Paul Foot

Why Labour lost

(May 1992)

From Socialist Review, No.153, May 1992, pp-9-11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Last month’s Tory election victory marked a further sharp defeat for Labour. Now, argues Paul Foot, we have to look beyond electoral politics to the prospects for real change in society.

After the gloom, the reckoning. Just how many sacrifices have been made for this miserable election result? When the votes for Mid-Staffs came in at about 3 a.m., I noticed that Sylvia Heal had lost the seat for Labour. She had triumphed there only two years earlier in one of die most amazing by-elections this century. A safe Tory seat seemed to have been turned into a safe Labour one. Sylvia’s triumph then seemed to vindicate her remarkable speech at the 1988 Labour Party conference in which she confessed that she was dropping her lifelong commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament.

The reason, she explained, was simple. Someone had calculated that Labour could not win with a policy of unilateral disarmament, which apparently lost it the elections of 1983 and 1987. Drop the commitment, then, she argued, and the chances of a Labour government would immeasurably increase. Thus Labour was left with a policy of support for nuclear weapons at precisely the time when the ‘enemy’ whom those nuclear weapons were meant to deter had disappeared.

Lots of other radical policies were chucked into the bin on the same basis. Commitments to get rid of most of the Tory trade union laws were watered down. So were the promises to take back into public ownership all those utilities and public services which the Tories had privatised. In a Gadarene stampede to appease floating voters in the middle of the road, anything which smacked of socialist anger against the Stock Exchange or any other citadel of modern capitalism was wiped out of Labour’s language.

Bryan Gould declared in 1987 how he loved to see workers buying and selling shares. John Smith. Margaret Beckett and Co entered a long dialogue with charming hosts in the City of London, in a ceaseless effort to persuade them that Labour’s policies were good for business. In one sense, they succeeded. On polling day the Financial Times agreed with Labour that its readers agreed can be measured by the fantastic celebrations which went on throughout election night and the whole of the following day across die length and breadth of the Ciry of London.

We lost socialist policies by the score. We also lost countless opportunities to organise and fight even for the policies which were left. The miners’ great struggle in 1984-5 was left high and dry by the Labour and trade union leaders. Why? Because, it was argued, ‘this was not the way to get Labour returned.’ Exactly the same argument was used when hospital workers exploded in rage in early 1988, or when the ambulance workers went on strike soon afterwards, or indeed in every dispute since the last general election. ‘Don’t rock the boat’, was the cry. ‘Labour will make things better for everyone.’ How does that argument look now? We went to bed in those early hours of 10 April reflecting that the boat had hardly been rocked at all. There’d been hardly a strike or a major demonstration for more than a year. Yet the unrocked boat was lying in ruins at the bottom of the sea.

Some have taken comfort from Labour’s 40 gains, and pretended that the new Tory government, with a much smaller majority than its predecessor, will be comparatively tame. Nothing could be more ridiculous. Major and Co never expected anything like the luxury of an overall majority of 21. Their supporters among the wealthy are beside themselves with joy. They are confident they can hang on to the enormous gains made under Thatcher, the booming private hospitals and private schools, the whole disgusting paraphernalia of a greedy and confident ruling class.

For all his tinny rhetoric about ‘a nation at ease with itself’ Major’s new cabinet shows exactly where he is going. Peter Lilley, a man who has devoted his whole life to picking the pockets of the poor and the disadvantaged, is in charge of social security. Poll Tax Portillo, who hates all government spending, is Chief Secretary at the Treasury in charge of public spending. The only Orangeman to sit for an English seat in the House of Commons is the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and the new Solicitor General is a neanderthal from Brighton who can’t contain his enthusiasm for the hangman’s rope. These men are completely at case with themselves about another five years of squeezing still more wealth from the working people and passing it across to their friends and paymasters.

What is to be done? At once, in the wake of defeat, a great howl of misery goes up on all sides of the official left. The argument is that, because all this surrender has achieved precisely nothing, we should surrender more. Trade unions (who were completely silent through the entire election campaign) are told that they are to blame and that they must cut links with the Labour Party. The very name ‘Labour’, apparently, is a hindrance. The Liberal Party, a deeply right wing organisation which fought more than half its campaign against Labour’s central proposals for taxing the rich and restoring some freedom to trade unions, is named as the saviour of the future.

