Britain: Death of former Labour leader Michael Foot – The end of an era of ‘Old Labour’

Workers today need new party to stop bosses’ onslaught

Many "Old Labour" workers and socialists will be saddened at the death of Michael Foot and will see it as signifying the death of an era. However the ideas of Michael Foot – of piecemeal socialist reform of society through successive ‘progressive’ Labour governments – died long before he physically passed away on 3 March. He is hardly known to most of the new generation, including those active within the trade union movement. But there was a time when he symbolised, for thousands, if not millions, both within and outside the labour movement, the Labour Party as a mass vehicle for socialist change.

Yet it was Michael Foot himself who acted as the gateman, along with his pupil, the execrable ‘Lord’ Neil Kinnock (now ‘worth’ £15 million), to the destruction of the Labour Party as a lever for the working class. His attack on the left, beginning with the expulsion from the Labour Party of the leaders and members of Militant (now the Socialist Party) in the 1980s, opened the door to the Labour right. This in turn led to the triumph of Blair and Blairism, the elimination of Clause 4 – the socialist aspirations of labour for socialism – and the train wreck of New Labour under Gordon Brown today.

Yet those of us who listened to Michael Foot and read his articles in the weekly journal Tribune could be forgiven – unless they were already trained and schooled Marxists – for believing that he really stood for socialism, if not the socialist revolution itself. He was a powerful orator who could rouse labour movement meetings by his passion, sometimes seemingly to fever pitch, but examine his ideas in the cold light of day and there was little of substance. Oratory is elastic and often style can triumph over content. Writing is more precise, a combination of content and style. In general, good orators are also writers. On the other hand, good speakers who are not writers are rare. Of course, great working-class speakers can nevertheless articulate the feelings and aspirations of workers more effectively than ‘practised’ speakers.

Michael Foot was a writer as well as a speaker. But his speaking style was a triumph of style over any real content as far as the struggle for socialism was concerned. He could move big crowds but never, at any time, did he really challenge capitalism and fight for its overthrow, nor did he effectively fight the Labour right wing who were the real capitalist ‘entrists’ in the Labour Party.

This was demonstrated not just by his hostility to those who were prepared to change the lives of working-class people – as in Liverpool between 1983 and 1987 – but also on crucial left issues of policy within the Labour Party when it really did, at the bottom, represent working-class people. This was clearly demonstrated during the epic struggle in the Labour Party over the need for a socialist programme following the defeat of Labour and the triumph of Thatcher in the 1979 general election.

Foot clashed with Tony Benn, who was in an alliance with the left and particularly Militant, which then enjoyed strong support in the Labour Party. Benn had proposed that Labour should stand on the nationalisation of Britain’s top 25 private companies. Foot dismissed this idea as “crazy”. Tony Benn praised Foot after his death. However, when he opposed him, both on the question of nationalisation and on his decision to stand for the deputy leadership in 1981, Benn concluded in his diaries that Foot was “fake left”, “parliamentary orientated”. This was accurate at the time and both before and since.

Coming from a Plymouth Liberal family – hence his lifelong support for Plymouth Argyle football club – like many before or since he was converted to socialism through his experiences in Liverpool as a shipping clerk in the 1930s. But politically, Michael Foot never broke completely from his Liberal traditions. He was seen as a fiery left-winger but consorted with, and received financial help from, Lord Beaverbrook – a right-wing newspaper proprietor who also ‘helped out’ Aneurin Bevan, the parliamentary leader of the left within the Labour Party in the 1950s. Incredibly, he also formed alliances with Enoch Powell, the right-wing racist Tory MP, on the issue of ‘reform’ of the House of Lords.

