Paul Foot

Can Labour win?

(March 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 118, March 1989, pp. 16–19.
Copyright © Estate of Paul Foot. Published on MIA with the permission of the Estate. Paul Foot Internet Archive ( 2005.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The fortunes of the Labour Party in the opinion polls has risen in recent weeks. But the party is still only about level with what should be a deeply unpopular Tory government. Many Labour supporters have concluded from this that Labour cannot succeed in winning the next election. Paul Foot looks at the reality.

WHEN THE Labour Party was first formed, and had to win votes from the Liberals, politics for Labour Party people was saying what you believed and persuading people to vote for it. Today, stricken by psephology, politics for Labour is finding out what most people believe and pretending to agree with them.

It sounds so logical. Political power, we are told, is winning elections. Surely, the way to win elections is to say what people think. Then they vote for you; you win an election, and you have political power.

The guide, therefore, is not politics, but polls. The polls tell us people don’t like divided parties so Labour cuts down on argument. The polls tell us people believe Britain should be defended. So former CND stalwarts suddenly conclude that since that nice Mr Gorbachev isn’t an enemy any more, we really need nuclear weapons in this country. Above all, the polls say that Labour is too extreme. So Labour must be moderate. Unless Labour is united, right wing and armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, it can’t win an election.

All through 1988 the polls showed an obstinate ten point Tory lead over Labour. The psephologists in the Labour Party draw from that a grim conclusion. Labour won’t win. Labour can’t win.

Some Labour supporters have decided to sit it out until the next defeat, hoping for some change after that. Others search for an elixir from the voting system itself: a different way of returning people to parliament, perhaps, or a pact with Paddy Ashdown.

No-one in all this scrambling talks politics. No-one even wonders what they think themselves. They find out what other people think, and move further and further right until there seems to be precious little difference between them and the Tory enemy.

Is it really the case that Labour can’t win? Is it really true that “old fashioned social democratic parties” are out of date in the late 1980s?

Anyone who says yes has not looked even as far as across the English Channel. Most of Europe today is dominated by social democracy. In Greece the social democratic PASOK has won the last two elections with handsome majorities. In Spain, the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) has done the same. In France in the 1980s there has only been a brief period of anything approaching Thatcherite conservatism. The French President calls himself a socialist. He beat the Tory Chirac by a substantial margin only last year.

In Germany there is a conservative government, not half as right wing as Thatcher’s. It has won the last two elections by narrow margins, but it is in deep distress. Within the last few weeks the German Tory Party (the CDU) lost nine percentage points of its vote in West Berlin, which it has held comfortably for 20 years.

The Social Democrats gained five points, and the same number of seats as the conservatives. In Italy for much of the 1980s the Prime Minister has been a social democrat.

Recent European Election Results*













































New Democracy


New Democracy




Christian Parties


* number of seats

There is nowhere in Europe where there is not a social democratic government or an excellent chance of one in the near future.

What explains this difference in the success record in the 1980s between British Labour and its European counterparts? Can it be that Britain has the smallest peasantry in Europe and possibly the world? It has a much smaller peasantry than its former colony Jamaica, which has just returned by a vast majority a social democratic government under a leader who was beaten out of sight eight years ago.

Perhaps it is poor Mr Kinnock’s unilateral disarmament policy which hangs (to borrow a cliche universally used by political correspondents) “like an albatross” round his neck? No doubt the champion social democratic leaders in Europe have all shot their albatrosses long ago.

No, not true either. The two most successful social democratic parties in Europe in the 1980s – the Spanish PSOE and the Greek PASOK – have gone to the electorate with strong anti-nuclear programmes, and (in the case of Greece) “a solemn pledge” to rid the country of the menace of American military bases.

So is there something in the history of British Labour which suggest a terminal decline in the Labour vote?

The closest parallel to the psephological pessimism which now saps Labour was in 1959, 1960 and 1961, in the period just after the Labour Party had been beaten three times in a row, each time by a bigger majority.

Familiar lamentations filled the air. People had “never had it so good”. The working class didn’t exist any more. If it did, it was only interested in what the New Statesman (then, as now, the leading left wing lamenter) called “the telly in the parlour and the mini on the kerb”.

For some reason, left wing intellectuals found special fault with that great liberator, the washing machine. Washing machines, it was widely declared, had sapped the voting loyalty of Labour women. Freed from the splendid old working class habit of washing garments by hand, they were listening to the radio and voting for Harold Macmillan.

A psephologist called Mark Abrams wrote a pamphlet entitled Must Labour Lose? He concluded that such were the changes in the class structure of Britain that Labour could never again win an election outright. Woodrow Wyatt, then a Labour MP in Leicestershire, and others who were even closer to the Labour leader, a fervent cold warrior called Hugh Gaitskell, demanded talks with the Liberal Party about electoral pacts.

The Tory majority in parliament in 1959 was slightly larger than it is today under Mrs Thatcher. The Tory share of the vote in 1959 was six points higher than Mrs Thatcher achieved in 1983 or 1987. The grip of the “never had it so good” philosophy seemed to be unshakeable.

