|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
A different kind of Labour Party leader
Michael Foot: Peace & Socialism
Exhibition: Working Class Movement Library, Salford
Reviewed by Paul Gerrard
WHEN ED Miliband was elected as leader of New Labour at this year’s conference, among the first to endorse him was Neil (now Lord) Kinnock. Kinnock approvingly quoted a trade union leader as saying: ‘Now we’ve got our party back’. We might well ask: who stole it? Or even: who gave it away? And to whom? But Kinnock was not forthcoming. However, Kinnock’s endorsement is enough to confirm socialists in their view that the new New Labour Party is not about to lurch to the left.
Kinnock’s predecessor, Michael Foot, who died in March this year aged 96, was a very different kind of Labour Party leader, and led the party at a time when it was most definitely swinging to the left. His life is the subject of a recent exhibition at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford: Michael Foot: Peace and Socialism.
Foot was a radical who came to left politics after university. From the 1930s onwards, his career alternated between politics, on the one hand – several terms as MP for Plymouth Devonport and then Ebbw Vale, a minister under Harold Wilson, Labour Party leader from 1980-83 – and journalism, on the other – columnist or editor on the Evening Standard, Daily Herald and Tribune, the paper of the non-Marxist left in the party. The exhibition captures this perfectly.
Alongside bleached copies of Tribune from the 1960s and 1970s, and Foot’s literary works on Jonathan Swift, Lord Byron and others, a wall panel displays selected statements from his speeches and interviews. Some of these one-liners are breathtaking in their radicalism. When did we last hear a Labour leader state such words as these?: "Socialism without public ownership is nothing but a fantastic apology’ (1956); "In my opinion, Marxism is a great creed of human liberation" (undated); "Is the Labour Party to remain a democratic party in which the right of free criticism and free debate is not merely tolerated but encouraged?" (1954)
In parliament, Foot was a frequent rebel. In 1961 he had the Labour whip withdrawn, only returning to the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1963. He refused the offer of a ministerial post in Wilson’s 1964 Labour government. He led backbench opposition to the government’s moves to restrict immigration, to take Britain into the Common Market (precursor of the European Union), and to ‘reform’ the trade unions.
As late as 1980, when he became Labour Party leader, Foot stated that "most liberties have been won by people who broke the law". Yet it was under his leadership that the editorial board of Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) was expelled. And it was under Kinnock, Foot’s protégé and successor, that party membership was withdrawn from the Militant supporting Labour MPs, Terry Fields and Dave Nellist, for not paying the Tories’ hated poll tax.
How did this happen? Foot’s role in the party changed in the 1970s. He took the post of employment secretary in Wilson’s 1974 government and, incredibly by today’s standards, was responsible for reversing anti-trade union legislation passed by the Tories. He also introduced the Health and Safety at Work Act and legalised the closed shop, which allowed for trade union membership to be a condition of employment in a workplace and/or industry. But, as Tony Benn (who took a left-reformist position) and the Marxist left around Militant came into the ascendancy in the Labour Party, Foot found himself squeezed between them and the right wing. After Benn was narrowly beaten by Denis Healey for the deputy leadership in 1981, Foot sided more and more with the right wing. Notwithstanding his earlier defence of Marxism and insistence on democratic debate, he supported the witch-hunt, to his eternal shame.
A significant part of the exhibition, and the video montage which accompanies it, concerns his contribution to the peace movement. In 1958, Foot was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and regularly took part in the annual Aldermaston march. Unlike others Foot remained, in his own words, an "inveterate peace-monger" till the end of his life.
Like many in CND, however, he misguidedly put his faith in the United Nations. For example, in 1960 he said: "A Britain which denounced the insanity of the nuclear strategy would be in a position to direct its influence at the United Nations and in the world at large, in a manner at present denied us". Nevertheless, he remained a firm and high-profile member of CND at a time when the call for unilateral nuclear disarmament was out of fashion in the Labour Party, and he sharply condemned the invasion of Iraq – his Hyde Park speech on 15 February 2003 can be heard on the video.
The exhibition also exposes a particular weakness: his failure to recognise the class enemy. Foot could be devastatingly acerbic in relation to some Tories. He memorably reminded Norman (Lord) Tebbit that: "It is not necessary that every time he rises [to speak in parliament] he should give his famous imitation of a semi-trained polecat". But personal friendships with Tory MPs - through shared literary interests - are difficult to understand, still harder to justify. Worse still was his willingness to share public platforms with the racist Enoch Powell in the campaign against the Common Market. This showed a serious misjudgement, as well as a failure to analyse the situation from a class point of view.
Foot was held in great esteem and affection by older workers in the movement. This exhibition reflects that warmth through some of the objects displayed here: Foot’s outsize glasses, a battered typewriter, a conference delegate’s credential from which Foot blinks myopically. In some ways, this affection seems strange: like Tony Blair he was an Oxford-educated, ex-public schoolboy, and like Ralph Miliband, whose sons Ed and David recently battled it out for the New Labour leadership, he lived the life of a bourgeois intellectual, remote from the concerns of working people. Yet his rebel past, his lifelong support for CND, and his acknowledged gifts as a speaker, guaranteed him a special status among Labour Party supporters. To some extent, Wilson, Healey and others on the right wing knew this and traded on it. He allowed them to, in what he mistakenly thought were the wider interests of the party and the movement.
Andrew Price, writing in the October edition of Socialism Today (The Road to New Labour), recounted his experiences as an active Marxist in the Labour Party in the 1980s under Neil Kinnock. In doing so he captured a particular moment in the degeneration of that party from a classic bourgeois workers’ party, with its social-democratic programme, to the openly bourgeois party of today. It could be argued that Michael Foot was the last in a line of social-democratic leaders who leaned for support on Britain’s powerful workers’ organisations, developed social legislation and denounced the worst excesses of imperialism.
Kinnock, on the other hand, can be seen as the first of a new line of openly pro-capitalist leaders. The fault line in the Labour Party was never fully exposed until Blair came to power in 1997, by which time the journey towards New Labour – the abolition of Clause Four Part IV of the party’s constitution, the extinction of internal democracy, the marginalisation of the trade unions, etc – was complete. Through this small but carefully and cleverly put together exhibition we can see just how far Labour has come to get to its present state.
Note: an obituary of Michael Foot by Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary, can be viewed on the Socialist Party website: Michael Foot - the end of an era