Sunday, March 07, 2010


"Socialism without public ownership is nothing but a fantastic apology." Michael Foot, writing in the Daily Herald, 1956.

The most touching tribute paid to Michael Foot is by his great-nephew Tom Foot, son of Paul and one of the editors of the Camden New Journal. He remembers how:

In my school years, he would package me off from his home with great works of literature – Shakespeare, Montaigne, Hazlitt, Wordsworth – all signed with curious messages of encouragement. He was both kind and supportive.

After university, I remember telling him I was thinking of trying to find some work experience on a news¬paper. He advised me to ring the Camden New Journal.

I will never forget the answer machine messages he left, in that unmistakable voice, after I notched my first few by-lines on some truly forgettable early stories.

“Ah ha,” he would begin, “can you put me in touch with the famous Tom Foot, whose articles I am reading all over the place? Please. Let me know. Ah ha. Right!” And then the receiver would smash down.

Those messages have continued every week ever since.

A warm glow pervades all of the tributes (both sincere and obsequious) from his friends and adversaries. Yesterday, one of my colleagues recalled walking across Hampstead Heath one day, and being startled by a scruffy, enthusiastic dog sniffing her leg. Its owner – who had only recently stepped down as leader of the Labour Party – rushed over, apologised profusely and talked as if they were long-lost friends.

Seamus Milne wrote a pretty good piece on Wednesday about the myths that surround Michael Foot. One of these is that Foot finally proved, once and for all, that Labour could never form a government on a left-wing programme. It is true that Labour did not lose that election because they planned to decommission nuclear weapons or nationalise the banks. Thatcher’s breast-beating jingoism won the day, her dispatch of ships to the southern Atlantic representing a last hurrah for a moribund world power. But the relationship between capital, government and workers had shifted from the early 1970s and early 1980s. Even before Thatcher came to power, Britain had been following a monetarist course, and by 1983 the balance of power was firmly in her favour.

To trace the roots of this shift, one must look back to the Labour governments of 1964-1970 and, in particular, 1974-1979. Labour actually won the election in 1974 with a far more left-wing manifesto than in 1983. Its centrepiece was the Alternative Economic Strategy, a response to the balance of payments of crisis of the 1960s and the position of organised labour in the early 1970s.

Since 1945, both parties had more or less adhered to the Keynesian principle that state intervention would increase growth in a capitalist economy. But during the Wilson government of 1964-70, this principle had failed. Wages had been held down, taxes were increased, and as a consequence Labour lost the 1970 election. The Tories tried to beat down the Unions, but were powerless in the face of a formidably powerful labour force. In 1974, Heath called an election, asking the question, “Who runs Britain?” The electorate decided that it was not him.

The Alternative Economic Strategy was a radical gamble on Labour’s part. It claimed that Britain must cut loose from global capitalism, arguing that (a) industry must be taken under public control to break the monopoly of a few leading firms, (b) that the large companies which remained private must adhere to a planned economy, and acquiesce to the state appointment of directors on their boards and the public acquisition of shares, and (c) a New Industry Act must be passed by Parliament to increase workers’ direct influence over company policy. Britain must leave the European Economic Community, control would be exerted over exports and foreign exchange and, by creating more investment and more demand, Britain would once again become a major industrial power.

This was heady, quixotic stuff, and it was just enough for them to win the General Election. But it quickly became clear that the old Labour formula of ‘Keynesian in one country’ (to quote Tony Cliff) was an anachronism.

As soon as Labour took office, inflation leapt, the balance of payments fell through the floor and unemployment trebled between 1974 and 1976. Instead of nationalising, the government bailed out failing industry; instead of a planned economy, companies took government money and sacked their workers; instead of reflation, the government cut services five times in 13 months, and fixed wage increases at 4.5% (at a time when inflation reached nearly 27%). The economy grew by an average of just 0.9% between 1974 and 1978, and real wages fell by an average of 1.6% a year.

Labour won in 1974 because the electorate decided that the capital-government-union nexus would run more smoothly with them as the middleman than the Tories. By the winter of 1978, this nexus had broken down. Callaghan had postponed the election until May 1979 – a grave error – and the Conservatives won by a landslide.

The Thatcherites stepped up attacks on wages and public spending, though they only intensified policies which they had inherited (Stuart Hall, recalling the Butskellite compromise of the 1950s, coined the phrase Howleyism to describe the monetarist consensus of Chancellors Denis Healey and Geoffrey Howe). The global economy had shifted irrevocably, and governments struggled to find solutions to combat a falling rate of profit.

In 1983, when neoliberalism had not yet won this economic struggle, Labour could theoretically have won the election, even with their “suicide note” manifesto. But they were seen (correctly) as divided where the Tories were united, defeatist where the Tories were bellicose, confused where the Tories were confident. Michael Foot had the job of unifying the Bennites, the Militants, the Gang of Four and the centralists in his party, and it proved an impossible job.

Fast forward to 2010, and it is implausible that Labour could win an election on a left-wing platform, less still implement one. Public opinion (especially on the economy) remains significantly to the left of the government, but there is nobody in the Parliamentary Labour Party who speaks for these views. The Cabinet is stuffed with privately educated policy makers and journalists; only a tiny handful of backbench Labour MPs represent working-class people. The Tories still complain that Labour is in thrall to the Unions, but after decades of defeat, dwindling membership and low worker confidence the Unions have almost no real influence on government policy.

Labour may hold onto power in May; I still think it more likely that the Tories will get in. But, in contrast to defeated Labour parties of earlier times, this one is unlikely to swing to the left once in opposition. Finally, it seems beyond denial that if there is to be any return to a democracy in which working people can even a moderate contribution, it will not be delivered by the Labour Party.


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