Yet, very suddenly, at the end of those years, the whole Tory edifice fell apart. Macmillan started sacking

Cabinet Ministers all over the place. Labour climbed rapidly in the polls and overturned a huge Tory majority without any electoral pacts or proportional representation.

Did Labour achieve this miracle by declaring suddenly for an independent deterrent?

Not at all. It was, said Harold Wilson, “neither independent or a deterrent”. Labour ran an election campaign committed to scrapping the Polaris missile. He demonstrably won the argument with the Tories on the issue.

Was Harold Wilson to the right of Hugh Gaitskell?

Did he appear to the electorate as a more moderate, more responsible statesman who would be more welcome in the White House than Hugh Gaitskell?

Nothing of the kind. Wilson was a former chairman of the Tribune Group of left wing Labour MPs. He had made extravagant speeches against American and French imperialism in South East Asia.

He resigned from the Labour cabinet in 1951, arguing that money which Gaitskell wanted to spend on weapons should be spent instead on a free National Health Service and on aid to poor countries. His policy was not to abandon public ownership but to seize control of the “commanding heights of the economy”. It was not to tame the trade unions, but to allow free collective bargaining.

He signalled well before the election that an important member of any new Labour cabinet would be the militant, unilateralist leader of the Transport and General Workers Union, Frank Cousins.

Of course, Labour’s policy was not a socialist one. Indeed, Harold Wilson’s devious rhetoric was the language of “dynamic free enterprise” of “cutting the dead wood out of the boardrooms”, to replace old fashioned exploiters with new fashioned ones.

But at least in 1963 and 1964 Labour was not the whingeing, backtracking, excuse-peddling rump it had seemed in 1961, but a confident, aggressive and purposeful political party every bit as “left wing” as the more placid organisation which had gone down to defeat three times in the 1950s.

The facts of the Labour Party’s own history and the electoral facts in other European countries do not match the pessimism of the psephologists. Indeed even their own figures seem, as this is written, to contradict their own conclusions. In February 1989, the Gallup Poll, always the leader in the field, had to be checked three times before its omniscient organisers would allow it to be published. The psephologists had been talking for so long about Labour’s terminal decline, about the need for a middle ground party, about Mrs Thatcher’s political omnipotence that they could not believe their own figures.

In one month, Labour’s percentage of the vote jumped by an astounding five points. The Tories had dropped two; and the “impossible gap” – the gap which could only be breached by fumbling political neuters in the centre – was down from 8.5 to 1.5 percent.

Desperately, the psephologists sought an answer to this phenomenon. A second army of questioners were sent out into the field. Why had so many voters, without asking permission of Ivor Crewe or Peter Kellner, dared to change their minds in this unexpected direction?

The change had come before Mr Kinnock had started making noises in favour of keeping Polaris and Trident. Some comfort came from the answers on the Health Service. Mr Kenneth Clarke’s proposals for the “accountability” (profitability) of the NHS were, it was discovered, unpopular. But there was nothing surprising about that. Tory policies on the Health Service had always, all through the 1980s, been unpopular. So, for that matter, were their policies on water and electricity privatisation, on mortgages, the poll tax, on pretty well everything they were doing. An answer could not be found.

The electorate were fickle, unpredictable. They were changing, and not a psephologist in the country dared to predict whether they would go on changing or slip back again into that nice comfortable “mould”.

Psephology poses as science. It promotes professors, creates entire departments of politics in the universities. But it is not a political science at all. It is merely a record of what people think. It is almost useless as a record of why people think, and absolutely useless as a guide as to how people change their minds.

These matters are embedded in the political structure of a society, which is, for all the double talk on the left in recent years, still essentially and vitally a class society. How people think and vote depends upon their confidence and their aspirations. These will shift, often with startling speed, according to the ebb and flow of the struggle between the classes.

When one side wins, the other side loses. When one side is winning, their class confidence rises – while the confidence of their enemy falls. Victories and success for either side breed confidence – and the urge to continue the victories and success.

Those who say that unemployment and degradation are necessary conditions for socialism don’t understand the motor of social change. Empty stomachs and cold, bare homes lead far more often to despair and reaction than to insurrection and hope.

In general, then, the years of mass unemployment – the early 1930s for instance, or the early 1980s – are not Labour’s years. They are Tory years. When people lose confidence in themselves, they seek it elsewhere – in things which are theirs by accident like the colour of their skin. When people are fully employed, precisely when they have those washing machines, when they believe that their children will have a better life, then working class confidence increases, blossoms into cooperation, and reaches out for new ways to organise society.

Growing working class confidence has another effect. It pulls with it those who believe they are middle class: people who work for high wages and who dabble at the edge of the capitalist pool. These are the weather vanes of class society. When the workers are winning, the middle class flock to their standard. In the early 1970s London was full of middle class people leaping out of their Volvos demanding to know the way to the revolution. When the bosses are winning, those same people almost overnight become the most virulent opponents of all those who might take away from them the golden crumbs which fall to them from the booming Stock Exchange.

