Thursday, 14 May 2015

What Next? - Part 4

For Labour (2)

If Labour wants to avoid the mistakes of the past, it also has to tell the truth about its own past. The truth about the 1983 defeat is that in some ways it was similar to this defeat, but not for the reasons the Blairites seek to maintain. The story told about the 1983 Labour defeat is that having elected Michael Foot as party leader after the defeat of Callaghan, in 1979, the party's swing to the Left drove millions of voters away from them, and into the waiting arms of the Tories. But, it is a myth.

In 1979, Labour had a small lead over the Tories, with the Liberals on about 12% -. Callaghan lost the election in May 1979, but unlike today, he remained as leader for another year and a half. Foot won the leadership campaign against Denis Healey. It was the last time the Labour Leader was elected solely by Labour MP's. Foot became leader on 10th November 1980. It was a time of intensive activity. The Tories under Thatcher had begun to implement the Ridley Plan of attacking the trades unions, taking on the weakest groups first. 

Unemployment was rising, and far from Labour's standing in the polls falling after Foot took over, it rose further. A MORI poll on 19th December 1980, put Labour on 56%, a figure, which today Labour's Blairites could only dream of. At the start of 1981 ahead of the defection of the Gang of Four, to set up the SDP, Labour was polling over 50% in most polls. The drop in Labour's standing did not arise because Labour under Foot was too left-wing, it fell because a section of the party, comprising some of its former leading representatives split the vote, and with the massive support of the media, thereby gave the Tories a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. It was not that the Tories gained in popularity during this period, they didn't. Their share of the polls continually declined after 1979, from around 43% to 27%. It was just that Labour's falling share of the vote was in almost mirror image reflection of the rise in the vote of the SDP. A similar thing was seen in this election with the way that although Labour's vote rose, and in England they won additional seats, their vote was split as a consequence of votes going not to the Tories or the Liberals, but to the SNP, UKIP, and the Greens. 

There were other aspects to Labour's decline. Facing the attacks of the media, and given focus by the betrayal of the SDP, Foot and other Labour leaders began to back off their more open support for opposition to the Tories. Before and after his election, Foot had stood at the forefront – and unlike today where its just a photo opportunity, he stayed at the front of – marches in major cities across the country, which mobilised hundreds of thousands of people against the Tories austerity measures. It was on the back of that vocal and active opposition that Foot had increased public support or Labour. Now, that kind of activity was scaled back, and although Foot himself did not come out to attack and witchhunt the left in the party, there were plenty in the right of the party, like John Golding, who were prepared to launch publicly into such activity, lending further credence to the media witchhunts, and attacks of the SDP. 

But, like this election, the Tories won in 1983, for none of those reasons. They won, because they mobilised the ideology of nationalism, pure and simple, rallying millions around the flag as a result of the Falklands War in 1982. The interesting thing about the opinion polls for that period is the extent to which the rise in the position of the Tories following the outbreak of war, is mirrored by the fall in the position of the SDP. In fact, having bottomed at around 26% just after the Falklands War, Labour's rating continued to rise during the rest of 1982 and into 1983, whilst both the Tories and the Liberals declined. 

Apart from a very short spike in support for the SDP at the end of 1981, coinciding with the Crosby By-Election, Labour remained above both the Tories and the Liberal/SDP, with an average poll rating of about 40%. Labour suffered a temporary reduction in support due to the betrayal of the SDP, but the main reason it lost in 1983, was not Michael Foot, nor the SDP, nor its programme being the longest suicide note in history, as Golding described it, but the willingness of Thatcher to see the loss of thousands of lives in the Falklands War, and the Tories ability to whip up nationalist hysteria on the basis of it. 

Cameron has won today, for similar reasons. The SNP declared a political war on England on nationalistic grounds, and the Tories responded in like manner, by unleashing English nationalism in response. Nicola Sturgeon, simply fulfilled the same role for Cameron that Galtieri performed for Thatcher. What is more, this nationalistic sentiment played into the existing nationalistic sentiment that existed, in places, and was manifest in support for UKIP, a nationalism whose focus was not necessarily directed against Scotland, but against the EU, and migrants. But, as others have pointed out 

“Even the rise of UKIP and the part of its vote that was taken from Labour cannot be seen as an endorsement of a move right. In this case just how far right would you have to move to rival the xenophobic policies of that lot? 

I remember two weeks ago listening to a vox pop on radio 4 from a constituency in the North of England. A young man was saying he was voting UKIP as a protest against Labour even though he did not at all agree with UKIP policies because he wanted Labour to be more left wing! I’m not for a moment suggesting that the working class UKIP vote is a left wing protest but some of it is a working class vote that is Labour’s to win. These voters are not all irredeemably reactionary. It is rather another example of some workers expressing their class interests as they see them, in a very distorted and disfigured way. 

They are demoralised workers who blame immigrants, foreigners or Europe, or simply the establishment understood in some vague way, for the precarious position they find themselves in. 

These people did not vote Tory and they did not do so because demoralised or not they don’t confuse their interest with those of the Tory classes and their smarmy representatives. They just can’t identify their position with an uninhibited and robust defence of their class interests from a socialist perspective.”

No comments: