Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Paul Foot on Why You Should Vote Socialist

Since the Marxists Internet Archive is currently in the news, Histomat readers might note there have been a number of recent additions to the archive of interest - Donny Gluckstein on Tony Benn's Diaries (a 1991 article), David Widgery's 1981 appreciation of the late great socialist cartoonist Phil Evans, and some new additions to the Julie Waterson archive. Two new things I want to particularly highlight though - firstly a fine little 2008 pamphlet on Capitalism's New Crisis: What do socialist say? by Chris Harman. Harman's pamphlet coming online is timely given some of the current discussions about the 'return of Marx' as a new generation of emerging intellectuals engaging with Marx's ideas in the aftermath of the economic crisis - and might encourage some of them to go and check out Harman's 2009 work Zombie Capitalism.

It is also worth highlighting Paul Foot's 2001 booklet Why You Should Vote Socialist, which is worth revisiting given we are now well and truly in an election period for the upcoming Euro-elections, and a pre-election period for the 2015 general election. There are also indeed some socialist candidates to vote for in many of the upcoming council elections - including from the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition and a few Left Unity candidates too. Yet Foot's booklet really stands as one of the clearest and most devastating indictments of the failings of the first New Labour government under Blair (1997-2001). Today, for example, when the racist party UKIP are on the rise as a result of mainstream parties own racism towards migrant workers, we hear the argument from the Labour Party front bench that they were too soft on migrants when in power. This is Foot on the reality of New Labour's record on refugees from 1997-2001:

Asylum seekers coming to Britain found themselves under sharp attack not just from racists and right wing fanatics but also from the New Labour government and its minister at the Home Office, Barbara Roche. She accused asylum seekers of ‘milking the system’ and then set about organising the system to ensure that there was nothing for asylum seekers to milk. Under her regime asylum seekers are deprived of social security benefits and provided instead with £36.54 a week in vouchers to buy food and clothes plus £10 a week in cash (there is no change from the vouchers). Asylum seekers are treated with the most disgusting contempt, housed in conditions unfit for human habitation and dispersed continually from refuge to refuge without discussion or consultation. Their vouchers and cash benefits are conditional on obeying orders to move. 

 When the Tory leader William Hague suggested locking up all asylum seekers, New Labour reacted with horror at such a gross breach of civil liberty, and promptly started building more detention centres for asylum seekers. The numbers of asylum seekers detained by New Labour have gone up from 800 to 1,200, and two new detention centres just built will take many more. More and more asylum seekers’ applications to stay in Britain are being turned down, including all such applications from Iraqi Kurds. A high point for New Labour policy was the refusal of an application to stay from a 24 year old Iraqi Kurd Ramin Khadeji. When he got his refusal he killed himself. Refusals have gone up from 35 percent of applications when New Labour took over to 60 percent.

As an aside, one of my fondest memories of Tony Benn was when he agreed to call and lead a demonstration in 2000 in London in defence of migrant workers and for the scrapping of the racist voucher system New Labour had introduced.

Currently Ed Miliband is considering whether to introduce the demand to renationalise the railways as part of Labour's manifesto for 2015 as many in the Labour Party and trade union movement are rightly demanding he do. Foot's booklet is damning of Labour's past record on this question (see here and here. In short, despite prior warnings about where privatisation would end, once in power in 1997:

The railways were not renationalised. The hideous mess constructed by the Tories, the different competing railway organisations and the speculative millionaires they created, continued with hardly any change. The reason was trumpeted proudly by Blair, Prescott and Co whenever they were asked about it, usually by the transport unions which had contributed so many millions to Labour. They explained that they could not possibly afford the £4 billion it would have cost to create what Blair had promised – a ‘publicly owned, publicly accountable railway’. They had so many other priorities, they bleated, that they could not possibly waste public money on paying railway shareholders for their assets. 

