it's pushed wages to a level that's far too low as a proportion of our total GDP.. and I think a big reason for that is the decline of collective bargaining."

Kinnock describes himself as "a big fan of moving to sector-based collective bargaining because I think that's the way that we can really restructure our economy so that it's much more about wages than it is about profits. That's the way to address the cost of living crisis."

He checks himself. "Now, I guess an opinion like that puts you on the left of the party. However, looking again at the continent of Europe, sector-based collective bargaining is at the heart of the Nordic model, is at the heart of the German model and, in fact, the business community loves it. So I don't know if it's a left-wing policy really; it's a pro-business policy [and] a more mature way of running industrial relations."

He continues: "Equally, I think there's a strong case for making the living wage compulsory because, again, I think it's about creating a high-wage, high-value added economy.. and making that case on the basis of paying down the deficit."

Kinnock, who calls himself "unashamedly Keynesian", says "you will never cut your way to balancing the books. The only way you balance the books is through sustainable growth which is what gives you the tax receipts that you need to pay down the deficit. So I am making the case that these left- and right-wing labels don't really work because I am saying something about making the living wage compulsory, which might label me as a left-winger, but I am doing so from the point of view of economic competence."

It's a persuasive argument and what Kinnock call, "a business case for more progressive policies.. Economic competence seems to be connected to your ability to cut, where in fact it should be connected to your ability to stimulate growth."

Given his business background, it isn't surprising that Kinnock sees himself as a pragmatist and wants to present himself, to his electorate and to the media, as a hard-headed realist and problem-solver. He talks passionately and eloquently about the need for long-term planning and cross-party consensuses. Echoing pre-2008 Barack Obama, he stresses the need for cross-party cooperation and for bipartisan approaches to the big issues of our time.

"I think one of the reasons people have become disconnected and alienated from politics is because it seems like we're involved in these cat fights all the times, between parties, and we're less interested in actually solving problems and coming up with real practical solutions.. that stick. You can't just every five years tinker with the NHS or tinker with our energy policy or tinker with our education policy. You need solutions that can stick."

After praising Ed Miliband for his recent party conference speech in Manchester, in which the Labour leader laid out his "six national goals" for "the next ten years", Kinnock says his party should "identify four of five areas.. of strategic national interest, and actually look to to build cross-party consensus around them. If you look at the way politics works in continental Europe that's absolutely in their DNA, and they look to reach out and build those long terms plans and if you can do that on apprenticeships, on industrial strategy, on energy, on education, we could actually get some certainty in the system [and] commit to a ten year plan.. as a good basis for moving forward."

Has his experience living and working on the continent, and in Denmark, in particular, made him a fan of coalition politics? "Yeah, I think that we now live in a multiparty democracy and that is a natural evolution of British politics. And we've got to wake up to that fact: it's politics for the 21st century.

However, he adds, coalition politics from Labour's perspective requires a "changing of the political culture, and I hope some of my experience could be brought to bear to make that happen".

Can Labour win a majority next May or should it be preparing for an inevitable coalition with the Liberal Democrats?

"Labour can win a majority," he tells me, stressing the word 'can', before continuing: "We, of course, will be pushing to try and secure a Labour government and it would be fantastic if we had the ability to do that as the Labour Party alone but I think realistically we must now be prepared for coalition."

From Kinnock's perspective, Labour has "plenty of common ground with the Lib Dems. We've got to make a broad and generous offer and I hope that any party that we're going into coalition with is prepared to reciprocate and make that broad and general offer".. I think with the Lib Dems we can make [coalition] work."

Some in his own party would argue that even the prospect of a coalition government is beyond the Labour Party right now - due to the unpopularity of party leader Ed Miliband and the constant talk of coups, plots and divisions.

Does Kinnock Jnr agree with the stinging verdict on Miliband delivered by his father's former chief of staff, Charles Clarke? In an interview with me in July, Clarke, who served as home secretary under Tony Blair, said Kinnock Snr had "far, far more qualities than Ed Miliband as a leader" as "Neil was a fantastic leader and brought Labour back towards victory".

There's a pause from the Labour candidate for Aberavon. He chooses his words carefully. "It was a very different time and very difficult to make those connections."

Referring to the battle with Militant Tendency in the mid-1980s, Kinnock says his father's "greatest achievement as party leader was to save the Labour Party from an existential crisis and that defined him and defined his leadership and, clearly, Ed has not had to go through anything like that. So I think it's very difficult to compare the two as the circumstances are so different."

