The same but different


Michael Foot Leader of the Labour Party 1980-3

While sitting in next-door Sharrington Church I often browse through the English Hymnal. There is one hymn that captures the mood of most long-standing mainstream members of the Labour Party. It is number 351, ‘Day of wrath and doom impending’. It includes the following cheery lines: ‘Guilty, now I pour my moaning, All my shame with anguish owning’. The tune is not very uplifting, either.

In the spirit of judgement and redemption Hymn number 351 ends with a message of hope for the future for the righteous – after they have undergone torment. Mainstream members of the Labour Party also have this underlying hope that all will turn out all right in the long run. This is based on the view that we have seen it all before, in the 1980s.

I am not sure that it will be so easy this time. I was a candidate in the disastrous General Election of 1983. On reflection I have come to the view that there are more differences than similarities between the Labour Party of today and the one that fought under Michael Foot.

First, there are some significant differences in the articulation of policy. The 1983 Labour election manifesto has become known as the longest suicide note in history. I can’t say I read it myself because I thought it was likely to upset me. However it was grounded in a coherent philosophy: that extensive state ownership and government intervention could deliver benefits in a siege economy.   It was the subsequent recognition that this was no longer viable, given the expectations of the consumer and growing globalisation, that led to economic philosophy of New Labour. By contrast policies under McDonnell and Corbyn lack any semblance of coherence, are a ragbag of unconnected initiatives with no ideas on implementation, and thus cannot be subjected to rational analysis.

Secondly, in the mid 1980s, there were levers that could be used to restore balance in the Party. In particular many of the Trade Union leaders of the time were committed to creating a credible Labour Party and devoted staff time and resources to the task. Labour Peer Dianne Hayter’s 2005 book, Fightback!: Labour’s Traditional Right in the 1970s and 1980s, describes the huge efforts undertaken over an extended period.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the leadership was in the hands of someone who wanted a broad based Labour Party to survive. Michael Foot was a decent man who sought to avoid further defections to the SDP, respected other people’s points of view, and above all wanted to see a Labour Government in power.

None of these three apply today.   The main intention of the current leader is use the power of local activists to change the Labour Party irrevocably. It is hard to see how this can be countered until the Party has been on the receiving end of repeated humiliations at the polls – and initially these will be blamed on the media.

The prospects may be dismal in the short-term, and, if the leadership result is as predicted, it is hard to see the way forward. However I remain firm in the belief that at some stage the electorate will want to see a credible, electable, social-democratic party in Parliament. They will then sort us out somehow or other.


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