My interview in The Times, Red Box:
In the first of our Class of 2015 series of interviews with MPs first elected last year, Natasha Clark talks to Stephen Kinnock, the Labour MP for Aberavon, about his first 12 months in Westminster.
“I hate losing to the Tories,” says Stephen Kinnock, the son of former Labour leader Neil, who lost to the Tories twice. “Being in opposition is very, very frustrating.”
The Labour MP for Aberavon has been busy of late. He flew to Mumbai to meet the owners of Tata steel, as the firm announced it wanted to sell its UK businesses, including the Port Talbot site in Kinnock’s constituency.
The 46-year-old’s lobbying in India embarrassed Sajid Javid, the business secretary, who was several thousand miles away in Australia at the time of the crunch deal. Since then Kinnock has been flat out lobbying the government in the Commons and on the airwaves to do more to rescue British industry and protect it from Chinese dumping.
He’s squeezing me in on his lunch break in a sunlit Portcullis House. Between mouthfuls of fish, and copious quantities of kale he describes his first year as an MP.
“I’ve enjoyed it hugely, if enjoyed is the right word,” he says, perhaps conscious of those who say he has had a “good” steel crisis. Some go further and suggest he could be leadership material.
“Too many times we sit in the chamber, go into the division lobbies, and know we’re going to lose votes. I’m a very bad loser, and a very competitive person. I hate losing anything.”
Kinnock is slightly more downbeat than when we last met; perhaps because the buzz of the election has worn off somewhat. What has been the low-point? “There’s an ongoing hum that is my low-point, which is being in opposition and knowing it will be for a long time,” he says.
No Corbynista, he retains optimism about Labour’s future. He sees this as an opportunity for the party to rethink, reshape and rebuild – something Blair and Brown failed to do.
“We didn’t reinvent ourselves while in government,” he says. “This is the best time to do it. We’ve got to get our foundations right with a new set of ideas and strategy.
Top of his agenda is proving to the electorate that Labour can offer people security. “If you in any way look like a party not offering people security you will never win an election in this country,” he says solemnly.
Despite growing up as the son of a party leader, Kinnock jnr chose a world of business for a career. His experience in industry has helped shift government policy, which is all most opposition politicians can hope for.
“When Sajid Javid stood up and said the British government would look to co-invest in the future of the steel industry … that was a high point,” he says, sipping a Ribena carton. “That shows how far we have come in terms of holding the government to account and creating a change.”
With 4,000 jobs at stake in his constituency, finding a buyer for the plant is a priority. Will this offer soften up potential investors and draw the moths to the flame?
“It’s a very attractive offer,” Kinnock says, praising the quality of the steel, the structure of the business and its strong industrial relations. But for the long term? “No, it’s not enough, we’ve got to have some serious money. The turnaround plan is based on the idea of £1.5 billion over ten years.”
Labour’s next pressure point, however, is to press the government to take action on China’s dumping of steel. “This is the underlying problem,” Kinnock emphasises. “The government have still got the wrong position on that … it’s a betrayal of the British steel industry.”
He’s hoping for another U-turn from the government because the business secretary knows his job is on the line. “That focuses his mind more than anything else… more than the 4,000 other jobs that are on the line,” he jokes.
With Javid already under fire for flying to Australia, Jeremy Corbyn took the chance to visit Port Talbot soon after Kinnock came back from meetings in Mumbai.
“It went down very well with my constituency and put Jeremy in such stark contrast to the government,” he says. “It was disastrously handled. I think even Sajid would admit he made the wrong call.”
As an aide to the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle, Kinnock has been able to learn the ropes of opposition first hand.
“I really enjoyed helping her prep for PMQs against George Osborne. She wiped the floor with him,” he boasts.
Kinnock, like many Labour MPs and commentators, can see her as the next leader.
“Absolutely, she could be,” he says. “She’s absolutely great. It’s high time the Labour party had a woman as our leader. She’s very strategic… I’m a big fan.”
Eagle and Kinnock share a love of chess; she was the joint winner of the British girls’ under 18 championship in 1976. But the pair have yet to play a game together.