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Labour faced an 'existential crisis' under Neil Kinnock, says his son

I remind Kinnock of his dad's claim that Miliband has had it "worse" than he did when he was Labour leader between 1983 and 1992. Is there is an analogy to be made between Kinnock then, especially in the early 1990s, and Miliband now - in particular, their treatment at the hands of a hostile, Tory-supporting press?

He nods. "Politics is a contact sport and certainly if you're leader of the Labour Party you've got to be ready for a monstering by the media and that goes with the territory. So I don't think theres a huge difference between the monstering my father got and the treatment that Ed is getting. That goes with the territory. The only way to deal with it is to get on the doorstep and talk to people directly.

"Forget about going through the media. Get out there!"

Kinnock wants Miliband to adopt a Jim Murphy-style 100-day, 100-town tour, getting up on crates and boxes to address people directly in their public squares and high streets. "I'd like to see Ed doing more of that. He needs to get out and talk to people - talk to our members, talk to our voters and let's get everybody on the same page and fired up for the election next year."

He adds, with only the faintest hint of pride: "Of course that was something my dad was brilliant at."

What about the people around Miliband? The Labour leader's office - his aides, advisers, spin doctors, all based in the Norman Shaw North building in Westminster - has come under intense attack from both right-wing commentators and backbench Labour MPs. Some suggest those closest to Miliband are demoralised and divided over the correct strategy to adopt in order to boost their leader's image and standing; others claim his advisers are out of touch and out of their depth.

Unsurprisingly, Kinnock - whose sister Rachel works as an aide to Miliband in Norman Shaw North - doesn't agree. "If it's such a desperately unhappy place why has nobody left? People are absolutely passionate about getting Ed into Number 10 and they will do whatever they can. You take the rough with the smooth."

However, he adds, Miliband needs "to listen" to his aides and advisers. He cites the recent and "ridiculous" media furore over the Labour leaders's inability to eat a bacon sandwich in full glare of the television lights. "I am pretty sure there were people around Ed advising him that there were cameras and it was a little bit risky to do that but, of course, he went ahead and did it. He's his own man.. I can imagine the thought process was: 'I am going to eat this bacon sandwich. I want to eat it now. That's it.. I am my own man.'

"But the fact is you have got to weigh up the risk of all the crap that comes out of a story like that. It's trivial and ridiculous but that is, unfortunately, the media age in which we live and sometimes you have just got to go with the grain rather than against it."

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Ed Miliband struggled with his bacon sandwich - but should he have listened to his aides?

Kinnock spent much of his childhood watching his father being bashed by his political opponents and has spent much of his adult life watching his wife being bashed by hers.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt has been prime minister of Denmark since 2011, and the leader of Danish Social Democrats since 2005. She was the country's first female premier and the party's first female leader.

Kinnock married Thorning-Schmidt in 1996; they met four years earlier while postgraduate students at the College of Europe in Belgium. "I was 23 and she was 26," he recalls, before joking: "Obviously if at that time when we met she had said i am definitely commited to a career in representative politics and here is a crystal ball.. I am going to become the leader of the Social Democratic Party, I probably would have called a taxi and left." He laughs and then says to me, in a very serious tone: "I am proud of what she's achieved."

Is it it weird to be married to the prime minister of a country? There's not many people in the world who can say they are, and even fewer men who can say that. What's it like?

"It's funny, really, because, yes, she's the prime minister of Denmark but also my wife and mother of my children and when we are at home hanging around on the sofa and watching TV it doesn't feel weird at all. It feels like 99% of what other families do on a Saturday evening."

I can't help but interrupt and ask: do they watch Borgen together on Saturday evenings?

He chuckles. "We have watched Borgen. I quite enjoyed the first series but thought the second series went a bit off the rails and became implausible so I gave up on it."

Kinnock says he is a "feminist" who is "absolutely passionate about women moving forward taking on the big jobs and breaking through the glass ceiling". "I am immensely proud of what Helle has achieved and I hope that Helle can be a role model to other women who can see that it is possible to be a great mother and be very successful in your career."

And is she really the only leader who does her own washing, as Kinnock has claimed in the past?

"Yeah, she is. We don't have any help at home." Well, he adds, apart from Helle's mother who is their "rock".

Thorning-Schmidt has visited Aberavon to support her husband's candidacy and help him fundraise for the election. So, what did his local party members in south-east Wales make of a female foreign leader who's been dubbed by some as 'Gucci Helle', due to her designer wardrobe? "It was great. She came to the dinner with Aberavon CLP [Constituency Labour Party] and she [took to it] like a duck to water because, basically, the Danish Social Democratic Party is the sister of the Labour Party."

