The Point
Last updated: 19 June 2017.

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The Ghost of Michael Foot: How the Left were Proved Right, 34 Years On

Derek Stewart Macpherson takes heart from the outcome of General Election 2017, and delivers an emphatic lesson from history.

 

Spin Cycle - The Wash Up

What if they held an election, and nobody won? That's the question everyone's asking as the horse trading continues. We can all try to read the entrails, but the truth is a number of things could still happen and nobody really knows yet how it will pan out. We could go back to what we said, and wrote, before the election and try to avoid saying 'I told you so,' and there may indeed have to be a little of that in due course. The part of the wash up from this election that I want to look at is indeed an 'I told you so' but it's a very old one indeed.

Laying the Ghost of Michael Foot

Yes, this is an 'I told you so' from 34 years ago. Some readers may not remember that far back, but don't worry, I'll explain. A long time ago, in what seems like a galaxy far, far away, there was a time before neoliberalism. It snuck in the back way, in the form of the IMF, in the Callaghan years, but in 1979 it kicked in the front door, in the form of Margaret Thatcher. She quickly acquired a nickname amongst her cabinet colleagues - she acquired many nicknames of course, this one is not so well known, but very revealing - TINA. It's an acronym. It stands for 'There Is No Alternative.'

It became her mantra, and that of all the neoliberals. What they were doing was radical (the opposite of conservative), revolutionary even. They were overthrowing the post-war economic settlement. There was a lot of resistance. So it was in their interests to keep repeating 'there is no alternative' because if you repeat something long enough, and loudly enough, and with the megaphone of the mainstream media repeating it too, people forget there ever was another way. A way that had produced the longest period of uninterrupted growth in the recorded history of capitalism. And since then a generation and a half have grown up never knowing anything else. This is the only way. There is no alternative.

There was a lot of resistance at first though. Thatcher and her policies were deeply unpopular. Labour's initial response was to move to the left. They elected a leader who was to the left of his predecessor, and they produced a fairly progressive manifesto, which Geoffrey Howe characterised as 'the longest suicide note in history.' So what happened? Well, conventional wisdom says that Howe was right, that Labour lost the subsequent 1983 election by being too left wing, and that left wing ideas (which were then redefined to include anything that wasn't neoliberalism) were unsellable, and left wing leaders unelectable. I've never bought that argument, and I've been saying so for 34 years. So what really happened?

In the early part of 1983 I found myself in the Maclellan Galleries for Michael Foot's main campaign rally in Glasgow. He had quite the reputation as an orator and I was looking forward to hearing him speak. From the start, however, it seemed to me that something was not quite right with him. He rambled, went off on tangents, and at one point launched into a lengthy dissertation on the evils of competition and the virtues of co-operation (much of which I agreed with philosophically, but it's not exactly what you want to hear from a leader who is about to represent you in the biggest competition of them all). Furthermore the rhythm of his speech was odd. He kept putting his emphasis in all THE... wrong places. I came away with an impression of someone suffering dementia, at the stage it's just starting to become obvious. Subsequent events lent substance to this impression.

So Labour had a wounded leader, further handicapped by the insistence of some on the right of the party that he root out certain elements of the left and expel them, causing a great deal of internal division and angst.


                      Remember 'the witch-hunt'?

And he didn't have the 'right look.' This part of the campaign against him was conducted, as always, by the media, and should be immediately familiar to anyone who has watched their treatment of Jeremy Corbyn since he became Labour leader. Foot just didn't conform to the stereotype of what they think a leader is supposed to look like, from his windswept, unruly hair, to his unfashionable Deidre Langton glasses, to his duffel coat (sometimes done up incorrectly), he was just all wrong.

Despite all of these problems, in my opinion, he might still have won had it not been for one more factor. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, what is the last refuge of a scoundrelly (yes, it is a word, I looked it up) Prime Minister? A patriotic war! And in 1982, just as Thatcher's unpopularity eclipsed that of any Prime Minister's since records began, we got one. And it was all a little bit too convenient. It started innocuously enough, with some Argentinian civilians landing somewhere remote on the islands, in a sort of passive challenge to UK sovereignty. David Owen, the former Labour Foreign Secretary and by then defector, having been one of those who set up the SDP on my 16th birthday in 1981, said that this had happened several times during his tenure, and that Foreign Office officials had told him they did it regularly, and that the usual response was to send a frigate on patrol there, which he did. Each time that was it, it came to nothing. It's hard to conceive that those same officials didn't give the same advice to Thatcher's Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, yet her government conspicuously failed to act on it.

