1990s >> 1990 >> no-1025-january-1990

Left Foot, Right Foot

Many a premature obituary was provoked by Michael Foot’s announcement that he will not be standing for Parliament again. There was no dissension from the opinion that he is a learned, courteous and sincere man. Another thing provoked by the news would be a massive flutter in the ambitious hearts of all who hope to become a Labour MP in the near future, for down in his Blaenau Gwent constituency Tories are like a threatened species and Foot sits on a majority of nearly 28,000. As the late Richard Crossman pointed out in his Backbench Diaries, the comfort of an unassailable majority works wonders for an MP’s morale and has a perceptive influence on how the lucky Member views the topics and crises of the day. Whoever gets the Blaenau Gwent nomination will be one of the most comfortable and morale-full in the Commons.

But back to those obituaries, which said so many nice things about Foot, among them that he will be sadly missed in Westminister not just for his sincerity and courtesy but also because he is something called a “great parliamentarian”. It is clear that “great parliamentarians” are pretty rare in all sorts of ways, for example a left-winger like Foot can be one and so can a right-winger like Enoch Powell. In fact between these two, who in theory should be sworn enemies until the end of time, there has long existed a state of mutual admiration. “He speaks beautiful English”, said Powell of Foot. “The greatest master of clear exposition of British post-1945 politics”, wrote Foot of Powell. Perhaps on the principle that it is not what you say that counts but how elegantly you say it, Great Parliamentarians stick together, offering the kind of speeches which bring MPs flocking from the tea-room and the bar. They know a lot about parliament’s history and its arcane procedural devices. They deeply respect its power to uphold the private property system on the basis of popular votes from the working class. The question is, whose advantage does this serve and what is its relevance in the case of the soon-to-be-ex-Member for Blaneau Gwent?  

Accustomed pose

Except for those who are aware of how capitalist politics tames its rebels—in the case of the Labour Party, moving them smoothly from left to right—it is strange to recall the revulsion which Foot once provoked, in his own party as well as among its opponents. Only Aneurin Bevan was considered to be wilder and more threatening among the bogey-men who would nationalise everything in sight and so undermine the nation’s morals that not a single Knightsbridge nanny would be safe. Foot was among the most restless and damaging of the critics of the Attlee government after the war, a moving influence in the operations of the Tribune Group which was named after the gadfly journal of which he became editor in 1948.

From the time when he was first elected to parliament in 1945 until he became a Cabinet minister in the 1974 Labour government Foot could be relied on, whenever the Labour Party were under pressure to accept some inconvenient reality of capitalism, to strike his accustomed pose as the incorruptible guardian of Labour’s virtue. He usually did this with some passion. which impressed those who agreed with him. At the 1959 Labour Conference, for example, when the party were being forced by their third successive defeat at a general election to consider how many of their supposedly eternal and cherished principles they should abandon if they were not to suffer yet another mauling at the polls. Foot came to the rostrum to defend nationalisation to, according to the Guardian, “a tremendous roar of applause”. At their 1960 Conference, in the debate on nuclear disarmament when Gaitskell promised to fight and fight and fight again, Foot “was given a clapping, stamping, cheering ovation as he took the microphone”. When the Labour whip was withdrawn from him, over the same issue of unilateralism, in 1961 it served only to reinforce the adoration in which he was held by Labour’s tireless left-wingers. Here, they drooled, was a man who could always be trusted, a steadfast martyr in the defence of what they imagined were the principles of socialism.  

