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Greasy Pole: Paul Foot and the Vote

Greasy Pole

Paul Foot and the vote

Paul Foot who died last year was always a readable journalist. He was also a member of the Trotskyist SWP. When he died he was working on a book about the vote, a curious subject, it might be thought, for the political testament of a member of an organisation which favours armed insurrection and mass strikes rather than the vote as the way to gain control of political power. Called The Vote, How it was Won and How it was undermined, it is basically about the tension between Democracy (as universal suffrage) and Property (as accumulated wealth).

During the English civil war a famous debate, presided over by Cromwell, took place in the church at Putney, in London, where the issue was thrashed out amongst representatives of all ranks in the parliamentary army, of the ordinary soldiers as well as of the officers and the high command. Soldiers who were Levellers argued that the vote should be given to every man (or at least to every man who was not a servant or on the Poor Law; there was some ambiguity on this point). They were opposed by Commissary-General Ireton, Cromwells son-in-law, who argued that only those who had a real stake in the country by virtue of being owners of land should have the right to vote, i.e. to decide what laws were made, what taxes were levied, etc. It fell to an officer with the appropriate name of Colonel Rich to spell out what might happen if men with little or no property were given the vote:

“It may happen, that the majority may by law, not in confusion, destroy property; there may be a law enacted, that there shall be equality of goods and estate”.

This remained the standard argument against democracy until the end of the 19th century. Both Gladstone and Disraeli were declared opponents of democracy, and in fact in Europe democracy was seen, by both its opponents and supporters as a revolutionary demand. Marx himself hoped that, with the universal male suffrage that the Chartists demanded, what Colonel Rich had feared would come about. Universal suffrage is the equivalent of political power for the working class of England, he wrote in August 1852 in an article in the New York Tribune quoted by Foot. Its inevitable result, here, is the political supremacy of the working class.

After the Second and Third Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884, the majority of electors in Britain came from the working class, even though only about 30 percent of the adult population had the vote (no women and only 60 percent of men). This remained the situation until after the first world war, when the vote was extended to men over 21 and women over 30. Universal suffrage did not come until 1928 when the vote was given to women too at 21.

The extension of the vote did partially realise Colonel Richs fear and Karl Marxs hope in that it did lead to the formation and rise of the Labour Party as a working class party with as one of its aims a redistribution of wealth from the rich to the working class. But this didnt happen. The second part of Foots book is devoted to explaining why Democracy did not lead to any significant inroads into the rights of Property, in other words, why Labour failed.

One thing he had neglected in his account of how the vote was won was the extent to which an extension of the vote increasingly became a necessity as capitalism developed and as the administrative work of the capitalist state, at local as well as national level, grew and became more complex. It was clear that some, in fact most, of this work would have to be done by persons who were neither aristocrats nor capitalists. The working class had to be got involved in the administration of capitalism. To do this they had to be brought within the constitution by being given full citizenship rights, as represented by having the vote. The more far-seeing of the supporters of capitalism realised this; some actively campaigned for it even in Chartist times. The bourgeois-democratic republic (or constitutional monarchy) is in fact the ideal political form for the rule of the capitalist class.

However, just because universal suffrage and formal democratic control of the machinery of government was in the overall interest of the capitalist class as a whole didnt mean that this was going to come about automatically. As Foot points out, it had to be struggled for. Both the First Reform Act of 1832 (which extended the franchise to the middle class) and the Second Reform Act (which extended it to most urban workers) were accompanied by riots and demonstrations by workers that persuaded the House of Lords not to use its veto. In between, as Foot recounts, the Chartists demonstrated and rioted and even stage some armed uprisings to try to achieve universal male suffrage, unsuccessfully as it turned out, but with the aim of transferring political power to the working class.

When it comes to the second part of the book (how the vote was undermined), Foot seems to be suggesting that Labour failed because its leaders, when in government, werent determined enough in their use of parliament to bring about, in the words of the Labour Partys manifesto for the 1974 general election manifesto, a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power in favour of working people and their families (yes, believe it or not, that whats they actually were promising as recently as that). This, despite the fact that his own descriptions of what happened to the various Labour governments - bankers ramp in 1931, sterling crises in 1947 and 1949, gnomes of Zurich for Wilson in the 1960s, and IMF conditions for Callaghan in the 1970s - bring out the fact that capitalism is a world system and that no government of one country, however determined, can isolate the economy from the workings and pressures of the world market.

It might be thought that Foot as a Trotskyist (he was in the SWP) would have realised that socialism in one country is impossible. But, although Trotsky did proclaim this, it didnt mean that he thought nothing could be done in one country; if a vanguard was ruthless and determined enough it could, he argued, establish a Workers State, based on nationalisation and planning, i.e. that state capitalism in one country was possible.

It is what had happened in Russia and Foot gives the impression that the Labour Party could have done the same in Britain if only its leaders had been prepared to stand up to the gnomes of Zurich and other international capitalists. Actually, as a Trotskyist, Foot doesnt believe this, as it is the Trotskyist view that the sort of full-scale state capitalism that Foot thinks the Labour Party should have bold enough to have pressed on towards can only be established after a successful armed insurrection led by a Trotskyist vanguard (There is no parliamentary road, says What the SWP Stands For). It is thus rather odd that Foot should have chosen to write a book about The Vote at all since for him the vote is only of relatively minor significance, serving merely as a potential means of access to a tribunal from which to spread Trotskyist views (At most parliamentary activity can be used to make propaganda against the present system).

This is quite a different perspective to that of the more clear-sighted Chartists - and Marx who was influenced by them - that universal suffrage, once achieved, could be used as a means of winning control of political power so that, in the words of Colonel Rich in 1647, the majority may by law, not in confusion, destroy property.