But such ‘friendships’ between Labour MPs, even those on the left, and Tories are not uncommon. ‘Show me who your friends are and I’ll show you who you are.’ After his death, the capitalist media have been kind to Michael Foot, some describing him as the “nicest man in politics”. And he seems to have had those qualities on a personal level. But he was not always treated as such when it came to the politics of the Labour movement. He was vilified by the ‘security services’ and some capitalist journals as a Russian Stalinist agent, mocked mercilessly for his dress sense but, particularly, for espousing left politicians, even of the mildest kind. Moreover, he was too kind to the Labour right, who had a clear pro-capitalist agenda. They did not reciprocate this ‘kindness’ towards the left – Tony Benn was compared by their friends in the press to Hitler.

To the right of Tony Benn

Michael Foot was undoubtedly to the right of Tony Benn – hence the clash between them in the early 1980s. Foot gave a leg up to Tony Blair who wrote to him in 1982 claiming that he “came to socialism through Marx”! He subsequently recommended Blair as a good prospective MP in the last available seat, Sedgefield, before the 1983 election. The rest is history, as Blair – with Brown – presided over the destruction of the Labour Party as a workers’ party at the bottom.

No such leeway was given by Michael Foot to Militant. The journal of the ‘Labour left’, Tribune, with which he was associated, attacked Militant in March 1980 when it was under the editorship of Richard Clements, who was close to Michael Foot when the latter was elected leader of the Labour Party in 1980 after the resignation of James Callaghan. In one article, Clements wrote that the ‘Militant Tendency’ should be “sued for false pretences” because of its claim to be “Marxist”. We were, it seems, a “Stalinist organisation which makes the British Communist Party look like the Liberal Party in prayer”!

Yet as we pointed out, it was Tribune itself, in an obituary of Stalin written by none other than Michael Foot, which in 1953 at the time of Stalin’s death wrote: “Of course, the achievements of the Stalin era were monumental in scale … Who in the face of these colossal events, would dare to question Stalin’s greatness, how superhuman must be the mind which presided over these world-shattering developments?”

As Labour leader, Foot presided over the introduction of a ‘register’, the first step to expulsions of the left, beginning with Militant. Yet other Labour MPs like left-wing Labour MP Ian Mikardo had longer memories. “Recalling Labour’s National Executive Committee meeting [Mikardo] says, ‘From 1951 onwards there was never a meeting without some violent attack on the left … Michael [Foot]’s adjective for them was “gruesome”’.” [East End News, quoted in Rise of Militant, p198.] Michael Foot as party leader denounced Militant for taking legal action over the expulsions. But in his biography of Aneurin Bevan, he showed that when Bevan was faced with a similar situation, expulsion from the Labour party by the right-wing, he threatened to go to “the highest court in the land”. This was because Bevan considered he was being treated in an unconstitutional manner.

In the 1983 general election, however, Michael Foot in Liverpool was compelled to speak alongside seven Labour parliamentary candidates, including Terry Fields, to hail the recent local election victory, in which Militant supporters had played a key role: “It was tremendous the way Liverpool has set the standard in local elections just before the general election. It was very fitting that just before we cleared the Tories out of Westminster, we, here in Liverpool, should have such a wonderful success in the council elections.”

Labour nationally received its lowest share of the poll since 1935, but the 1983 general election was not the overwhelming triumph for Thatcher which historians claim. The popular vote for the Tories fell by nearly two per cent, or 700,000 votes, compared to 1979. At the same time three million fewer workers voted Labour than in 1979. The reason for this drop in the Labour vote was due to a number of factors. The former Labour right who split away to form the Social Democratic Party and later formed an alliance with the Liberals, colluded with the capitalists and their press before the election to split the Labour Party. They failed in this but did split the Labour vote in some areas. Also the ‘Falklands factor’ – the generation of a patriotic wave in the wake of the victory in the Falklands war – which assisted Thatcher in fostering the idea of the return of Britain’s ‘imperial greatness’ and, by implication, future prosperity for the British people.