Elections in Britain, and anywhere else in the industrialised world, are won or lost by this middle class. One significant development in elections over the last thirty years has been the decline in the automatic allegiance to both the Tory and the Labour Party. As more and more people see themselves as middle class, so the fickleness of the electorate increases. This does not mean, as our psephologist would have it, that the struggle between the classes is less relevant to elections, and to politics generally.

On the contrary, if anything the state of the struggle is more relevant, since there are more floaters to be won for this side or for that. Mrs Thatcher, as a determined and class conscious fighter, knows that quite well. She knows that what wins elections for her are class victories in the field. She knew after 1983 that the way to sustain her unpopular government in office was to win on the most important battlefield of all. Once victorious, whether at Orgreave or at Wapping, she knew the majority of the waverers would stay with her.

The relationship between class confidence and voting, however, is not uniform, or bound by formula. Often, social democratic governments can win office in elections when the class they represent is being beaten.

The classic example in British history is the general election of 1929. Labour, in full flight after the miners strike, with its socialists in a hopeless minority, and its policy almost indistinguishable from that of the Liberals, won more seats than any other party, and formed a minority government.

Equally, when the working class is strong and confident, the results may not show themselves dramatically in elections. In 1974, for instance, when two miners strikes had been won, and all kinds of working class victories chalked up in the field, the Labour vote was even lower than it had been in 1970 (when they lost the election). A minority Labour government was formed after the Liberal Party had scored more heavily than at any other election since the war.

What is certain, however, is that the state of the class struggle determines how those governments behave. The 1929 government, elected in class weakness, was very quickly overwhelmed and annihilated. The defeat it suffered in 1931 after its leaders joined the Tories in a National Government, was the worst in the history of the party.

On the other hand, the minority government of 1974 was much stronger than it looked. It took five years of capitalist attacks, assisted by compromising and backstabbing from the trade union leaders to wear down the class victories of the early 1970s and to usher a revitalised and greedy Tory Party back into the trough.

This takes us to the last of the determinants of votes and elections: the steady drip-drip of Labour government failures throughout the century. There is a sort of ratchet whereby each Labour government apostasy pulls down the aspirations and confidence of people who vote Labour. There is an ocean between the genuine, if naive, belief even of men like Ramsay MacDonald in the 1920s that full blooded socialism could somehow be introduced by Labour government laws and the obsession with the “social market” which passes for modern Labour Party theory.

Each time a Labour government fails, it loses not just the next election but a great army of committed socialists and an army of committed voters. Those voters may come back. The act of voting requires so little commitment and effort that cowed and defeated workers may vote Labour, even in quite large numbers. But their expectation about what will come when they have voted Labour will be unfathomably lower than what they expected, say, in 1945.

For all these reasons, the present policy of the Labour leaders, determined as it is by the psephologists works against even their own miserable aspirations. Any policy of standing back from any struggle, of refusing to recognise that there is a struggle, even of attempting to dampen down any struggle, serves only to damage their own prospects in the long term.

When the nurses rose in fury against the government’s policy on the health service the reaction of even the best Labour protagonists such as Robin Cook was to disassociate themselves from the strike, even to urge the nurses back to work.

When the P&O workers for a fleeting moment, with the sudden and unexpected assistance of lorry drivers, looked as though they might break one of the nastiest Tory employers in the land, the Labour leaders kept their distance.

Again and again, on all sorts of issues, wherever a battle against the Thatcher government has loomed on the horizon, the Labour leadership has set full sail in the opposite direction. For them, there is no connection whatever between class struggle and their own electoral prospects. Indeed, as Neil Kinnock said on television early in February, there is, as far as he is concerned, no class struggle, nor even any classes.

His job, he said demurely, was to serve nation, not class. In this way the Labour Party leaders contribute to the stench of class defeat.

What can they hope for from such a policy? As the February Gallup poll shows, all is not necessarily lost to them. They may gain votes from Tory blunders.

But what are the consequences of this policy – of wait and see – of ducking the strikes for fear of being dubbed militants; of supporting the SAS in Gibraltar or in Ireland for fear of being dubbed unpatriotic; of seeking the back door to office as Manley and Papandreou and Gonzalez and Mitterrand have done?

The very most they can hope for, if all the political luck goes their way, is an electoral victory without a strong and confident working class – a recipe for another 1931, without the cushion of Empire to protect the British workers from the consequences.

Better to shoot and miss than not to shoot at all. Better to risk the abuse of the gutter press than to watch in the sidelines as another group of workers, another abortion campaign, another effort to pull the troops out of Ireland goes down to defeat. Defeat is not inevitable as the psephologists pretend.

It is the bright day that brings forth the adder. Even at its zenith, the Thatcher government is at its most vulnerable. Labour can win, and they can win in some strength if they support the struggles of their friends, build up the confidence of the workers and stop playing parlour games with their enemies.

Last updated on 1 July 2014