Bernard Crick, author of the life of Orwell which is reviewed in this issue, gives his opinion of the Labour Left
In one sense, nothing has changed. As we move into the Era of Foot, the Labour Party remains what it always was: a coalition of trade unions, working-class institutions and middle-class intellectuals (or men and women who have become middle-class by rising up).
During the Labour leadership crisis, the political correspondents in the press had to move quickly from the ‘basic threat’ of Benn to the scarcely less frightening terror of Foot. Not just the Times and the popular Conservative press but the Observer and even the leader page of the Guardian demonstrated, once again, how much political correspondents act as if they were part of politics – rather than observers or analysts. Almost to a man, they supported Healey, fearing a vast swing to the left. I remember years ago talking at a New Year’s Eve party to a Scottish journalist who had just come south to join the Times Parliamentary team. ‘What do you think of your colleagues?’ I asked. ‘They’re all politicians manqué.’
After the First Day of Foot, these politicians of the media realised that they had gone too far. Then out came all the old stuff about the Labour Party being a coalition, about the inevitable moderating influence of power (a liberal view that the Manchester Guardian once took when Hitler became Chancellor) and about socialism as the rhetoric of the Labour Party. There was even a hasty attempt to redraw Michael Foot as a moderate, a nice old thing who had had a wild youth, a sheep in wolf’s clothing. This reappraisal, however grotesque, may in part have been motivated by a sudden desire to be analytical and reasonably truthful, after all the intoxicating polemics: but in part, too, it would have involved the prudent, politic fear that if Foot is now leader of the Labour Party he might well be the next prime minister, and that things had been said which, if not retracted, would close doors rather than open them.
The Labour Party is indeed a coalition, and Michael Foot is indeed a moderate: but both terms need defining. A coalition does not necessarily have to be led from the centre: it has to be led, however, by someone who genuinely understands, even if he does not share, the prejudices and interests of other sections. And besides, there is often a great difference in politics between what is acceptable and what is agreeable (Healey probably lost the leadership on that distinction). Self-styled men of the centre do not always tolerate associated viewpoints – sometimes the very contrary: they claim that they themselves represent the consensus of public opinion, so that they have the People as well as Reason on their side, and that all others are extremists, threatening to wreck the party rather than ‘keep it on course’ or ‘hold it down to earth’. Michael Foot is a moderate, but he is a moderate socialist – not a moderate in Rees-Mogg’s and Ronald Butt’s sense. Theirs is a sense which relates to the whole political spectrum. To Moggish minds, ‘centre’ seems to mean ‘right’, and it is only the left they fear.
The words ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ are meaningless unless it is clear whether one is talking within the context of the electorate as a whole or within that of one or other of the political parties. What so often happens is that someone who believes in a more egalitarian society, or believes that all inequalities have to be justified – some can be, many can’t – or who believes in a common system of education, in industry rather than finance, in increasing public investment in and control of industry, in a radically more egalitarian system of wages and a distributionist approach to the inheritance of capital, and who may even talk (like Benn) about workers’ control or co-operatives in industry – that someone who holds such views is labelled ‘extremist’. And quite right too, of course, in one sense, but the implication may be that he is extreme about means as well as ends: totalitarian. This does not follow. To be precise, Michael Foot’s love of Parliament and of Parliamentary procedures is as deep as his radicalism. The vast majority of the Labour movement share this point of view. If there are now many extra-parliamentary forces, they are not necessarily or in the main anti-parliamentary. Parliament has no monopoly of politics, only a predominance when it attracts respect.