Like a Greek Chorus renting their clothes, the psephologists and former Social Democrats, the New Statesman and the Guardian, almost anyone who can be found who was once a member of the Communist Party, shout for constitutional reform, electoral reform, Lib-Lab election pacts, and, if such a person can possibly be found, an even more right wing leader for the Labour Party than Neil Kinnock. Forget for a moment that none of these things (except a new leader who is being catapulted into office before anyone can catch their breath) can be achieved while the Tories have a majority in parliament. The point about all of them is that they seek to shift Labour still further down the road which has taken it so inexorably to its fourth defeat in a row.

There is another common feature to all these demands – passivity. People are told that the priority is to change the voting system or to rely on backroom deals between the leaders of the trade unions, the Labour Party and the Liberal Party. No one outside these backrooms, the argument concludes, can do anything much except, as before, wait and see how well their leaders perform. The prospect held out by all these ‘new realist’ reformers is one of utter despondency, amounting to total surrender to the Tories.

It is time to restate a few simple facts about the world we live in. Its fundamental characteristic is that it is divided by class. The means whereby the people at the top of society grow rich and powerful by exploiting the majority is much more obvious now than it was a decade ago. The contradictions and horrors of such a society – unemployment, mass starvation, disease for thousands of millions of people while a small group wallow in unimaginable luxury – are more striking and more devastating. The cry for change is as loud and anguished as it has ever been.

So where does change come from? The central point about a society dominated by the struggle between the exploiters and the exploited is that it relies for its success on passivity from below. The engine of change is the activity and confidence of the people who are being exploited, most effectively where they are exploited directly, at the point of production. These sound like slogans. But they explain the changes which have taken place in modern Britain.

Looking back over the last quarter of a century I pick out three decisive changes to the left which profoundly improved the living standards of working people and decisively changed the balance of confidence in the struggle between the classes. The first was in 1969, when the Labour government proposed drastic new laws to control the trade unions. A few months later the proposals were withdrawn – not because the government had changed its mind or because civil servants at the Department of Employment were suddenly sympathetic to trade unions – but because of a short sharp campaign in the trade union movement which included unofficial strikes.

Much more remarkable was the change which came over the Tory government in 1972. At the beginning of that year it looked rather like the Tory government now: confident, aggressive, privatising, anti-union and anti-poor. At the end of the year it was pumping public money into industry and building up the public services more energetically than any government before or since. Its whole strategy and philosophy had changed. There had been no general election, no constitutional reform, no Lib-Lab pacts, pretty well no change in parliament at all. But there had been a victorious miners’ strike, a building workers’ strike, a hospital workers’ strike, a dockers’ strike and even a threatened general strike which not only smashed the Tories’ anti-union laws but also changed the whole face of politics.

Thirdly, in 1987 the Tories were re-elected on a manifesto based on their ‘flagship’ – the poll tax. Four years later the same government, which made no new pacts and still had a parliamentary majority of nearly 100, withdrew the poll tax. Had they been terrified by the parliamentary opposition? Not at all – they were contemptuous of it. What changed their minds and abolished the poll tax was a mass campaign of civil disobedience, whose climax was probably the biggest demonstration since the war, which turned into a full scale riot. These huge political shifts in our direction were all set in motion from below. They were almost unaffected by what was going on in parliament, or even by which government was in office. The pace of events was determined by the ebb and flow of the struggle between the classes – when they win, we lose, and vice versa.

The same test – who is winning between the classes – can be applied to elections. Elections are the most passive of all political activities, but they do concentrate people’s minds on politics. A common cliché from pundits and pollsters after the election was that Labour should have won because Britain was in recession. In fact, Labour has never won an election in a recession. Even in 1929, when Labour was elected as the largest party, the real depth of recession did not come for two years (and parliamentary Labour was reduced to a rump). The big Labour victories of 1945 and 1966 were won when the unions were strong, when nobody was out of work and when the workers were full of confidence and hope. The same point comes from a comparison of the recent election with that of February 1974. In 1974 a Tory government seeking re-election was buoyed throughout the campaign by polls which gave it big leads. Then, as the crunch came, floating voters were suddenly worried that a Tory government would lead to instability and chaos. So the Tories lost the election. In 1992 the polls showed people veering to Labour. But when it came to the crunch, the floaters shied away. This time it was Labour which seemed to hold out the prospect of chaos.

