Sunday, September 4, 2016

Michael Foot: more of the same (1980)

From the December 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

So Michael Foot is the new leader of the Labour Party. For some this is very good news, a new leader is just what the sheep require. “Foot is my shepherd, 1 shall not want . . .”. For others this signals a move to left-wing domination of the Labour Party which could lead to a party split. However it’s regarded, the fact is that to many workers the battle for the leadership, and its result, are very important issues. But cast aside the glib outpourings of the the “political experts”; cast aside the extensive coverage by the media of the two-ballot lead-up to the result and let’s examine this power scrummage through our own eyes, not those of the people who write Anna Ford’s script. When a uniform political analysis is pumped out of every media outlet in Russia this is correctly condemned as a symptom of totalitarianism. Yet when, for instance, an almost identical analysis of the same dozen news items appears on all three television channels on any given evening in Britain, there are only a small number who reject this brainwashing.

Imagine a fictional person who, not having been exposed to the media coverage of the Labour leadership contest, and unfamiliar with some political institutions, seeks an explanation of the issue from a socialist:

Q. The battle was over the leadership of the Labour Party, but what is this party? 

A. In Britain, as in all industrialised countries including Russia, there are two classes of people. Those who own and control the places where wealth is produced and distributed—the capitalists—they live off of rents, interest and profit, and those who work in those places—the workers—who have to survive on wages or salaries. Those two classes are pitted in a continuous conflict, and the Labour Party claims to be on the side of the workers.

Q. Does the Labour Party successfully promote the interests of the workers?

A. No, the Labour Party only has plans to administer this social set-up. This means first, that it intends the continuation of a class system where the label “worker” will still be applicable to those who are not “investors” or “industrialists”, and second that it has constantly to comply with the economic laws of the system it works within (the profit-system) which is inherently loaded against the workers. This is why Labour governments have had to re-introduce prescription charges (1965), withdraw free school milk, support wage-restraint policies, use troops to break strikes by dock workers and firemen, spend millions of pounds a day on armaments and in 1979 preside helplessly over 1,600,000 unemployed and 53,000 registered homeless as it cut public spending by 6.3 per cent.

Illustration by George Meddemmen.
Q. How was the leadership election run? 

A. The struggle at the top echelons of the Labour Party is characterised by the same back-stabbing and “bargaining” which must exist in any organisation operating on the basis of leadership, hierarchies, smoke-filled rooms and a hotch-potch of political persuasions chasing, apart from ambitions, a wide range of political objectives. Their political manoeuvrings are insulting to the people they ask for trust. Speeches by Foot and Healey in Northern constituencies a couple of days before the final ballot “. . .  used carefully chosen words designed more for the ears of the few Labour MPs who have not cast their vote than for their audiences”. (Guardian 7.1 1.80) After the first ballot “campaign managers” from both camps were desperately trying to capture the support of those who voted for Shore and Silkin in the first ballot. What sort of promises or persuasion can be used by a campaign manager to secure the vote of a waverer is anybody’s guess, but an appeal to principle is probably not a trump card.

The tension mounted, Ladbrokes and Corals declared their best odds and Michael Foot fetched up as Thatcher’s new sparring partner.

Q. What is Foot’s record as a Labour politician? Is there hope for the working class in his rhetoric?

A. In 1945 we find Foot as a Labour MP arguing insistently for nationalisation and the working-class tightening its belt and increasing productivity for BRITAIN to recover after the war. Good news for the Duke of Buccleuch who owned 268,000 acres of it, but not much incentive for the 90 per cent who had nothing but rent-books or mortgages. “If that abundant life is to be assured in the future certain immediate privations will have to be endured in order to re-stock capital industries. No Tory government could make this appeal, for the worker would suspect that the summons to hard work, discipline and abstinence would result only in fortunes for the few and the later wastage of unemployment. The new government is in a different situation. It also must appeal for hard work, discipline, and for a short period, continued abstinence . . . But a Labour government at the same time can give concrete proof of its resolve to use this wealth for the benefit of the whole community.” (Daily Herald 8.7.45) Concrete proof of “resolve” perhaps, but not concrete proof of results. We wonder whether Foot’s Tory-trouncing accusations, “fortunes for the few” and “wastage of unemployment” echoed to him in 1979 when after seventeen years of Labour government since his exhortations, the top 1 per cent of people in Britain owned more accumulated wealth than the bottom 80 per cent (Royal Commission on the Distribution of Wealth and Income) and 1,600,000 were unemployed.

Either you run capitalism, in which case you play the tune of the Stock Exchange, the Treasury and the IMF, bending to the profit priority, or else you organise the production of wealth to benefit the whole community. There is no half-way house, and Foot’s Robin Hood politics are doomed to failure.

