I saw Kenneth Morgan being interviewed about his new biography of former Labour leader Michael Foot. The programme was Booktalk, a short programme presented by Mark D’arcy that goes out every week on the BBC Parliament channel. The set up is simple, D’arcy chats to the author of a recently published book; this is on the Parliament channel, so the books concern political matters.
What caught my interest was Morgan’s reference to Tony Benn, the left-wing challenger to the deputy leadership in 1982. Benn is something of a celebrity nowadays – he’s tolerated in the most patronising way because of his seniority: were he eighteen instead of eighty-something, he’d not get on broadcast media as often as he does. In the early 1980s, Benn was a demon figure in the tabloid newspapers, which is to say the bourgeoisie did not hold him in high regard. I suspect the reason he’s tolerated nowadays is because, sadly, we live in an ageist society, and senior citizens are condescended to rather than respected. And of course, because having an elderly man espousing socialism makes the cause look dated. (An interesting point about Foot and Benn is that their origins are not the labour aristocracy but the aristocracy; both the Foot and Benn dynasties were comprised of radical Liberals.)
Morgan said that Benn was encouraging ‘people who were not democrats’. This is not as it sounds. I gather, from Morgan’s lauding of Foot as a parliamentarian, that he meant that Benn was supportive of those who saw the struggle as extra-parliamentary. Indeed, Benn himself has said – and when he was a Member of Parliament he said as much in the House of Commons – that change does not come from within established politics, but from below. A materialist analysis of historical change is not favoured by those who make a fetish of Parliament.
Those groups that practiced ‘entryism’ in the Labour Party were not anti-democratic. They may have been crypto-Trotskyist – hiding or toning down their real opinions, denying their presence as unofficial factions – but they weren’t as undemocratic as the Labour Party leadership that expelled them. Kinnock’s public war with the Militant Tendency was designed to appeal to the possible City backers, why else mention an obscure internal party matter in an election broadcast?
Foot did not go to war with the Militant Tendency and other Marxist groups acting within the Party, and Labour’s 1983 election manifesto was possibly its most left wing. It’s worth noting that Foot’s ineffectual leadership and the infamous manifesto, famously described by Sir Gerald Kaufmann as ‘the longest suicide note in history’, cannot be entirely blamed for the Party’s defeat in the ’83 general election.
The defeat was in large part caused by prominent right-wing MPs defecting to form the Social Democratic Party and the Falklands Factor. The Thatcher government was behind Labour in the opinion polls until the war against Argentina over the Malvinas in 1982. The Falklands War was a jingoistic frenzy that went largely unchallenged by Labour’s leadership. The war covered up for the rising unemployment and the government’s failed economic policies.
Neil Kinnock, who succeeded Foot as Labour leader, was able to use the election defeat to start a witch-hunt against the Militant Tendency and steer the Party towards acceptance of Tory policies – becoming a social democrat, rather than a socialist party.
Morgan’s dislike for Benn’s supporters reveals the expectations of representative democracy, namely that it should only represent opinions that are thought respectable by the press barons. The rush to the centre-ground by political parties and the centralisation of party campaigns has created a monoculture: parliament is the centre of politics, but there are few parliamentarians capable of a rousing speech.
D’arcy was a little fawning in his appreciation of Foot’s oratorical skills, but it reminded me of a comment made by Diane Abbott. Since there are no longer speeches on the stump, public meetings in which Members of Parliament address voters, few parliamentarians are capable of oratory. The landslide election of Labour in 1997 brought in a generation of MPs, many of whom were unaccustomed to public meetings – which are avoided in the age of slick, media-centred election campaigns.
It is the silencing of alternative voices has led to near-silent voices in Parliament. Benn was not and is not a Marxist; it is merely his belief that the party should be a broad church. The traditional formula of Marxists entering Labour was that it was a bourgeois workers’ party, it had a proletarian base but a bourgeois programme; now the party has more support amongst the capitalist class than the working class.
Who knows what the intentions of the moderates were, perhaps they genuinely believed in ethical socialism or any of the other unscientific and paternalist views of society and were not merely opportunistic servants of the bourgeoisie. The effects are evident… It was fortunate that it was not called the Workers’ Party for the incongruity of an organisation so named advocating capitalism and imperialism would be too much to take. Perhaps a better name would be the Capital Party?