The right wing effectively sabotaged Labour’s campaign, with Denis Healey and former Labour prime minister, Jim Callaghan, explicitly distancing themselves from the manifesto and its commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament. The Labour manifesto was described by the right-wing Labour MP Gerald Kaufman as “the longest suicide note in history”. Michael Foot himself had said previously that it was the “greatest socialist programme in his lifetime”. The same Kaufman has become infamous today for his obscene parliamentary expenses including a huge flat-screen television, antique bowls, etc.

Militant’s successes

But the programme of Labour in 1983 was not a “suicide note” in Liverpool or in Coventry where Labour candidates Terry Fields and Dave Nellist – well-known Militant supporters – were triumphantly elected as MPs. Completely against the national trend there was a swing to Labour of 2%. In the council elections a month before the general election, Labour gained an extra 22,000 Liverpudlians’ votes for its programme of ‘no privatisation’, a £2 rent cut, no spending cuts, a massive housing repairs programme, 6,000 new council houses, 4,000 new council jobs and no rate rise to compensate for Tory and Liberal cuts.

Significantly, in Broad Green, soon to be the constituency of the historic victory of Terry Fields, Marxism and Trotskyism increased Labour’s vote by 50%! This gave just a glimpse of what could have been possible if Labour had adopted not just a radical socialist programme but the same fervent campaigning methods as the Liverpool labour movement and those in Coventry as well at that time.

After the general election, Michael Foot was pushed aside to make way for his protégé Neil Kinnock, who initiated a vicious witch-hunt against Militant and drove the Labour Party to the right – even eliminating Michael Foot’s cherished demand for unilateral nuclear disarmament – which in turn opened the way for Blair. The rest is well documented history.

Michael Foot, tragically an increasingly irrelevant figure, as with other socialists from a bygone age, like Denis Skinner, clung to the wreckage of the Labour Party, as unfortunately has Tony Benn. Michael Foot, like his mentor Aneurin Bevan and, unfortunately, even some Marxists today, never gave up on the Labour Party. Bevan had declared after the debacle of the 1931 election defeat: “I tell you it is the Labour Party or nothing. I know all its faults, all its dangers. But it is the party we have taught millions of working people to look to and regard as their own. We can’t undo what they’ve done and I am by no means convinced that something cannot be made of it yet.” [Michael Foot: A Portrait, by Simon Hoggart and David Lee.]

Aneurin Bevan was right at that stage, when the mass of the working class, for lack of an alternative and because it retained its working-class base, still clung to the Labour Party. It later moved, to transform it. It was true also when Militant was able to have a big effect in Liverpool, Bradford, Coventry and elsewhere in mobilising working-class people behind the Labour Party – and in the teeth of right-wing Labour’s opposition – to fight to defend and improve the living standards and the conditions of working-class people.

But a party is not an end in itself; it is not an imperishable historical factor. The struggle against capitalism is an objectively determined fact. The movement of the working class in opposition to the impositions of capitalism likewise. A party which no longer fits the purposes of historic necessity – in this case the needs of the working class against the onslaught of capital – can atrophy and disappear from the scene. Sometimes this can take the form of a drawn-out process of decay or there may be a sudden catastrophe, like the disappearance of the German Communist Party after its failure to bar the way, in a united front with social democracy, to Hitler’s rise to power.

Lenin’s Bolshevik party perished under the iron heel of bureaucratic Stalinist counter-revolutionary terror. The Labour Party has been transformed into an instrument for propping up capitalism, not furnishing weapons for the working class for its replacement by a more progressive system. It poses the need for a new mass workers’ party.

Michael Foot and his generation never faced such a dilemma as confronts the trade unions in particular at this stage. They have no party to defend them from the onslaught of the bosses – using the law, defended by New Labour, as in the case of BA against Unite – with the spectre of scab labour being used against cabin crew. A hodgepodge programme of socialistic phraseology sprinkled with liberal sentiments – which is what Michael Foot stood for – will be shown to be completely inadequate in the current situation. It is necessary to learn from the achievements but also the mistakes and deficiencies of Michael Foot’s generation in the fight for the socialist future of the labour movement.

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March 2010