Paul Foot

Will Labour make a difference?

(November 1991)

From Socialist Review, No.147, November 1991, pp.8-11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Electoral politics are set to dominate in the coming months. Labour’s fortunes once again seem to have revived since their dip in the summer. Here Paul Foot argues why a Labour vote is important but why we can expect very little from a Kinnock government

THE WHEEL of party politics is turning. The Tory government is in the most dreadful mess. Every bound for freedom seems to land its baffled ministers deeper in the mire. Each attempt since Thatcher’s sacking to rush to the polls – January, June, November – has been thwarted by a dramatic by-election reversal or a sudden shift to Labour in the opinion polls. At the Tory conference the only real cheers were for Lady Macbeth herself, gloating and whimpering at the distress she was inflicting on her former colleagues.

Labour had a good conference. Everyone agrees on that. Even the most reactionary political correspondents praised a ‘responsible’ speech from Neil Kinnock. Voices of dissent were effectively blurred by the architecture of the conference platform, specially designed to highlight the ‘new team,’ and the natural reluctance of delegates to rock this suddenly sturdy boat. Everywhere among socialists, there is a frisson of excitement that at last it looks as if the Tories are on the way out, and that for the first time in many peoples’ adult lives, the British people will elect a Labour government.

Almost everywhere, however, that excitement is muted by a feeling of unease at the price Labour has paid to achieve this winning position. This unease is not confined to the increasing band of socialists who have been flung out of the Labour Party; nor to the hundreds of Labour Party socialists who have signed the open letter denouncing Labour’s retreats. Almost any socialist must be worried by the grim, determined effort of the leadership to wipe every vestige of socialism from the party’s programme. A former commitment to get rid of nuclear weapons, which were ostensibly there to deter an enemy, has been replaced by an almost maniacal determination to keep those weapons when there is no enemy to deter. Former commitments to repeal all anti-trade union laws and to take back into public ownership the monopolies Thatcher privatised have been replaced by half-promises to restore some union privileges, and to buy 2 percent in British Telecom (provided the Tories don’t sell off another batch, as they plan to do).

AFTER RETREATS like this, isn’t it true, as one socialist said at a conference fringe meeting, ‘that there really isn’t any difference between Labour policies and Tory ones?’

The answer comes back at once: of course there is a difference. Just to take a handful at random from the Brighton conference: a pledge to introduce a Freedom of Information Act, a pledge to abolish the House of Lords, a pledge to wipe out the infamous NHS Hospital Trusts, a pledge to change the law which allows convictions on the basis of uncorroborated confessions. Nor is the difference only on specific policies. Anyone watching the two conferences can tell at once that one is pro-trade union, pro-poor, pro-reform while the other is reactionary to the core: anti-union, racialist, militaristic and sanctimonious.

The differences in the conferences reflect the fundamental difference between the two organisations. The Tory Party is financed by banks and big business. Its economic strategy is to protect profits and its ideology is based therefore on the most relentless legal and moral disciplines for those who do the work. The Labour Party came into being to represent trade unions in parliament. The unions still have the decisive vote on policy, on the National Executive and on finance. The difference between the parties is in the class base of their origins and their support. Employers vote Tory; workers vote Labour. Of course individuals from each section cross over to the other side, but the class differential between the parties is plain for all to see.

This is the background to the familiar cry which is raised at election times by principled socialists who are shocked at the betrayals of the Labour leadership. ‘There is no difference between them’ they cry. ‘Don’t Vote!’ The act of abstentionism, perhaps a little flurry of excitement as a ballot paper is spoiled or even burned, is held out as a grand gesture of principle.

To most of the ten million people who always vote Labour, though, it comes across as an act of betrayal. For of all the obvious differences between the two parties, the most obvious is that if the Tories win, reactionaries and employers throughout the land rejoice – and celebrate their rejoicing in more wretchedness for the dispossessed. If Labour wins, the workers feel more confident. So the abstainers cut themselves from any further argument or discussion. Their principles are reserved only for themselves.

SO SOCIALISTS, quite rightly, vote Labour. They do so out of instinctive solidarity with the party which draws its support from the dispossessed, and is founded on the organised working class. But what then? Does it follow from a Labour vote that society will change for the better? Surely, at the very least, a different political atmosphere will be created, a collective, trade union sort of atmosphere which will contrast very pleasantly with Thatcher’s grim decade?