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Thorning-Schmidt won over members of Kinnock's local Labour Party in January 2014

The members of both parties, Kinnock tells me, have "exactly the same values" and his wife "is a class act in talking with and engaging with" such activists, wherever they are in the world. "She basically said all she had to do was come and change the language from Danish to English," he recalls. "It was a great evening." (“She mixed well at the fundraising event," a local councillor later told the Evening Standard. "You wouldn’t have guessed she was the prime minister of Denmark; she was great, an ordinary person.")

In December 2013, Thorning-Schmidt appeared on newspaper front pages across the world when a 'selfie' she posed for with Barack Obama and David Cameron at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Soweto went viral online.

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Thorning-Schmidt poses for that now-notorious selfie with Obama and Cameron

Defending himself in the House of Commons, Cameron later said that "when a member of the Kinnock family asked me for a photograph, I thought it was only polite to say yes".

It's a version of events that the Danish prime minister's husband seems to dispute when I ask him for his reaction to that (now infamous) photo.

"Yeah well, for me, the most striking thing about the selfie was our prime minister muscling in on the left."

So, hold on, the picture was only supposed to have been of her and Obama?

He nods. "She was sitting and chatting with Obama, then the selfie idea somehow emerged, and then suddenly Cameron appeared in shot and managed to muscle himself in on the picture."

Kinnock, of course, is one of the few people on earth to have seen the actual selfie - rather than the picture of the selfie being taken - and says, with a cheeky grin, that Thorning-Schmidt will one day "later down the track" release it for public consumption.

Kinnock and Thorning-Schmidt have two daughters - Johanna, 18, and Camilla, 15. The former lives and studies near her father in Wales while the latter is with her mother in Denmark. How hard is it on the couple, and on the kids, to have to live apart like this?

"The thing is that our kids they know how passionate Helle and I are about what we're doing," he says, "and how passionate we are about making a difference and they know that we'll only be happy if we are engaged and involved in doing that so the last thing they want is a grumpy mum or a grumpy dad sitting around getting frustrated."

Maybe so, but it can't be easy, can it? Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper struggle to find time for a 'date night' - and they're in the same party and same country.

"Yeah, it is hard sometimes," he responds. "You do live apart for periods of time. I know that her job is quite unusual but I do think there are a lot of people out there who spend time apart, people with increasingly international careers or if your'e married to someone in the army.

"People go away and spend time apart and in some relationships that really works.. We've been very fortunate that it works for us."

As he's mentioned his daughters, I ask whether he could ever imagine a third generation of party-political Kinnocks? And if Johanna or Camilla did decide to run for parliament, would it be in the UK or in Denmark? "Johanna has been based in the UK now for the past couple of years," says Kinnock. "She's also applying to go to university in the UK. She's becoming quite rooted and anchored in the UK; if she were to decide to go into the politics it would be more likely on the British side." (But this is all, he reminds me, a purely "speculative conversation".)

Returning to the subject of his wife and her rather, er, unique job, I wonder how strange it'll be if he ends up serving in a future Labour government, perhaps even in the Foreign Office - Kinnock speaks five languages and has worked in seven countries - while his wife remains prime minister of Denmark? Would there be any kind of potential conflict of interest? How would they handle their respective careers and duties then?

"I don't think there is a precedent for it," he counters, laughing. "We don't know. I also think certainly for the first years, if I do manage to get elected, I'll be focusing on getting my feet planted in the constituency, campaigning on local issues and getting my feet under the desk in Westminster."

He continues: "Maybe because of my business background, perhaps there's a role [for me] more around [the department for] Business, Innovation and Skills. Who knows?"

Could he go all the way to Number 10 Downing Street? Complete the journey that his father started yet twice failed to finish?

I point out to the younger Kinnock that the seat he is contesting in May 2015 was once held by Ramsay MacDonald, Labour's first prime minister. Does he have what it takes to follow in the latter's footsteps?

He may not be a member of parliament yet, but he knows how to dodge a question. "This is a constituency with an incredibly proud Labour history. We're standing on the shoulders of giants.

"We're very proud of that history, and we must never forget that history, but we must also move forward."

Keep your eye on this Kinnock: he's clever, articulate and ambitious. And maybe precedent-busting, too.

He may think series two of Borgen was implausible, but a British minister married to a Danish prime minister might seem to many people like something straight out of the plot of a Scandinavian television drama.