Then came the great triumphs of railway privatisation, the disasters at Southall, Paddington and Hatfield. At Hatfield, it was revealed, a train had come off the track because of a broken rail. Railtrack, the privatised company which owned and controlled the network, had known perfectly well of the dangers of broken rails. They had been spelled out to the company in great detail a year before the Hatfield crash by the new rail regulator, Tom Winsor, whose militant approach to the railway monopolies was held out by the government as proof of its continuing concern for and control over the railway. Winsor’s memorandum about the dangers of broken rails was scrupulously ignored in the interests of keeping trains moving and profits flowing. After Hatfield, Railtrack panicked and subjected millions of long-suffering passengers to months of chaos and delays as some of the track was renewed. The militant Winsor decided that what was most important was that he should have a private company to regulate, so he announced that another £4 billion of taxpayers’ money would be released to keep the privatised railways running. By coincidence, £4 billion was the exact sum that Blair, Prescott and Co had estimated as the likely cost of renationalising the railways. The money they had ‘saved’ the taxpayer by leaving the railways in private hands was now being passed into those same private hands without any public accountability for it. 

 The sheer extravagance of the decision not to renationalise the railways was set out in an article early in 2001 in the journal Public Finance. The author, Jean Shaoul, calculated the cost of public subsidies in the four years before privatisation and the four years after. Adjusted for inflation, the figures were: 1991–94 £2,556 million; 1997–2000 £6,848 million. The cost to the taxpayer of subsidising the privately-owned railway had grown to three times the cost of subsidising the publicly-owned railway.

The pamphlet stands as a timely reminder that Labour may promise one thing to get elected, but once in power will quite easily renege on them - something campaigners over the bedroom tax need to remember today. It is the strength of mass movements and class confidence on the ground and in the workplace that is decisive and leads to change - not the election of Labour governments. It also stands as an eloquent counterblast to many careerist Labour politicians such as Jack Straw (of whom Tony Benn once noted, ''No one takes Jack Straw seriously. He is just a little sort of weathercock, blowing with every wind.'').

 Finally as middle class Guardian journalists desperately try to whitewash the record of the last Labour Government and rehabilitate even Tony Blair (witness this appalling recent column by Zoe Williams) Foot's booklet - written before September 11th and the 'war on terror' - shows beyond any doubt that there was nothing redeemable about Blairism or Brownism in power on any level, even putting aside the war crimes and mass murder. Indeed, Foot was warning about the dangers of economic crisis on the horizon while Gordon Brown as Chancellor was courting the City of London and heralding the end of 'boom and bust'. The last words should go to Foot, as he takes on not only Brown but also those Guardian journalists like Polly Toynbee who defended Blair in the past and now continue to tell us now that the only hope for the future lies with Ed Miliband and a future New Labour government:

Four years of New Labour in extremely favourable economic circumstances have left the Tory balance between rich and poor almost exactly what it was when the Tories left it. Millions are still plunged in hopeless poverty. The gap between rich and poor has actually widened under New Labour...

Prudence Brown boasts that under his careful stewardship unemployment and inflation have come down. Modestly he ascribes this miracle to his own genius. Yet from the first moment he took office and handed the level of interest rates (previously set by elected government) to unelected bankers who benefit from high interest rates, he in effect admitted what he knows to be true – that elected governments of whatever colour cannot and do not determine what happens to the international capitalist economy unless they embark on the most determined and ruthless economic intervention.

Under capitalism, unemployment, inflation, the rise and fall of booms and slumps, are not brought about by governments, but by economic forces beyond government control. No one knows, for instance, why there was a recession in the so-called Tiger economies of Asia in 1998. Those economies were previously heralded as evidence that capitalism worked better when it was unfettered by trade unions or government regulation. The impact of that illusion is still being felt by the working people and the poor of those economies, notably in Indonesia where one corrupt and dictatorial government has been toppled, and its successor teeters on the brink of revolution on the one side and unspeakable racial violence on the other. 

 The most predictable feature of any capitalist economy is its unpredictability. Gordon Brown knows that perfectly well, which is probably why he prefers capitalist caution to socialist advance. He also knows that the more his government loosens its democratic grip on the engines of the economy, the less control he will have in the event of any future slump, and the more he consigns the future to a private enterprise chaos out of which he knows no road. Against the background of chaos and unpredictability, his refusal to spend his ‘war chest’ on the people and services who need it most is all the more reprehensible. 

 This, then, is the central charge against the New Labour government. All through the 20th century the Labour Party sought at least to some extent to use the power conferred on it by the votes of working people to shift the balance of wealth and power in their direction. Often the party failed miserably in that endeavour. Again and again elected governments bowed to what they regarded as superior forces in unelected private capital. They were, in Harold Wilson’s famous phrase, ‘blown off course’ by runs on sterling, investment strikes, judicial arrogance, media blitzes and other forces they did not understand, and did not dare to counter. But at least some effort was made in the right direction. At least some commitment was made to public ownership, to civil liberties, and to the building of strong trade unions. New Labour in the late 1990s and early 21st century has shifted so far to the right that almost all its policies and achievements have converged with those of its Tory predecessors... 

