Paul Foot

Ship without a keel

(June 1994)

From Notes of the Month, Socialist Review, No. 176, June 1994, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The triumph for the Labour Party in the council elections (to be everyone agrees, by something very similar in the European elections this month), has a soothing effect on lots of socialists. Buoyed by success at the polls, some of Labour’s most militant supporters are inclined to that it is now time to sit back wait for the general election victory which is now inevitable.

At an SWP meeting during the MSF conference, a delegate angrily rejected calls for more militant trade union action. Militancy, he said, had not won any gains in the last few years. Now was the time to concentrate all our hopes and efforts on getting Labour elected.

‘Don’t rock the boat, and wait for Labour to storm back into office in 1996 (or 1997).’ That’s the convenient and easy message which seems to have been the favourite at trade union conferences this summer, and will certainly be the tune of the new Labour leader and the conference which elects him.

Precisely the same attitudes and advice prevailed in Labour when it was last riding high in the polls, after the poll tax demonstration in 1990, Such fantastic gains were made in the council elections a week or two later – and in by-elections right across Britain – that almost everyone reckoned it a near certainty that Labour would win in 1992. The only danger was the activities of the ‘wild men’, or, to use Neil Kinnock’s favourite term of abuse, ‘the headbangers’. Kinnock and his team made it their main aim in life to life to squash the left, especially in the constituencies. Labour policy shifted further and further to the right. There was universal silence and acquiescence ... and Labour lost the election.

All the gains made by employers and reactionaries through all those years of restraint ended with the employers and reactionaries winning the election for the sake of which they had been afforded such a clear run. The gloom on that frightful April night in 1992 was compounded by the fact that a network of militants had been persuaded to make all sorts of concessions in order to win the prize which had now been plucked away from them.

The Labour leaders’ main mistake was to measure the political temperature solely by the opinion polls. Polls say how people are going to vote. They seldom record the enthusiasm for one preference or the other. And they are quite incapable of forecasting when public opinion will change.

Those of us who take the view that the chief characteristic of our society is that It is divided by class, consider first this question: how are the classes doing in their battle with one another? If the rulers are winning, then, whatever the shifts in opinion polls, they are more likely to win elections; if the workers are winning, then their representatives are more likely to win elections. Of course there are exceptions to that rule, but in most cases the ebb and flow of the class struggle will determine the ebb and flow of radical and reactionary opinion, and so determine what happens at election times. If change can and does take place as the result of workers’ action, or even as a result of elected councillors taking a stand against central government, the party arguing for change will find it much easier to win.

This is the background to the argument about the course for Labour in the next two years. The Major government is probably the most unpopular government this century. But the opposition is a ship without a keel. It is based not on the firm foundation of a confidence and strength which knows that it can shake employers and roll back the priorities of Tory administrators and bureaucrats. On the contrary, in the real political struggle, the struggle between the classes, the Tories – the employers and their banks – are winners. The success of the new breed of Thatcherite ‘line managers’, arrogant, offensive, untalented but in the workplace extremely powerful, is testimony to long, long years of ruling class confidence.

Like that ship without a keel, such an opposition is vulnerable. No amount of votes piled up in municipal or Euro elections can guarantee it that elusive general election victory. The votes and the widespread fury which they represent need the ballast of class victories.

Labour victories at the polls need to be reinforced by real labour victories. The Tories must be humiliated long before the next general election. The confidence of those line managers needs to be cut down by organised labour. The trade union leaders have ‘been backing off a fight ever since Thatcher first brought the Tories into government in 1979. All they have to show for the deference and obedience is a long line of defeats.

These will go on unless the union leaders take a stand. If they don’t, their members will have to do it on their own. There is an overwhelming argument now for refusing any longer to accept the demands of ever greedy management; and for fighting back.

This is not only a matter for shop stewards and trade unionists. In the Labour councils too there are all sorts of ways in which the Tories can be counted out. The councils have huge sums of money piled up from the sale of council houses. The Tories forbid them to spend that money. They should refuse to obey the Tories and spend it. If they are surcharged they should refuse to cooperate, resign their chairs and go into majority opposition. They should make the councils unmanageable rather than accept any longer the diktats of a government which has plainly lost the support of the people.

Labour councillor should resign from all the new government quangos, the development corporations, enterprise agencies, city challenges and all the rest of the business speak nonsense whereby the capitalists have sought to undermine democracy in the urban areas. Up to now Labour representatives have played along; they should call a halt and let the quangos stew in their own juice.

Defiance, if widespread and determined enough, would start to win concessions and victories. These will be worth in real ideas and in real votes a hundred times the lead in the opinion polls, and will lay some sort of foundation for a Labour victory which could mean something.

Last updated on 17 April 2017