Second Last Leader

Ian Gilmour

  • Another Heart and Other Pulses: The Alternative to the Thatcher Society by Michael Foot
    Collins, 220 pp, £8.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 00 217256 9

The Labour Party was born in 1900, and died in 1983. There can be argument over the exact date of its death. Some may maintain that it did not die until about 1990, others that electorally it died in 1980 or even earlier. There will be similar controversy over the role of Michael Foot: did he lead it to its death or did he just accompany it? Was he one of the physicians who killed it, or was he merely the undertaker?

The most remarkable feature of Labour’s history is not its short life, but its striking lack of success during that life. It only managed one competent minority government (in 1923) and one outstanding majority government (in 1945). Paradoxically, if Labour had been even less successful – if, that is, the Attlee Government had not existed or had failed – the party might have lasted longer and might have achieved more as it grew older. But much as some public schoolboys never recover from their time at school and regard those years as the best of their lives, so many socialists got stuck in the allegedly golden years of good King Clem. Michael Foot – though, together with Richard Crossman, he was wrongly excluded from the Attlee Government – is one such. In consequence, Foot the politician is not fully integrated with Foot the man. Whereas the rest of Foot is clever, subtle, charming, broad-minded and living in the present, Foot the politician is often crude, harsh and dogmatic, has narrowed his mind and is still living in the immediate post-war years with many a backward glance to the Thirties. Only over nuclear weapons has this Foot progressed beyond the Forties and then only as far as the CND of the late Fifties.

Labour was certainly unlucky. Any party which was in office in 1931 here or elsewhere took a long time to recover. Labour was unlucky again in 1951, when it narrowly lost and so forfeited the chance of office during the stable and prosperous Fifties. And when the party was lucky, as in 1964 and 1974, it had a leader who was good at winning elections but had little idea what to do when he had won them. Still, bad luck is not enough to explain Labour’s dismal record. After all, the social composition of the country was for much of Labour’s life heavily in its favour. Labour claimed to represent the workers, and because of the virtual absence of a peasantry, Britain had a higher percentage of these than other comparable countries. The Labour Party also had the benefit of the support of some of the country’s cleverest people. Unfortunately, the workers had little liking for the medicine prescribed for them by those clever people, and that is the key to the party’s failure.

Labour has always been two parties. It has been a small party of socialists: the genuine socialists who wished to substitute a society based on co-operation for one based on competition, and the bastard variety who wished to establish a state capitalist dictatorship on the Russian model. And it has been a much larger party of labourites: people who called themselves socialists but whose objective was to improve the lot of the workers and the poor by a far-ranging programme of social reform. As well as the unpopularity of socialism, the party faced the additional difficulty that it is impossible to establish genuine socialism by Parliamentary means – or, so far as is known, by any earthly means whatever. As a rule these difficulties were surmounted by downgrading the importance of socialism at election times. Thus in the 1929 election programme ‘socialism’ was not mentioned. Harold Wilson went even further. In his two broadcasts during the 1966 Election he did not even mention ‘Labour’ though he, had time to mention ‘Britain’ 42 times and ‘government’ 39 times. In other words, Labour leaders over the years consistently thought it more important to please the voters than to pander to their party activists.

With the country’s social composition ceasing to favour Labour – with the exception of 1966 it has been in continuous electoral decline since 1951 – profound changes in the party’s attitudes would probably have been needed to woo the electorate. But in the event the party chose to move away from – not towards – the voters. Wilsonian ‘pragmatism’ and the unsuccessful Wilson Governments produced a stronger than usual socialist backlash. Socialist zealots became increasingly powerful in the party, and the emphasis shifted towards pleasing the activists and ignoring the voters. That essentially is what Bennery is all about. The socialist purity and’democracy’ of the Party Conference must be upheld at all costs, and to hell with the voters. The natural consequences were, first, the founding of the SDP, and second, Labour’s débâcle in the 1983 Election, when in votes, though not in seats, it did even worse than in 1931. Michael Foot chose to preside over the climax of this ruinous process, though he still does not seem fully to understand it. His aim here ‘is to offer a series of reflections, both jointed and disjointed, on the British political scene of the 1980s’. The book has many felicitous touches and the decency of the man comes through, but his political limitations are sharply revealed and little light is shed on the political scene.

Given the battering he received, Mr Foot’s dislike of the right-wing press is understandable and justified. Even an admirer of our popular papers, if such an improbable figure can be imagined, could scarcely have been proud of their performance during the election. What would they have been like, one wonders, if Labour had ever shown any signs of coming within sight of winning? All the same, the attention Mr Foot devotes to the press is disproportionate. There are 18 references to the Sun, 18 to the Daily Express, and 23 to the Daily Mail. In contrast, Mr Benn is mentioned just three times. Some thirty years ago Mr Foot’s hero, Aneurin Bevan, said that Britain had ‘the most prostituted press in the world’. No doubt the fallen woman has fallen even lower since then: Mr Foot writes of ‘the Fleet Street Gresham’s Law whereby the Murdochs drag so much of the rest of the press down to the same level’. No doubt, too, the balance of the press is more against Labour than it was in the past. Yet the deterioration has not been so great as to make the present popular press – to change the metaphor – a very different animal from what it was in, say, Lord Beaverbrook’s time, and Mr Foot was a great friend and employee of Beaverbrook’s.