The “closed shop” is of doubtful assistance to the working class in the industrial struggle against capital. Workers compelled to join a union will not make good members and many employers prefer such an arrangement because it strengthens trade union leadership and thereby improves union discipline. Yet Mr. Foot is a firm supporter of the closed shop. When six men were dismissed from Ferrybridge Power Station in 1976 because they violated a one-union agreement by joining a breakaway union, and were refused Unemployment Benefit under the “misconduct rule” in the Social Security Act, Foot as Secretary of State for Employment issued a statement that he found nothing wrong with the procedure. Not satisfied with this, Foot decided to really put the boot in, and he tried to engineer an amendment to the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act (1974) removing all “safeguard provisions” against the closed shop. The principle safeguard was the right of appeal to an Industrial Tribunal which had the power to award compensation for unfair dismissal. Foot’s amendment was designed to leave a worker who had been sacked for not joining a specified union, denied the dole and without recourse to a tribunal.

Q. What does Foot now plan as prominent Labour Party policy?

A. According to his speeches leading up to the leadership election he believes that the Labour Party should seek, if it gets office in time, to stop the arms race through a “unilateral British lead”. Don’t stop the cause of nations producing weapons, don’t put an end to the profit-system, the cause of war, but stop the arms race as there are already 4 tonnes of explosives for each person on earth. Also Mr. Foot, along with Enoch Powell and the National Front, would like to lead British capitalism out of the Common Market.

Q. Is there a glimmer of hope for the working class in either of these policies?

A. No. Whether Foot cares to admit it or not, wars are fought to capture or protect markets, territories rich in natural resources and manpower, trade routes or strategic areas on the trade map. You cannot keep capitalism and request that the owners of capital desist from protecting their markets, by whatever means they choose, and forget economic expansion. Rather than plead with the owning class, or more accurately their representatives in the state machine, to make the right decisions we must remove the privilege of the few that enables them to play havoc with humanity. At Vienna, the governments of the world have been negotiating a reduction of conventional weapons of destruction. After six years they have not agreed on the removal of a single rifle. Canada claims to have disarmed its most devastating armaments, but what good is this if the cause of war is left intact? International ferocities in warfare are no respecters of such political gestures any more than they are respectors of pious prayers (except perhaps when the padres bless the bombs) or signed pieces of paper.

What of the EEC? Begotten as an economic bloc to compete with America and the Eastern bloc, it has produced all of the miseries of capitalism elsewhere poverty, inflation, unemployment ad nauseam—and solved none of them. While 28 human beings die from hunger across the world every minute of every day (1977—The National Academy of Sciences Research Project) the EEC is annually destroying thousands of tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables which cannot be sold at a profit—not to mention the mountains of butter and beef and the lakes of wine. Foot, forgetting the plight of the international working class and performing his theoretical role as a guardian of the interests of British citizens, believes our condition would stand to be improved if we withdrew from the EEC. Do he and his disciples forget so easily the years [1924], 1945-51, 1964-70 when Britain was not in the EEC (it was only formed in 1957) and Labour, in the seat of power, was just as incapable of solving the problems of the working class as it was from 1974 to 1979 when we were in the EEC?

While Foot and his opponents in the Labour Party bandy words about whether British industry and farming (British industrial investors and land owners) are best served by membership of the Common Market, we are campaigning for our fellow workers to organise democratically to establish Common Ownership of the places where wealth is produced and distributed.

Q. Where do Foot and his supporters go from here?

A. Mr. Foot does not seem to have learnt much after nearly half a century of political experience, even if he learnt nothing from the history he has read. He announced after his triumph that he intends to lead a gigantic Labour demonstration against unemployment, in Liverpool in late November. What was gained by the Jarrow marchers? Why should the owners of Capital invest in production, if goods, if they were to be produced, could not be sold at a profit? Foot was also emphatic that the Labour Party was not in favour of withdrawal from NATO. A peculiar allegiance for a man, and a party, so ardent to “maintain” what is labelled “peace”, (ignore: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, The Middle East, Northern Ireland) except of course when Labour has to lend a hand with recruiting workers to butcher their fellows abroad, as it had to in the last two world wars.
The disastrous failures of once wild- eyed militants (Attlee, Wilson et al) to make capitalism operate in the interests of the working class may be receding beyond memory. They should not. There are no instant solutions to the profit system. No one-man remedies. The Socialist Party of Great Britain and its companion parties abroad are democratic instruments to be used by a politically conscious, leaderless working class to organise to take control of the means of life. Everyone is of equal standing in this party, young, old, male, female, black and white as we campaign co-operatively and actively for more support. Will you devote your energies to the giddy task of trying to bring order to this system of relentless chaos or will you dissent and act to change the basis of the society in which you live? We are in an agonising crisis and under the threat of another war. There isn’t time to put a foot wrong . . .  
Gary Jay

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