 One answer to Polly Toynbee is that she, as she recognises, was one of the prominent defectors from Labour to the SDP in 1981, and thus can be held at least partly responsible for all the Tory excesses that followed. But another has more resonance. It is that she and all her fellow ‘Vote Labour for real change’ enthusiasts are not listening to their leaders. Tony Blair’s speeches about his next term of office carry not a whisper of trade union reform, or of a new era of public ownership and democratic responsibility, or of a widening of the comprehensive element in schools, or of a new assault on the grotesque bonanzas of the rich. Everything Blair says about the future points in exactly the opposite direction, towards more privatisation, more inequality, more chaos on road and rail, less planning, less intervention, and a fiercer attack on what his press officer calls bog-standard comprehensives, bog-standard council housing, bog-standard anything which derives from the traditional cooperation and solidarity of working class people. The Toynbee-Walker thesis, that a new New Labour government would put the errors, omissions and mistakes of the last one behind it and engage on a new road to reform, is to ignore completely the triumphalism of Labour ministers and their single minded devotion to office whatever the price that has to be paid by the people who vote for them. They have abandoned their social democratic credentials without a word of regret, but with the singular jubilation of bog-standard politicians who have suddenly discovered the full fruits of high office and intend above all else to go on enjoying them. 

 There is another reaction to all these developments which is even more corrosive than Toynbee’s and Walker’s. This is Colin Hay’s assertion that there is ‘no alternative to neo-liberalism and globalisation’. He appears to argue that because Labour governments have now been corralled by capitalism, and forced to abandon their social democratic credentials, there is now no alternative to their policies. This is the policy of resignation and despair. There is no democratic alternative to Tory policies, argue the New Pessimists, so we had better accept them even when they are carried out by ministers calling themselves Labour. The inevitability of corporate power and corporate control commends itself most sweetly to the directors of corporations. 

But there is no reason why any of the rest of us should bow before them. There is plenty of evidence in the past and even now that these policies can be resisted and reversed. Corporations do not always get their own way. The establishment of the British National Health Service, the ending of apartheid in South Africa, the toppling of post-war dictatorships in Greece, Spain and Portugal – all these were accomplished against the corporate stream. Even today, while capitalism boasts its omnipotence, it is stopped in its tracks by mass protests in Seattle, Prague and Nice. Resistance can be as international, as globalised, as capitalism is, and, unlike capitalism, it offers hope and life to the exploited millions. There is nothing mystical or superhuman about capitalist power. It is managed and controlled by human beings and can also be changed by human beings. It can and must be resisted with all the power at our disposal... 

 Voting is only one infrequent and often emasculated form of protest. But voting is still a crucial opportunity to make use of our democratic rights. Our votes are important in proportion to their links to the real powers at our disposal. Every vote for [socialists] will put new heart and spirit into the growing ranks of people prepared to fight. Socialist candidates are standing not to further their own careers, still less to secure a parliamentary salary (they will only take an average wage if they get elected), but because they are horrified by what has happened to the labour movement and are determined to set it back on track. 

In a recent pamphlet, The Captive Party, the veteran socialist Michael Barratt Brown appealed to socialists to recall the alternative society that socialism promises: 

All forms of health and childcare and the care of the disabled would be free. Education would be free at every age right through to lifelong learning. Housing would be available at reasonable rents with access by foot to shops and parks and gardens, and to many workplaces. There would be a wide range of opportunities for work in production and services with appropriate training built in. There would be no discrimination at work on grounds of gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Pensions for the aged and invalid, and payments during sickness and unemployment would be provided on a universal scheme based on contributions related to income. Planning of land use, road and rail transport, industrial location, and the balance of urban and rural activities would be subject to the most open examination and discussion. In all walks of life, at work and at home, in all workplaces and public institutions, management would be subject to agreed forms of consumers’ and workers’ controls. We have the resources for all this. We just have to find how to change the system from one of private greed to that of public gain.

 As a start, just a start, you should vote socialist.'

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