His complaints against the ‘personal venom and malice’ of ‘Mrs Thatcher’s beknighted friends in the press’ – he retains something of a soft spot for Mrs Thatcher herself – strike home, but lengthy quotations from old newspaper reports do not make exciting reading. More to the point, Mr Foot ascribes far too much importance to Fleet Street’s contribution to Labour’s downfall. ‘I have here been able,’ he writes,‘to adopt the advantage of hindsight and longer perspectives.’ But the advantage is difficult to spot. To take a trivial example, Foot makes much of the press’s refusal to print in full his nuclear statement of 12 May, stressing that it was designed to be read in that way, since the use of parts of it would show that he and Mr Healey were at loggerheads. The statement is reprinted in this book. It begins: ‘Labour believes in a strong defence for Britain and Britain’s allies ... Labour aims to make Britain strong enough with her allies to counter a conventional attack without resort to nuclear weapons.’ Since we are notoriously not strong enough to do that at present, those words meant, if they meant anything, that Labour would spend more money on conventional defence. Yet a little later we find: ‘Britain is spending far more of her resources on defence than her European Nato allies. So we intend to reduce Britain’s share of the burden of Nato’s defence ... ’ Clearly, the press did Foot a favour in not printing his statement in full, and even with hindsight he cannot see the contradiction in it.

More important, Mr Foot does not bring ‘long-term perspectives’ to Labour’s long-term decline and fall. His obsession with the media prevents him from giving proper consideration to his party’s rout. The subtitle to his book is ‘The Alternative to the Thatcher Society’ and the last chapter is called ‘The Hopes Next Time’. But the first third of even that chapter is devoted to the subject of public-opinion polls. No alternative that the British people would ever vote for emerges from these pages, and no Labour reader is likely to put them down without having his hopes of victory next time severely dented.

Mr Foot deals frankly with the question of whether he should have resigned just before the election was called and handed over to Denis Healey, as Mr Hayden had resigned in Australia and – with great benefit to the Australian Labour Party – made way for Mr Hawke. Despite Mr Foot’s standing in the polls and the clear implication that under his leadership Labour was doomed to heavy defeat, he ‘never discussed the real issue with anyone and thought it wrong that I should’. No less astonishingly, only two members of the Parliamentary Party, Jeff Rooker and Gerald Kaufman, had the courage to tell him to his face that he ought to go. Just how many Labour MPs said it to each other and to lobby correspondents we shall never know. But clearly the party that strongly believes in collective action for the public good was here incapable of mounting collective action for its own good. Bearing in mind the (abortive) plot against Wilson in the Sixties, when he was Prime Minister, and was far from being the electoral liability that Foot undeniably was, the general paralysis of the Labour Party needs some explanation. Presumably the paralysis was part of its wider illness. Much of it preferred to remain left and lose overwhelmingly with Foot than move right and fare better with Healey.

Michael Foot gives two reasons why he decided to remain as leader. Neither of them, surely, would have survived the process of discussion which he had denied himself. One was that, if he had gone, ‘the future choice of leadership would more than ever have been forced into a central place in the electoral debate.’ But nobody believed that Mr Foot would survive as leader after a Labour defeat, so ‘the future choice of leadership’ was bound to be a matter of speculation whether he or Denis Healey led the party during the election. The second and principal reason was that Mr Foot was ‘not eager on ... general grounds of principle ... to be butchered to make a Press Lords holiday’, and to allow the hostile press to ‘present themselves as the victors’. This is little more than frivolous. The one thing the right-wing press, and indeed the whole Conservative Party, hoped for was that Foot would remain leader. Had he handed over to Denis Healey, Fleet Street might have claimed victory, but it would have been appalled. At best, it would have been the victim of its own success and lost its cherished Aunt Sally. In any case, the glee that an action may or may not afford the popular press is scarcely a reliable guide to the making of sensible decisions. But the important question of why he stood for the leadership in the first place is not explained. Foot the man must have known that he was ill-fitted for the job: Foot the politician allowed himself to be persuaded. Presumably, as he ungraciously says of others, he became one of those ‘politicians whose ambition clouds their vision’.

Never having achieved office, Mr Foot was from 1945 to 1974 a socialist. As a prominent member of the Wilson and Callaghan Cabinets and deputy leader of the party, he was involved in all the compromises of the years from 1974 to 1979 and became a pragmatist. On becoming leader, he became a socialist again. He does not seem to realise that these changes lost him the trust of the Far Left without giving him the respect of the voters. He roundly states that the belated action of the Social Democrats in leaving Labour ‘was treachery’, though in a 1982 lecture reprinted in this book he said that it was impossible to learn the lessons of history ‘if one always seeks to see it in terms of personal treachery and malice’. He evidently does not see what a wrench from the past, and from Labour’s past, was the party’s espousal of unilateral nuclear disarmament. Nor does he see that much of the rest of Labour’s left-wing programme was no less repugnant to many of Labour’s traditional voters.

He is aware, however, of the dimensions of Labour’s electoral disaster, and uses the drastic expression ‘rebirth’. Will that happen? Superficially, at least, the opportunity is there. The Conservative Government has run into a certain amount of trouble, and the Alliance, having achieved the best vote for any centre party since the Twenties, immediately set about organising a re-run of the Asquith-Lloyd George split. Mr Steel has a party but does not seem anxious to lead it: Dr Owen is anxious to lead but has no party. Nevertheless the difficulties faced by Labour’s opponents are small compared with Labour’s own. More than ever is Labour two parties. And the one that will never gain electoral support is in the ascendant. In much of the southern half of the country Labour occupies a derisory place. By becoming leader in 1980 and accompanying the party without protest on its quick march leftwards, Mr Foot helped to kill Labour. The voters are unlikely to believe in a rebirth.