Thursday, 4 March 2010

Seumas Milne on Michael Foot: do the early 80s prove the Left is doomed?

Seumas Milne has written a very good assessment of Michael Foot, responding to the media myths about Foot and the 'Labour Left'. It's the best thing I've read - looking through the left blogs and other online comment - in the wake of Foot's death, aged 96. Milne provides a very clear political view, based on a sound understanding of the pressures the then Labour Party leader faced in the early 1980s - and, crucially, how he responded to them. In the course of this, Milne points to a different history of Labour's evolution rightwards to the one we're normally presented with. He writes:

'It is with Foot as emblem of the folly of the left and the dead end of Labour radicalism that the real mythology kicks in. In New Labour's version of history, more or less adopted wholesale in British public life, the sensible if tired administration of Jim Callaghan was brought down by mindless trade unionists, who then made common cause with a leftist Labour insurgency headed by Tony Benn. This unholy alliance took over the party and met its Waterloo – under Foot's leadership and the banner of the "longest suicide note in history" manifesto – in the disastrous election defeat of 1983. It then took the patient work of Neil Kinnock, John Smith and finally Tony Blair to bring Labour back to sanity and office 14 years later.

The reality was, of course, altogether different. By the time Callaghan took over in 1976, the western world's economies were tanking, the cabinet majority decided to go to the IMF and impose the most savage spending cuts since the 1930s, and the prime minister informed the Labour conference that governments could no longer spend their way out of recessions. Postwar social democracy was in crisis, and the choice was either to go for more radical forms of intervention or lurch towards pre-Thatcherite monetarism.

A demoralised Labour right opted for the latter, and forced through three years of the deepest real wage cuts in modern British history. The good work in government done by ministers such as Foot, in employment and union rights, or Benn, in taking public ownership of North Sea oil, was overwhelmed by the impact of such an attack on the living standards of Labour's core supporters – which in turn triggered the "winter of discontent" strikes by low-paid public sector workers in the early months of 1979.

They also paved the way for Margaret Thatcher's election, and a determination across the Labour party to prevent a repeat of such self-destructive folly by making its leaders more accountable. That in turn led to the bitter internal struggle between a left and right divided on everything from the US relationship and membership of the European Common Market to unilateral nuclear disarmament, public ownership and incomes policy.

Foot was naturally unable to bridge the divide, and in effect became a prisoner of Labour's dominant right wing, showing them a loyalty they never repaid. And the party's 1983 manifesto was certainly incoherent and over-ambitious, though its central programme of public investment, energy conservation, the nationalisation of irresponsible banks, tighter lending controls, corporate regulation, job creation and training and the cancellation of the Trident programme sounds hard to fault in the context of 2010.

But it was not the manifesto or even Foot that gave Labour its worst election result since 1931. Two other factors were far more important. The first was the Falklands war, which transformed Thatcher's poll ratings on a wave of jingoism (and was unwisely given unqualified support by Foot). The second was the schism in Labour and the breakaway of part of its leadership to form the media-feted Social Democratic party, which split the anti-Conservative vote and kept Britain's most socially destructive postwar prime minister in power for the rest of the decade.'

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