The last leader of the Labour Party
Two veterans of the revolutionary left, Michael Fitzpatrick and Mick Hume, opt out of the nostalgia-fest following Michael Foot’s death.
The tributes to Michael Foot following his death this week at the age of 96 reflect more than the customary obsequies for a distinguished elder statesman of British politics. From all sides comes a wave of nostalgia for the politics of the past, a yearning for a time when politicians were respected writers and orators, men and women of principle and passion. Today they are regarded at best as cynical manipulators of public opinion, at worst as corrupt beneficiaries of the system of parliamentary expenses. For supporters of the Labour Party, Foot personified the traditional commitments to socialism long abandoned to the shallow pragmatism of Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
In fact, it was popular disillusionment with the policies of the Labour left, as championed by Michael Foot and his supporters, in opposition and in government in the 1960s and 1970s, that paved the way for the Thatcher governments of the 1980s and the subsequent emergence of New Labour. For all his radical rhetoric and his subversive donkey jacket, Foot always worked to secure the loyalty of the labour movement to the British establishment – with disastrous consequences under the ‘social contract’ established between the unions and the Labour government in response to the recession of the mid-1970s (see Who Needs The Labour Party? Revolutionary Communist Pamphlets, 1978).
Though Foot was noted for his support for nuclear disarmament and opposition to Apartheid and other excesses of colonial policy, like the bulk of the British left he consistently endorsed British imperialist policy in Ireland (and its repressive consequences at home). In 1982 he notoriously supported Thatcher in her despatch of the navy to re-occupy the Falkland Islands – a move that consolidated her dominance in British domestic politics and helped to ensure the triumph of New Labour over the rump of a demoralised Labour left.
I recall attending a Labour Party rally addressed by Michael Foot in the course of the 1979 General Election campaign. In the spirit of the radical tradition of heckling at election meetings, I advanced the view from the floor that it was time for the left to break with the Labour Party and establish a serious alternative. I was thrown out.
Michael Fitzpatrick is a GP and author based in London.
Michael Foot was the last leader of the British Labour Party. Foot died only yesterday, but the Labour Party that he represented and led has been dead for more than 25 years.
When Foot became Labour leader in 1980 he was already a frail 67-year-old, an elevation that symbolised the decrepit condition of the party in the wake of the ‘winter of discontent’ and the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first Tory government. Soon afterwards, prominent figures on the Labour right split to form the Social Democratic Party.
Under Foot’s leadership, the 1983 General Election sounded the death knell for the Labour Party. Foot stood on a manifesto based on all the Labour left’s totemic policies of the postwar era – nationalisation, unilateral nuclear disarmament, high taxation, withdrawal from the EEC (now the EU). Labour was crushed by Thatcher and her ‘Falklands Factor’, left with barely 200 seats (though that was still more than David Cameron’s Conservatives start with today). Foot’s party was exposed as a political corpse, a hollowed-out shell out of which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s New Labour eventually crawled (both were first elected to parliament in 1983).
After 1983, many said that Labour could never win another election – and they were right. The party that did win 14 years later in 1997 and still governs today is an entirely different (non-)political organisation. Those who would use Foot’s memory to try to boost the radical credentials of Brown’s party are only deluding themselves.
As an old man of the left and grumpy old Marxist myself, however, I feel no nostalgia for Foot’s lost Labour Party. There has been much talk about the contrast between his donkey-jacketed political principles and the slickly-dressed image-obsessed politicians of today. The problem was that his principles were those of British state socialism, which held back the movement for progress for the best part of a century.
The Labourite tradition that Foot represented saw the agent of social change not as a mass movement of people, but as the machinery of the state. History shows that whatever good intentions state socialists begin with, they have ended up demanding that the working class subordinate its interests to those of the capitalist state, and giving patriotic political support to their ‘own’ national state in the world – even to the point of backing its wars.
So it was with Foot. As secretary of state for employment in the Labour government of the 1970s he played a key role in getting the trade unions to accept policies such as state-imposed wage controls at a time of rampant inflation. And as both a backbencher and leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, he combined symbolic opposition to hypothetical nuclear wars with support for the British state’s real militarism and wars from Northern Ireland to the South Atlantic. Foot was in effect what Lenin might have called a ‘social-imperialist’, his politics supporting socialism in principle and imperialism in practice. In his latter years this grand old man of the peace movement became a wild enthusiast for Tony Blair’s war against the Serbs.
Two shameful memories of Michael Foot’s time as Labour leader stick in my mind – both to do with wars, but neither to do with anything as irrelevant as wearing a donkey jacket at the cenotaph remembrance ceremony. One was the day in 1982 when he was cheered to the rafters of the House of Commons by braying Thatcherite MPs for endorsing the Tory government’s dispatch of the task force to re-colonise the Malvinas or Falkland Islands. The other was the time in 1981 when Foot sent his Northern Ireland spokesman, Don Concannon, to the deathbed of Bobby Sands in his H-Block prison cell, to tell the IRA hunger striker and MP that Labour stood fully behind Thatcher in her refusal to grant Sands and his fellow prisoners political status.
Those seeking Michael Foot’s ‘legacy’ today need look no further than the grim experience of New Labour, born out of the failure of Foot’s state socialism. If you seek his monument, note the monumental defeat of the left that means Labour can no longer even hold his south Wales seat, once the safest in Britain, which Foot inherited from his hero Nye Bevan.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Read on: spiked-issue Obituaries.