Immediately after June 9th I went round in a daze, feeling like an alien, not a citizen of this country at all. I half expected everybody to have turned bright blue, or to hear military music blasting out of unseen amplifiers. Now, oddly enough, after this initial period of alarm and despondency, I feel quite energized by what has happened. Partly because it should force the Left into taking a much longer-term view of British politics—to think more strategically and in longer time-spans. Partly because the situation we are in now could lay the basis for building a mass extra-parliamentary resistance movement. But neither of these are inevitable. There is a real danger that apathy will become even more deeply rooted in the labour movement and that the Left will fall back into habitual and defensive ways of thinking and acting. The general election at least helped to clarify the nature of the political crisis: it did not represent an outburst of authoritarian populism, though nonetheless Thatcher has managed to maintain a large measure of her support. But it did prove how profound Labour’s moral as well as political defeat has been.
It was a defeat determined by the convergence of a wide range of political processes: the compromising strategies of the Wilson/Callaghan era; the culmination of structural shifts in the composition of the postwar working class; the failure of the Labour Left to build a more substantial base of support for its policies. These processes may well be apparently contradictory, and doubtless different sections of the Labour Party will select whichever one most suits them in apportioning blame. If we are to think constructively about remaking socialism, using a language and framework of reference that makes sense to groups and generations formed in a completely different political cast to our own, then the Left—both inside and outside the Labour Party—can no longer react, seismographically, to political currents and processes. Nor can it hark back nostalgically to past moments, as if they supplied answers rather than providing a historical perspective; nor content itself with organizational gains won by tactical and bureaucratic manoeuvres in the Labour Party and trade unions.
The election campaign itself already has an unreal quality about it. Working in Leeds Northeast—Keith Joseph’s constituency—it seemed at first as if I was taking part in two separate events—canvassing on the streets of Chapeltown and watching the campaign on television. Leeds Northeast is a safe Tory seat, and is even safer since the boundary changes. It stretches from Chapeltown—a classic inner city area of high unemployment, some of the worst housing in England, and a large black and Asian population—to the edge of Harrogate, opulent gentleman-farmer country. Between are rundown fifties ribbon development council estates and leafy avenues of suburban semis. In the event Labour was pushed into third place by the sdp. Yet it was amazing how solid the Labour vote remained in working-class areas. This was partly accounted for by the famous older generation of Labour voters; I remember in particular a row of rundown back-to-backs, unaccountably left standing on the side of a dual carriage-way admist general devastation, each containing a tiny old lady, all but one Labour supporters. But the support also seemed to be strong amongst Asian families and amongst youth.
Gradually, however, the Labour Party’s hopeless national performance (which can’t be simply excused as a media conspiracy) inevitably drained meaning and conviction away from local campaigning. From a position which I think many shared—one of support, tempered by scepticism, for Labour—an acknowledgement that the Party had moved to the left, though only superficially; I found myself growing more and more furious, caught up in an ever more farcical performance in trying to convince people that they should actually vote for Foot as prime minister. ‘Yes, of course I’ll vote Labour, but they’ve cocked it up, haven’t they?’ remarked one man on a council estate, and there wasn’t much one could do except agree. This local experience certainly wasn’t typical of national trends, of even of my constituency as a whole. But I felt here even more than in hostile sdp country, how profoundly the Labour Party, with its shufflings and compromises, had patronized and underestimated its own potential support, and thus lost, not the election (which was virtually inevitable from the start), but a moral victory on which a new movement could have been built in the future.
What are the possible futures for socialists? It has already become clear
The defeat may prompt Labour to actively participate in extra-parliamentary struggles, in the trade-union movement, around jobs and social services, in the campaigns initiated by the women’s movement, in the peace movement. However it’s more likely that involvement in these sorts of activities will be seen by the party leadership to be undermining Labour’s respectability and credibility, and that the defeat—particularly the blunders around unilateral disarmament—is likely to encourage the plp, supported by sections of the trade-union leadership, to reject unilateralism, to move backward on the inroads made by feminists, and to concentrate on high-profile media credibility. The concomitant danger is that a dichotomy will be set up by the Labour left between ‘real grassroots’ activity and the nasty media. But we can’t afford to be precious about the media and need to consider how to coordinate resources nationally. During the election the Tories’ media success was mainly to do with political control—Foot’s constructed image as a cross between King Lear and Worzel Gummage was the outcome of overtly vicious attacks.
But it was more than that—he really was hopeless, partly because he represents the dead rump of a cultural and political line that emerges in more positive forms elsewhere. The endless sentences and windy metaphors are the played out, negative underside of a rhetorical tradition that has had real power, and which still can work—in the style of E. P. Thompson for example. At the same time the Tories ‘won’ with the media partly because it appeared to metonymically express their control of the prototypical form of technologically advanced capitalism—the communications industry. I think it was Thatcher’s futuristic image—zapping about in hovercrafts and helicopters—that helped maintain her support rather than the ‘Victorian values’ stuff. Or at least how both were made to seem part of a coherent historical process.