The answer to those questions have very little to do with who supports the Labour Party, who votes for it and what its leaders say to conferences. The answers go to the very root of the illusion which dominates politics in all the Western democracies. The illusion is that governments get elected on policies, which they are then at liberty to put into practice. The party writes the programme. The people vote for it. The party then forms a government which turns those policies into the law of the land.

This was the grand idea of the ‘representative democracy’ which first stirred in England in the revolution of the 17th century, and was taken up with much more force at the time of the French Revolution. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man denounced all governments which were not chosen by the people. To the government of the day, which was chosen by a handful of brigands and courtiers, this was dangerous subversion, and Paine was sentenced to death for it. Similarly, when the Chartists in the late 1830s and 1840s demanded the vote as part of an organised working class movement of strikes and physical force, the rulers set their faces firmly against the proposal.

The idea of a representative democracy is essentially distasteful to a class of people who owe their wealth to the process of robbing the majority. Exploitation of the many by the few is the most hideously undemocratic process imaginable. How could the minority exploiters agree to a system where the majority can vote?

After the Chartists were beaten in open class warfare, the British ruling class, then the strongest and most cunning in the world, applied itself to this question. It was obviously impossible forever to resist the popular demand for the vote. Was it not possible, however, to concede the vote bit by bit, making sure that the concessions coincided with relative industrial peace, and above all making sure that as each new concession led to new governments, those governments could be constrained against any action which would threaten the wealth and power of the ruling class? So, for a hundred years (1867-1970) the vote was conceded piecemeal. Governments were elected of many different colours; but the real power, especially the economic power, stayed exactly where it was.

The result was that the representative system was deprived of the very essence of representation: the ability of the government to act in the interests of the people who voted for it. How was this done? By keeping tight in the clutches of the ruling class the areas in society where real decisions were made and acted upon. Industrialists who in a day could decide the real fate of thousands if not millions of workers were not affected by the elections. They remained in charge of their industries. So did the banks, which by a flick of the wrist could transfer billions of pounds and ‘bankrupt Britain.’ The media moguls were free after the election as well as before it to blabber on incessantly about the Red Menace. Judges and civil servants gloried in the fact that they were not elected. Army officers and police chiefs were rarely threatened by a change of government, even when they were openly hostile to that government. All these people came from the same class. They had real power, and were prepared to use it to protect their class against any elected government. Thus the parliaments (which were quickly set up all over the world as soon as the success of the British experiment became obvious to other rulers) became, in Lenin’s phrase, ‘mere talking shops.’

The British Labour Party is nearly a hundred years old. It has formed the government many times. The most consistent theme of all those governments has been their impotence to act on behalf of the people who elected them.

The most obvious example is the biggest issue of all: unemployment. Every Labour leader promised to end ‘the scourge of unemployment’, as Labour’s first Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald put it. Under MacDonald’s government, unemployment tripled in two years. Why was that? His ministers did not want to increase unemployment. But they had absolutely no control over it. It rose on the high tide of capitalist recession, whose vicious consequences were quite outside the control of governments.

Again, every Labour leader says he is a ‘peacemonger’, but a peacemonger Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee took the decision, without even consulting the Cabinet, to make the British atom bomb. Wars of all kinds – such as the US war in Vietnam – may be savaged by Labour in opposition, though recently, in the Falklands and the Gulf, even opposition Labour leaders have shown what good warmongers they can be. Without fail, the same wars are enthusiastically supported when the Labour peacemongers make it into Whitehall. Why? Not because they suddenly become vicious, but because the massed ranks of generals, civil servants, allies etc present the ministers with an option they can’t refuse.

SO MUCH for the big issues – the ones which determine the course of governments. Most people nowadays don’t imagine any more that Labour can or will change things drastically. They hope instead for minor reforms, like the ones mentioned earlier – and for a ‘better political atmosphere.’ But if anything Labour’s record over minor reforms is even worse. In 1966, for instance, as soon as it took office for the second time, with a huge majority in peace-time full employment conditions, a Labour government under Harold Wilson abolished all prescription charges on National Health Service medicines. The charges they abolished were very low – only 15p each – and the amount of money ‘lost’ to the Exchequer by their abolition was a trifling £7 million. In 1967, Labour devalued the pound and negotiated a huge loan with the International Monetary Fund. The IMF insisted on replacing charges for health prescriptions. The amount of money, compared to the mega-millions at stake, was peanuts. But the IMF negotiators were not satisfied until they had crushed this last, tiny little egalitarian reform. The whole record of the two most recent Labour governments is littered with similar defeats.