It always seemed a bit of a devil's bargain to me. Two deeply unpopular governments at opposite corners of the Atlantic. As things stand they are both going down within a year or two. But if they have this war, one of them will survive. Some people think it was a foregone conclusion, but it wasn't. Yes, British forces had a technological edge, but supply lines were stretched 8,000 miles. It was a close run thing. A gamble. They had to conscript a number of civilian ships, one of which they lost along with its cargo of Harrier jets, and bring a bunch of 1950s long range bombers out of retirement. And the way it started, the first shot of the actual conflict, is still considered by many to have been a war crime.

There was once a ship the Americans referred to affectionately as the 'luckiest ship in the navy.' Her name was the USS Phoenix. She was the only capital ship at Pearl Harbour that was not significantly damaged during the Japanese attack in 1941. She went on to have a long and distinguished career with the US navy before being sold to the Argentinian navy where, as the General Belgrano, her luck ran out on the 2nd of May 1982 when she was sunk by the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror (the only ship ever to have been sunk in combat by a nuclear sub). The order to sink her was given by Thatcher personally. The Argentinians, possibly emboldened by the lack of response to their previous landing, decided to test the 200 mile exclusion zone she had declared around the islands. They did so by sending the ship on a zig zag course which intersected with the zone a number of times. Having completed this manoeuvre, she was on a direct heading for her home port when she was sunk with the loss of 323 lives.

Anyway, it's all history now. The war was won with a good old fashioned 'yomp' over wind and rain-swept hillsides and some conspicuous acts of individual bravery. There was a big parade and a 'thanksgiving' service at Westminster Abbey. The what? The wounded veterans? Oh, they were there too, just tucked away up at the back, where the cameras couldn't see them. And when the election was held the following year, a year earlier than it needed to be (wouldn't want the afterglow of victory to wear off), Thatcher duly delivered the largest of her election wins and Labour, their vote further cannibalised by the SDP, was reduced to a miserable 28%, still their lowest vote since their emergence as a major party. And the myth-making began. Labour lost by being too left wing. Not because of the media ridicule of Foot, not because of the SDP split, not even because of the war. No, it was all because of that left wing manifesto.

And then a strange thing happened. Instead of seeing the truth and waiting for the voters' natural distaste for extreme right policies to deliver government back to them at the next election, people in the Labour Party started to believe the myth. The party was torn apart in an orgy of self-recrimination, ensuring they were out of power for a generation. By the time they did eventually win government again, neoliberalism had become so entrenched that even they themselves had embraced it. That was 20 years ago. The neoliberal orthodoxy was not questioned to any great extent until the aftermath of the crash of 2008. The orthodoxy that left wing policies were inherently unpopular and an electoral liability was not seriously questioned even then. Until last week.

Last week all of that went out of the window, and I, and all those who believed as I did for the last 34 years, were spectacularly vindicated. A Labour party with an old leftie leader who didn't look quite right (not to suggest he had any intellectual impairment as I did with Foot), internal divisions, a left wing manifesto promising to undo some of the worst excesses of Thatcherism, and coming from a poll deficit in excess of twenty points when the election was called, pulled off an astounding campaign win. No, they didn't win the election, but they smashed it in the campaign, pulling back 20 points and causing the Tories' leading strategists to resign - to an old campaign strategist like me, that's absolutely a win. And they proved those policies could be extremely popular and energise a lot of previously disengaged young people.

It's just a pity (here's the more recent 'I told you so' bit) that more young and left wing voters in Scotland didn't see, weren't aware of, or didn't respond to calls by me, by The Point and, to be fair, most of the non-aligned left, to vote tactically for the SNP in Scotland. If they had, Jeremy Corbyn would be in No.10 today.

The Tories have of course tried to claim Scotland as a victory, but really their apparent rise had very little to do with them at all. The Corbyn effect was undoubtedly the reason Labour recovered some seats, however in seats where Labour were running third their votes effectively pushed Libdem and Tory candidates over the line. Just enough of them to enable Theresa May to cling to power as it turned out. That's a pity. It calls for another attempt at creating a Left/Yes Alliance, and it calls for the SNP to embrace the new politics and work with the rest of the pro-indy movement towards our common goals. These things will unfold over the months ahead and we will return to them again many times, I'm sure.

In amongst all of that however, let's not lose sight of the momentous nature of what has happened here, for the left in these islands and in the wider world. Left wing policies do sell. This will be seen in the future as an important nail in the coffin of the neoliberal project.

Last week we finally exorcised the demons of 1983 and laid the ghost of Michael Foot to rest!

 

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