“We’ve chatted about it, we must play. I have no doubt whatsoever that she will beat me!” he jokes. “I stopped when I was a teenager – I was in the school and county team… I guess then I discovered girls and alcohol…”
With his wife Helle a former prime minister of Denmark and a former European commissioner, Kinnock is unreservedly pro-EU. But he still wants to reform it.
“We need to reinvent our relationship with the EU, no matter what happens. I am keen to play a part in that,” he says. “Whatever happens after June 23, the EU should not leave the agenda.”
He wants to create a much more “constructive, positive relationship” between Britain and the European Union, one that is not be taken “lying down” and allowing them to “do whatever”.
And he wants to reform state aid, and to reconsider business growth. “Absolutely nobody is arguing that the EU is a perfect, elegant, well-oiled machine,” he says.
If Britain votes to leave, however, he will be the first to call for a second referendum – to rejoin the bloc after what he describes would be “economic disaster”.
“That may be 30 years down the line,” he admits. “My view is if we do leave, we will go into such an economic decline, and such political turmoil, that I do think there will be buyer’s remorse. Pretty quickly people will start to realise we made an enormous mistake, and something has to change.”
Brexit uncertainty is already having an effect on our economy, the government claims. And Kinnock agrees. “We’ve almost got a run on the pound. The FDI [foreign direct investment] going down, the trade balance going down again, unemployment going up, the latest figures: this is all because of Brexit.”
When I last interviewed Kinnock in December he told me Jeremy Corbyn must “compromise to win” and told the hard-left activists not interested in governing to quit the party.
He stands by his words, saying now that Labour must return to the “driving purpose of the party… which is to govern” and insists again “we are not a protest party”.
“We know we can put our values and vision into practice… all that we do as we move towards 2020 [should be] geared towards the election, listening to what we hear on the doorstep.”
Don’t say it too loudly, but there are some politicos who think Corbyn is getting better as leader. His EU speech was well received despite his Euroscepticism, and his tribute to the Queen was also considered to be good. At a recent PMQs session the leader got some momentum from his backbenchers when he cracked a joke.
Kinnock tells me that Corbyn was told at a recent parliamentary Labour party meeting that his joke was good, and he should incorporate more into his PMQs appearances.
“Somebody said, ‘Can you do a bit more of that?’”. Corbyn was not entirely convinced. “He came back and said that ‘everybody in the country loves it when I read out emails from Mildred in Barnsley’… or something to that effect.”
Does Kinnock feel that Corbyn is improving as leader? “Using public questions in PMQs is a very, very good weapon, but he needs to mix it up with some of the more traditional moves,” he advises. “PMQs is theatre, and it’s about getting your side fired up. Sometimes you have to throw out a one-liner.”
Biggest lesson learned in the first year as an MP?
“Prioritising what I’m doing in the chamber. I’ve had a few incidents where I was sitting for four hours waiting to get called and that was a really bad use of my time.
“I had one hilarious experience where I wanted to speak to advocate that 16 and 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote in the EU referendum, I sat there bobbing and bobbing. I was the last speaker and I had 35 seconds to speak. I should have said ‘no thanks’ and walked away.”
Fantasy frontbench job?
“I think there is a huge opportunity for Labour to reinvent its relationship with the business community. My experience at the world economic forum and an advisory firm was all about getting companies to rethink the way they do sustainability, the way they do engagement with society, to rethink what it means to grow sustainably. Yes, absolutely, making a profit – but thinking about the people and the planet.
“We should own that agenda, but we are still framed as an anti-business party. We’ve got to do something to challenge that narrative. I’d like to think there’s a role for me in doing that in the future.”
Highlight of the year?
“I love the football game against the lobby on the first day of party conference. It’s an excuse to kick journalists for 90 minutes… I mean, what’s not to like about that? I particularly enjoyed kicking Owen Bennett from the Huffington Post, he had been quite cheeky… I gave him a good kick, he definitely deserved it.
“Another one of the highlights of my parliamentary career so far is nutmegging Justin Madders on the pitch – I’ll never allow him to live it down.”