Paul Foot

No challenge, no change

(July 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review 121, July/August 1989, pp. 10–11.
Copyright © Estate of Paul Foot. Published on MIA with the permission of the Estate. Paul Foot Internet Archive ( 2005.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The two year wait for Labour’s Policy Review is over. Labour now claims it is ready to “make the change”, ready to “meet the challenge” of the 1990s. Paul Foot here argues that any change has been towards the right and unity around Kinnock – change that offers neither a trace of socialism nor a hope for socialists.

A LONG time ago people joined the Labour Party to make the world a better place. The early Labour Party policy statements and manifestos held out the prospect of changing the world by replacing the capitalist system with a socialist system. The ideas were put down in writing so that they could persuade other people of the socialist case.

Some modern idealists imagine that that is the task of Labour policy statements today. They should take time off (it will have to be a lot of time I’m afraid because the document is written in the most turgid style I have ever had the misfortune to come across) to read Meet the Challenge, Make the Change the climax of Labour’s long policy review. The document is fantastically described in a sub-head, A new agenda for Britain.

It is not about a new Britain at all, nor does it include a single political argument which its authors want to win. Its purpose is to fit in with what people already think, or want, or imagine they think they want. It is a product of the polls hysteria which has overpowered all modern Labour leaders. For them political propaganda, policy statements, manifestos are exclusively designed to win elections by telling people what they want to hear. The section on nuclear weapons, which is understandably kept to last, is a sublime example of that. It starts with a scathing attack on Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

“It is inaccurate to describe Britain’s nuclear capability as a deterrent. If the Soviet Union were not deterred by the immense nuclear arsenal of the United States, it certainly will not be deterred by Britain’s nuclear capability, constituting 4 percent of the total.”

This common-sense demolition of the nuclear deterrent theory for Britain must surely lead the document to propose the cancellation of British nuclear weapons projects. It leads to exactly the opposite. Britain, it concludes, will keep its Polarises and its Tridents under a Labour Government, not because they deter anyone, still less because they might ever be used (the document promises “no first strike” and if you don’t strike first with these things you don’t strike at all), but because they are there.

“Labour will immediately seek to place all of Britain’s nuclear capability”, promises the document, “into international disarmament negotiations”. The weapons will be useful only in so far as they can play a part in getting rid of themselves and other weapons in international negotiations.

But wait a minute. If the weapons don’t deter the Russians, or anyone else, who is going to take the blindest bit of notice of them in international negotiations?

No one but a fool would be persuaded by that argument. But the section has nothing to do with argument or persuasion. The whole point is that unilateral nuclear disarmament is deemed by the polls to be unpopular at election times.

An argument therefore has to be found for keeping nuclear weapons. It does not matter a scrap whether or not the authors or even the Labour leaders are convinced by the argument.

The same sort of approach infects the section of the policy review about economic policy. Twenty five years ago (1964) Labour’s manifesto said this:

“None of these aims (full employment, industrial expansion, a sensible distribution of industry, an end to traffic chaos, lower prices or a solution of the balance of payments problem) will be achieved by leaving the economy to look after itself. They will only be achieved by socialist planning.”

There then followed a long passage on a proposed National Plan which, it was hoped, would take the economy by the throat and push and pull it in a socialist direction. Now listen to this new policy review:

“The Japanese realise, as we do, that in very many areas of the economy the market and competition are essential in meeting the demands of consumers, promoting efficiency and stimulating innovation, and often the best means of securing all the myriad, incremental changes which are needed to take the economy forward; but they also realised that the market had to be directed and managed within an industrial strategy developed in consultation with government.”

The National Plan has turned into “consultation” with government, or what the document in one of its more alluring subheadings proclaims is “a new partnership with business’’. Most of the argument in this section attacks the failure of market forces – the unemployment, the lack of training, the abuse of the environment etc. etc. But the conclusion is almost exactly the opposite: that the market works well enough, and needs only to be seduced or chivvied a little by government.

Although the argument is against private enterprise and the free market, the policy is very much in favour of both because that is what the polls say the people want and they must have what they want through a new Labour government.

Another example is the “strategy for the private sector” in health. “We are”, the document proudly announces, “opposed to the private practice. It is inefficient and wasteful of resources, provides a very limited range of services, and is heavily concentrated in a few areas in the country.”

Quite. On and on run the arguments leading inexorably to a “strategy” which would abolish private practice. But no. “We intend to make the NHS so good that the need for private practice will disappear.”

And in the meantime? The private sector stays.

Why? Not because anyone who writes the document or speaks up for the Labour Party wants it to – but because, it is argued, the majority think people have a “right” to privileged health treatment, and therefore it is better not to propose what pretty well everyone in the Labour Party knows is the right and proper policy.

When it comes to specific policies about big questions, the manifesto is strangely silent. It excels, as did all its predecessors, in flowery pledges which no one knows how to fulfil and no one has the slightest intention of fulfilling. Among these I cite two famous old favourites: “We shall get interest rates down” (p. 13). “We made explicit our commitment to rid Britain of the scourge of unemployment” (p. 9).

Mark these two beauties down, and wait. The Labour manifesto of 1964 promised to bring down interest rates, and the Labour government raised them from 5 to 7 percent in its fifth week of office. The Labour manifesto of 1974 promised to rid Britain of the scourge of unemployment, but doubled unemployment within two years of getting into office.

This fundamental objection applies to the whole document. Of course there are several small and specific reforms in it which will improve life a little for some people.

However, the ghost which has dogged all other Labour programmes dogs this one too. Howare such things to be carried out if me ruling class turns hostile (as it always does)? Is there really a snowball in hell’s chance of even the most modest of these proposals being passed through parliament by a government which is, in effect, being governed by hostile forces more powerful than itself?

On this question the document is entirely silent. Years have been spent putting together all these hundreds of detailed proposals, yet not a moment’s thought has been spared for the question, how are they going to be carried out?

In one astonishing passage the document promises: “We will present our manifesto to the British people and, when elected, will carry out the mandate we have been given.”

That is extraordinary. It will, if it happens, be the first time in the whole history of the world that any such thing has been achieved by a social democratic or working class party in parliamentary office.

It won’t happen. The challenge will not be met. The change will not be made. And this document, like so many others in the past, with all its rotten language and treachery to its own argument, will take its place in the pantheon of forgotten aspirations and lost illusions.

Last updated on 26.9.2013