Back then to that optimistic argument that Labour will do some small things to make things better. What small things? Will the civil servants, so influential in the past, suddenly throw up their hands and allow a Freedom of Information Act to pry into their affairs? Will the forces able to smash the 1966 Labour government’s abolition of health charges bend over backwards to help Robin Cook restore National Health Service control over hospitals? Will the police and judges tolerate still more reforming legislation curbing their powers to convict? The evidence of the past suggests that in all these matters, and in many more besides, the new Labour government will be more at the mercy of the real, unelected rulers than any other Labour government since the war. For unlike the last two governments, which came to office in conditions of relative economic stability, this one will be confronted by the gravest international economic crisis since the 1930s. The circumstances in which Neil Kinnock takes office will be more like those faced by Ramsay Macdonald in 1929 than by Harold Wilson in the 1960s and 1970s.

WILL THE ATMOSPHERE be ‘better’? Of course it may be for a short time. The very transfer of office gives rise to a certain euphoria, especially among the new ministers. But the lesson of 1976-1979 is that as Labour turned from one desperate ruling class remedy to another, the political atmosphere began to stink. Fascists became respectable, and won a lot of votes. My own sharpest memory of my parliamentary candidature for the newly-formed SWP in 1977 was canvassing a shop steward in a bus factory. He told me he was fed up with the government and had thought of voting for me. Instead, however, he said, rather shamefacedly he was voting for the fascists. I got 300 votes, the fascists got over 2000. This was the measure of the ‘better atmosphere’ created by a Labour government which is driven to a prolonged attack on the people who vote Labour.

The grim truth is the next Labour government will make no real difference to the fearful chaos to which the Tories have reduced so much of working class Britain. It is a grim message – but it is hopeless only if, like our principled abstentionist, everything begins and ends at the ballot box. The ruling class controls industry, banks, the state machine. But is not omnipotent. It is constantly bemused by the unpredictability of its own economic system, blundering around in darkness, not knowing when next it will be hit by a recession or a Stock Exchange crash.

Much worse than such bumps in the night is the constant threat from the organised workers: the nightmare of 1972, when the lights really did go out and the British ruling class trembled in terror of the new union power. When workers organise and fight, the rulers have to stand and fight as well. Often they lose, and concede, and then there is real change. The pattern of politics, the state of the political atmosphere, has very little connection with elections, or which government is in power. All these things are determined far more clearly by the rise and fall of class confidence. So the political atmosphere for Labour turned out to be ‘better’ under the Tory Prime Minister Heath when the organised workers were strong and confident than under his successor, the Labour Prime Minister Wilson, when the workers lost their fighting spirit.

For a hundred years the eyes of most socialists have been fixed on parliament as the source of change. That parliament has a rotten record, not because it is a representative institution but because it isn’t. Those who continue to put their political faith and devote their political activity to the Labour Party are condemning the whole movement to still further evidence of the old adage that political impotence corrupts. The worst result of this is passivity. ‘Wait for the next election’ means ‘do nothing now.’ Don’t argue, don’t agitate, don’t go on strike – just wait until you can vote. That way the parliamentary illusionists disarm our side of its only real ability to change things.

There is an overwhelming case for building a socialist organisation not where there isn’t any power, but where there is: a fighting organisation which organises all the time where people are prepared to hit back against the exploitation and degradation all around them. The nightmare of that shop steward, turning in wretchedness and disillusionment to the fascists after three years of Labour government, need never return. But its only antidote is a credible socialist organisation which holds out to such people a real alternative and a real hope.

We used to say: ‘Vote Labour Without Illusions’, but in a time when most people don’t have many illusions left that doesn’t seem quite right. A better slogan for the next few months might be: ‘Kick out the Tories, and keep kicking.’


Last updated on 30.12.2004