In fact from the beginning Foot showed evidence that he was a lot more selective and flexible in his principles and his concern for working class interests. During his first spell as editor of Tribune (1948-52) the journal was critical of the Attlee government but as long as Bevan was a member of that government Tribune gave it general support. This stance caused it to support a number of obviously anti-working class measures, among them the NATO pact (the formal recognition of a nuclear-armed, European power bloc, dominated by American capitalism and aimed at Russian expansionism), the Berlin airlift (in response to an attempt by Russian capitalism to strengthen its position in Eastern Europe), and Britain joining the Korean War (a defence of the interests of western capitalism, in particular of America and Britain, against a threatened incursion by a developing capitalism in China). Anyone professing to be concerned with working class interests and with the international unity of the workers—especially anyone editing an influential journal like Tribune—had no argument for taking the side of any of the capitalist powers. They should have pointed out the nature of the conflicts and their underlying cause. They should have urged workers everywhere, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, to stay out of the disputes of their ruling classes and instead work for world-wide working class solidarity for socialism.  

Of course, Foot joined CND and was one of the few bigwigs to actually to complete the Easter march, as distinct from joining it briefly at a place chosen for its photo opportunity. His rebellious stand against those bits of Labour policy which he found it inconvenient to support landed him in frequent trouble with the whips. According to Castle, in June 1966 he was complaining that the Wilson government should have applied a “soak the rich” budget policy and that people like judges and doctors should have had a pay cut while the seamen (who were in dispute with the Labour government over their wages) had a good cause. In February 1968 he was willing to risk a defeat for the government rather than support their proposed expenditure cuts which, among other things, abolished free milk in secondary schools. As a result there was a general assumption that Foot would never be a member of any government, that he would never sell his principles in exchange for office.

Minister of Unemployment

However in the 1970s it became apparent that Foot was not, after all, entirely lacking in ambition. He stood three times for the Deputy Leadership before, in 1974, he became a minister. By that time he was re-established as an MP, after inheriting the old seat at Ebbw Vale of his hero Bevan. To bring Foot into the Cabinet was a typically Wilsonian masterstroke. After the three-day-week chaos of Heath’s battle with the miners, who better to put in charge of the Department of Employment with the clear and simple brief of buying the miners’ return to work? Wilson was trading on Foot’s reputation with the grass-roots and, whether Foot was aware of it or not, the ruse worked.

Two years later Wilson’s successor as Prime Minister, Callaghan, pulled yet another stroke when he made Foot leader of the House of Commons. At other times this would have seemed the unlikeliest of alliances; Foot had once called his new boss PC Callaghan and Callaghan had been in favour of Foot’s expulsion from the party. Those were difficult days for the Labour government as they struggled to weather some typical economic storms and to hold down wages, without the security of a reliable majority. It then became clear that Foot was not only a “great parliamentarian” but also a master of Commons procedure and of bending the rules in order to push through unpopular legislation. One trick he used to get approval for some cuts in expenditure was to make them the subject of a vote on the adjournment, the idea being that a defeat would have been interpreted as a rejection of the adjournment and not of the cuts. In 1978 Foot traded an extension of homosexual law reform—a concept which should have been dear to his libertarian heart—for the votes of the Ulster Unionists.

The difficulties of that government were largely those of holding back the wage claims which came in a flood after the years of restraint under Heath. Labour’s restraint had a different name; it was called a Pay Code and there were guidelines (that is, before the attempts at imposing the policy by law). The most active proponent of the government in its battles with the workers was Callaghan’s Leader of the Commons, described by Castle as “more rigid than Jim Callaghan was in his Chancellor days”. Obsessed with the need to keep in power a government which was industriously attacking working class living standards, Foot applied his ability to defuse and divert criticism. Castle recorded, whether in wonder or outrage is not clear, that at the 1975 Tribune rally Foot “even managed to make the pay policy sound like a socialist crusade”. He did not manage to work the sane trick over unemployment, to make being out of work sound like a crusade; which was just as well because during his time as Secretary of State for Employment unemployment doubled.

