Michael Foot: the Labour leader who accepted defeat to avoid defeat

Submitted by Matthew on 5 March, 2010 - 6:13 Author: Sean Matgamna

It was a tragedy for the British working class and its labour movement that Michael Foot, who has died at the age of 96, was its political leader when it faced its life-and-death confrontation with Thatcherism at the beginning of the 1980s.
By that stage in his long journalistic career — 70 years ago he was already editor of the London Evening Standard — and long political life, Foot was a burnt-out, time-serving ex-radical, deeply mired in political horse trading with the Liberals and Ulster Unionists to keep the Callaghan Government (1974-79) in power.
Compared to the spineless, colourles, principle-free mainstream politicians of today, Foot was a “man of principle”, as the obituarists insist. In contrast to today’s narrow-minded, small-souled gangs of political technicians scrambling for office, Michael Foot was a man of broad mind and generous sympathies. And in his own way he was loyal to the working class and the Labour Movement.
But as a working-class leader Michael Foot was a disaster.
When he became Labour leader Foot told a mass rally in Liverpool that the Labour Party would raise a storm of indignation that would drive the Tories from office. In fact he did the very opposite.
Two incidents from that time epitomised what Foot, the political leader of the labour movement from 1980, was by then.
Peter Tatchell, the official Labour candidate in a by-election in the London district of Bermondsey, was targeted in the press as a man who believed in political direct action (and in some of the press and on the ground in Bermondsey he was subjected to a campaign of savage gay-baiting). In the House of Commons, Tatchell’s party leader, Foot, denounced and repudiated him. Tatchell went on to lose the by-election in what had been a safe Labour seat.
In the second typical incident, at the beginning of 1982, Labour Party leader Foot contributed a two-part article to the Observer, in which he told the British workers that direct action to resist a properly-elected government, Thatcher’s government, was democratically impermissible. This was a government that legislated to outlaw effective trade unionism — sympathetic strike action — and was intent on smashing up the labour movement.
Foot told the working class movement not to use the only weapon it had between general elections, industrial direct action, and not to resist a militantly anti-working-class bourgeois government which was using state power in almost a Jacobin fashion to remodel society and break the back of the labour movement!
The serious class warrior, Margaret Thatcher, would in the course of the struggle with the working class deploy as much violence as she found necessary to beat down working-class resistance
During the miners’ strike the Tory Government would send semi-militarised police to occupy rebellious mining villages and police cavalry to defeat picketing miners in pitched battles such as the Battle of Orgreave, in mid-1984.
But Labour leader Foot told the labour movement that to defeat Thatcher by direct action, as we had defeated Thatcher’s predecessor Edward Heath, would be a crime against democracy, and Foot’s hand-picked successor as Labour leader, no-guts Neil Kinnock, played the Tory game by adding his voice to the denunciations of the miners, who were themselves victims of state violence, for their “violence”.
Foot was finally driven off the central political stage after the 1983 General Election amidst a barrage of press jeering and mockery because he had appeared in public in what looked like a donkey jacket. It was brutally unjust, as was so much of the press commentary on the labour movement and on the left.
Foot had been a central leader of the early campaign for nuclear disarmament. Here too, he led the retreat in deference to an established order. That time, the Labour Party establishment.
When in 1960 the left won the bulk of the unions at the Labour Party Conference to support British nuclear disarmament, the Parliamentary Labour Party, led by party leader Hugh Gaitskell, refused to accept the Conference decision and threatened to split the Party. Foot retreated with the cry: “never underestimate the desire of the Labour Party for unity”, and the result was that the right wing reversed the 1960 decision at the 1961 Conference.
Foot had seen better times. He was one of Nye Bevan’s chief lieutenants in the great days of the leftwing Labour upsurge in the 1950s. He was editor of the then-Bevanite journal Tribune. He worked with the Trotskyists and led a vigorous campaign inside the Labour Party against the banning of their paper Socialist Outlook in 1954.
He stood up to the Stalinist avalanche of lies against Trotsky and the other Bolsheviks, long before it became fashionable to do that, in the mid-1950s, after Stalin’s successor Khrushchev had denounced him as a crazed mass murderer.
Foot, like most of the Labour left then, had been a sympathiser with Stalinism in the late 1930s and early 1940s. And he was a victim of Stalinism.
Disillusioned, he came to identify Stalinism with the Russian Revolution, and “revolution” per se with Stalinism. The Russian Revolution, and the violence of the revolutionary workers against the old ruling classes was the “original sin” that led to Stalinism. Parliamentarianism and legality was the only safe course for socialists to pursue.
It was a paralysing philosophy for a working-class leader faced with the onslaught of Thatcher. Foot and other Labour people then, union leader Jack Jones for instance, feared a military coup in Britain, like that of Chile in September 1973, if they went all-out to resist Thatcher. Later Jack Jones would admit and publicly discuss this. In fear of that, they accepted crushing defeat without a fight — accepting defeat to avoid defeat! We are still suffering the consequences of that defeat without a fight.

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