What was the real difference? In 1974 the miners were on strike, less than a million people were out of work, and the unions still felt strong and confident from their victories in 1972. In 1992 no one was on strike, nor had been for years. The balance of class confidence favoured Labour in 1974 and the Tories in 1992.

Marx argued that the prevailing ideas will always be those of the ruling class. Labour has to challenge these ideas to win elections, and is far more likely to do so when its supporters are strong, confident, acting together, than weak, uncertain, fragmented and left to think things out on their own, at the mercy of these prevailing ideas.

But this is not a hard and fast rule, an ‘objective circumstance’ which condemns us to Tory victories whenever they can engineer a recession. People make their own history, and their anger and discontent can be reflected in elections. However, especially in times of recession, that anger needs to be awakened, prodded, inflamed in ceaseless agitation. After the election, though not before it, the former heroes of the SDP (RIP) Peter Jenkins (Independent) and Malcolm Dean (Guardian) suddenly discovered that Labour was ‘unelectable.’ There was not a word of this before polling day when all the signs pointed in the opposite direction. Opinion polls are not conspiracies. They are measurements. The near unanimity of all the polls before the election that Labour was in the lead, often handsomely, was probably accurate. The tide of hatred against the government was so strong that it looked as though it would carry the floaters with it.

The crucial task for Labour was to sustain the anger against the government until the last moment. Class anger had played a large part in the early stages of the campaign. Even John Smith, one of the least angry men ever to grace a front bench, introduced his alternative budget with the claim that the ‘1 percent at the top has had its way for 12 years – now it’s the turn of the rest of us.’ The broadcast about Jennifer’s ear operation struck a chord of rage. This was not just moaning about a bad health service. It was comparing the bad (for the poor and the workers) with the good (for those who can pay). There wasn’t a street in the land where some such story had not been told, and people were indignant about it. Kinnock’s speech at Sheffield comparing Major’s soapbox with the cardboard boxes of the homeless touched an angry nerve.

But then suddenly the campaign faltered. The second NHS broadcast was cancelled. Suddenly the talk was not of private health care and snob schools, but of consensual and responsible government. Major clung onto his soapbox, but Kinnock was always in limousines, or on battleships releasing balloons. Edwina Currie said that Kinnock looked more like a prime minister than Major, and that was suddenly a problem. The Tories organised their fear and hate campaign to coincide with polling day. On the eve of poll the Sun had nine pages on ‘The Nightmare on Kinnock Street.’ The City staged a run on the pound and announced that Labour would bring higher interest rates. The Labour leaders, as though worn down by endless City lunches, did not respond. There was no attack on the undemocratic power of financial barons seeking to influence the election.

Labour was not unelectable. The results themselves prove it. It required only two or three extra people in every hundred to vote Labour (as they were probably intending to do until the last moment) for the Tories to have been kicked out. It was these vital floaters who, at the last moment, as the Tories pounced and Labour dithered, swung round from their anger to their fear.

Like all the guesses about why the election was lost, this may just be speculation. What is not speculation is that the Labour leadership now has absolutely nothing to offer us. Before we have time to catch our breath, the Tory government will be on the attack again, hacking away at the schools and hospitals they promised were safe, raising the taxes they promised to cut. Labour can do nothing to stop them. Schools, hospitals and jobs can only be protected by action outside parliament, by demonstrations, petitions and strikes. All these will be a thousand times more successful if they are sustained and led by socialists, people who make no concessions to capitalist society because they want to replace it, root and branch, with an entirely different society: a socialist society which can plan its production to fit people’s needs, and distribute its wealth on the principle that human beings, whatever their different abilities, have the same right to benefit from what is commonly produced.

Tens of thousands of socialists have held their breath and bitten their lips rather than speak out in protest as the Labour leaders continued on their promised march to parliamentary power. After Black Friday, 10 April, every one of them is disappointed and indignant. Their disappointment is useless. But their indignation can still stop the Tories – if it is channelled into real resistance, and into a socialist organisation which bases itself on that resistance, and can therefore hold out the prospect of real change.


Last updated on 17.1.2005