The Voters’ Judgement

When it came time for the voters to pass judgement on that Labour government it was clear that they did not have the same order of priorities as Foot. But was there really any need for the Labour Party to become so unhinged by their defeat as to elect Foot as their leader—as they hoped—for next Prime Minister? Was this what all those years of passionate rebellion had been for? Looked at in terms of the ugly game of capitalist politics this was arguably one of the most unwise decisions ever made, for whatever qualities Foot had they did not match up to what is considered necessary in a political leader. But Foot could not be accused of not trying; the aptitude for manoeuvring he showed in trying to keep his party In power was just as evident when he was trying to get them back in again. At the 1981 Labour Conference he assured cheering delegates that “nothing that I’ve seen persuades me that CND was wrong”. But any hopes among Labour’s unilateralists that at last they had a leader who would see to it that the British forces scrapped their nuclear weapons were soon dashed. Fifteen months later Foot was telling the Guardian (6 December 1982) that CND’s policy of immediate unilateral nuclear disarmament was, if not wrong, then only something for a vague future: “We want to move towards a non-nuclear defence programme”.

At the 1981 Conference, in a typical splurge of rhetoric, he described himself as “a peacemonger, an inveterate incurable peacemonger” but by the outbreak of the Falklands War in the following April his peacemongering had been cured enough for him to swallow the specious Tory propaganda about the war being in resistance to brutal Argentinian aggression and their repression of the islanders, assuring Thatcher in the Commons:

    “It is because I subscribe to that principle (sic) that I support the despatch of the task force”.

The militancy of his peacemongering was also measured by the revelation from the odious Robin Day that Foot had approved the sinking of the Belgrano which, as it cost the lives of a few hundred Argentinian rather than British workers, was not classified in this country as an act of brutal aggression.

Foot’s cynical groping for power came to its peak in the 1983 election when he enjoyed himself stumping the country, making fiery speeches to packed halls but not meeting with the approval of the image-conscious pros of his party. His legendary scruffiness had always been tolerated, for example by Callaghan who thought “that it springs from his unspoken assumption that these are but the trappings and that a man should be judged by the sincerity and passion of his convictions”. How then should we judge Foot’s submission to the image-makers who strove to create a more acceptable, a more voter-friendly appearance for him, barbering his hair, dressing him in smart suits and even replacing his famous spectacles with their blinkers with a more telegenic pair? It was, politically speaking, not a pretty sight and of course did not win the votes because Labour’s defeat at that election was their heaviest since 1931.

Squalid scene

And what of Foot since he relinquished the leadership for the more easeful life of a back-bencher with a solidly comforting majority? Has he been reborn as a fanatical lefty, a looming threat to the tea-rooms of Bournemouth and Tunbridge Wells? Since he was succeeded by Neil Kinnock (who in his younger days as a left-wing rebel was a protégé of Foot’s) the Labour Party has been trying, as much to Foot’s dismay it had done in 1959 to look as much like the Tories as it can. Once again they are debasing what the membership are supposed to cherish as immutable principles without which there is no reason to be in politics. In 1983 the party at least professed to have a timescale, however loose, for running down British nuclear weapons; now there is no such thing. They have abandoned the policy of “squeezing the rich” through taxation and replaced it with vague discussion of “fair” taxation (as if it matters either way). To the trade unions they offer no commitment to scrap all the restrictive Tory legislation but float the idea of a “balanced package” which is another name for the Social Contract, Pay Code and all other such attempts to restrain pay claims. Whatever opposition to these changes there has been in the Labour Party it has not been warmed by any incendiary words from Foot. He has sat mute and compliant and when the time comes he will undoubtedly give the whole disreputable exercise his active support, in speeches which will convince the disappointed Labour supporters that anti-working class policies are steps towards the Promised Land when all people will be free and equal.

Michael Foot is not unique, for there have been many other Labour leaders who have first established their credentials as heroes of the grass-roots and then exploited their popularity to justify policies which were clearly opposed to what they claimed to stand for. This is part of the continuing process in which the working class are deceived that this social system, and its political parties, do not have to be as they are but could be better under a different government, under more humane leaders. This is among the most dangerous of illusions, for it conceals the urgency of abolishing capitalism, at once and entirely. Foot is soon to leave this squalid scene and he has no cause to be proud of his contribution to it.

Ivan

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