Chris Harman


Why Labour wields Tory axe

(November 1974)

From Socialist Worker, 24 November 1974.
Reprinted in In the Heat of the Struggle, London 1993, pp.132-33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE LABOUR government has been revealing its real face. It brings back unpleasant memories.

Twelve months ago we had a Tory government. It was hated because of its cuts in health, education and housing, because of its callous acceptance of unemployment, because of its prosecution of the Shrewsbury building workers’ pickets, because it held down wages while prices soared, because it prohibited the trade union closed shop through the Industrial Relations Act.

Day after day, Labour politicians spoke out against these policies. In the forefront was Michael Foot, regularly denounced in the press as a ‘left wing troublemaker’.

It was hardly surprising that when a Labour government was formed in March, many people believed it was going to be different to Labour governments of the past. For the key Ministry of Employment went to none other than Michael Foot.

Yet now, in every major area of policy, Labour is following in the Tories’ path. The budget last week made it clear that the Tory cuts would remain in effect and more would follow.

Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary, has indicated that he will leave the Shrewsbury pickets in the jail where the Tory prosecution landed them. Signing the piece of paper needed to free them would be against his belief in the ‘rule of law.’

But pride of place goes to Michael Foot.

His department made a bitter complaint about Rolls Royce last week. Now there are plenty of angry things which socialists might say about Rolls Royce. Recently a House of Commons committee exposed the racket in Rolls Royce shares. Millions of these were bought for next to nothing when the company went bust in 1971. Now, thanks to generous handouts of taxpayers’ money, these gamblers have received £15 million from the liquidator.

But Michael Foot has nothing to say about such scandals. Instead he directs his fury against the company for giving to Rolls Royce strikers the wage increases they need to keep up with price increases.

Foot is also worried about the implications of repealing the remaining sections of Tory laws against the closed shop. All week newspaper editors have been telling him that the closed shop for journalists will threaten ‘The freedom of the press.’

They cannot tolerate the ‘interference’ of working trade unionists in the content of their papers, which must, they insist, remain the property of the six millionaires who own the national press and dominate most of the provincial dailies.

It is not good enough just to criticise the government. There is a lesson to be learnt.

The majority of workers in Britain have accepted if you want to improve society, you have to do so gradually, by working slowly within the existing parliamentary system. One of the most consistent exponents of this view was Michael Foot himself.

But now, instead of ‘improving society,’ he is calling on managers to stand firm against wage rises, while he himself grovels before the press barons.

This is not because Michael Foot is a traitor or a coward. It is because he has learnt all too quickly that if you want to operate the present system, however good your intentions, you have to keep those who control the wealth happy. That means following the sorts of policies that made Edward Heath notorious.

Workers who used to share many of Foot’s ideas should draw the opposite conclusion from the same lesson. If we are ever going to change society, a movement directed towards the parliamentary charade is useless. Real power does not lie there, but with those who control the big companies and their friends who inhabit the top ranks of the armed forces, the civil service and the courts.

Labour recognises this by going out of its way to appease such people. We have to recognise it too, by organising where a different sort of strength lies, among the rank and file of the working class to challenge capitalist power.

Last updated on 28 February 2010