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Leader's speech, Blackpool 1982

Michael Foot (Labour)

Location: Blackpool


At the time of this conference, unemployment was rising, and Foot blamed Thatcher’s monetarist policies for destroying jobs. He also accused the Tories of wrecking the oil, steel and coal industries, and of planning to dismantle both the social security system and the NHS. The latter was embroiled in a pay dispute with the government, and on 22 September health and other public sector workers held a day of industrial action. In a wider context, socialist parties winning power across Europe, and India had recently refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

I think the scene which we have just witnessed a few minutes ago must have the effect of making us all feel proud and humble at the same time, and I believe all of us can draw inspiration from what they have said to us.  I take some special encouragement from the political scene.  If my arithmetic is correct – it usually is except when I rely on advice from Denis Healey – I have got about 17 years to go before I reach Mrs Coombe’s standards of withdrawal.  (Applause)

I know that some latitude is often allowed to those who make the parliamentary report, and I would like to draw upon that tradition, if I may, in order to be able to say something to the party which I hope can be of benefit to us all and help us in the outward struggle that all of us wish to engage in, over these weeks and months ahead in order, to save this country.  So I must start by looking at the scale of the human and industrial tragedy which has befallen our country over recent years.

Sometimes the scale of that tragedy is underestimated; sometimes there is an attempt by our opponents to conceal it.  But it is necessary that we should strip aside all the disguises, and tell the country the full truth about it.  Last year the unemployment figures went up by something like 350,000 – 45,000 in the past month.  They go steadily and remorselessly upwards.  Sometimes our politic opponents tell us mendaciously that this is something not so very different from what happened under the Labour government.  But, even so, they were much higher than anyone would have judged to be proper in a civilised society.

But something far worse than that has been happening in recent years.  During the period of the Labour government, despite the fact that the unemployment went up, the jobs went up too.  And, curiously, there were more jobs available in 1979 when we left office than ere were when we came in in 1974.  Nothing like that is happening now.  Job destruction has happened on a scale that we have never seen before in our history, and it is happening on a scale which has not been seen in almost any other country of the world.  I am not disguising for a moment the scale of the world economic crisis – and I will have, of course, something to say about that too – but the excuses that are made by Mrs Thatcher for what has happened are ones that cannot bear a moment’s examination.

She tells us en that similar increases are happening in other countries, and that we can take comfort from the fact that – in this same period when our unemployment has gone up over 350,000 or so – it has gone up half a million in West Germany, two million in America and that it has increased in many other parts of the world as well.  And, of course, there is some likeness.  Reaganism is like Thatcherism, and the other way round.  But what she does not seem to appreciate is that both of them cannot be defended, and the combination of the two together is what threatens the world on a scale that we have not known for generations.

There is, indeed, an eerie likeness in reading the comments of some of the people in the United States about how their policy is now developing, as if they are surprised about it.  They are following the same tragic policies that she initiated here, and they are having the same tragic results – although the consequences will be even wider because of the greater economic power and influence of the United States itself.  But to read the people commenting on what is happening in the United States at the moment is almost like seeing an old television programme on the big screen: you cannot understand why the actors do not realise how the story is going to turn out in the end.

Thatcherism, Reaganism or monetarism – whatever you like to call it – is threatening our world on a scale that we have not known for generations, and in some respects the threat to the world economy is even worse than what we experienced in the Thirties.  This is the seriousness of the situation.

Sometimes, true, we disguise from ourselves what may be the consequences of it.  We can see in our own country how Thatcherism and her policies hit the weakest of all, but what is happening on the world scene is even more serious.  Thatcherism, Reaganism, monetarism, the policies of parts of the Western World (I will come to some of those who are seeking to fight against it in a moment) – are hitting the poorest people in the world, the people from the developing world.  The poorest people in the world are suffering from these Thatcherite policies applied across the world.  And we in the Labour Party must never forget what they are doing, and must always seek to put the argument on that same world scale.

But do not let us imagine that in any way absolves the Tories from what they are doing.  What they are doing is to intensify the world crisis that was already prevailing on such a scale.  Indeed, you might say, in one sense, that what we are suffering from now is not so much the slump as the Tory means of recovery from a slump.  And the means that they are applying are intensifying that crisis on a scale that has not been seen for generations.

But do not let anybody disguise the fact from us, or seek to conceal it, that here in Britain – despite our interest in the worldwide international crisis and its scale – people have suffered even more, and our industrial collapse has been an even bigger collapse.  Since 1979 Britain has lost 9 per cent of its jobs.  Only Spain comes anywhere near, with 6 per cent.  All other industrial countries, except Germany and France, have had increases in jobs over that period, and the loss of those two countries has been less than 1 per cent.  This trend has continued unabated in the latest figures: in the last year for which such estimates are available, Britain continued to lose 3 per cent of its jobs; Spain 2 per cent; Germany and Canada 1 ½ per cent; Italy, France and Sweden 1 per cent; and the United States and Norway 0.5 per cent.  So that though job destruction is massive in many other parts of the world in world slump terms, here it is on a bigger and more massive scale than anything we have seen in this century.

And it is not only the jobs that are destroyed in individual places and for the individuals concerned: one industry after another has been misapplied on a scale which almost passes comprehension.

For much of the period of the postwar world, as we know – those who were in the previous governments know – one of the biggest constraints we have had on expanding our economy has been that of the balance of payments itself, and the fact that we were not able to carry through the policies of expansion that we wanted, because of the deficit.  The oil should have saved us from all that.  But instead this government has squandered the oil.  Instead of using it for the purpose of industrial investment, for providing for the future, for transforming our industrial structure – they have used it solely to pay for mass unemployment and to conceal for a short period the appalling injuries that they have inflicted on this country.  (Applause)

Some of you may remember the famous remark that Aneurin Bevan made at the end of the war; he said that in a country made of coal and surrounded by fish, it took an organising genius to produce a shortage of both at the same time.  This Thatcher government has outdone all the Tory predecessors in the massacre of national assets, and it has taken the genius of Thatcherite economics to ensure that the one western economy self-sufficient in energy has been transformed into the worse industrial wasteland in postwar history… (Applause)

What are they going to do about our oil industry now?  It is barely credible, but when they come back and we meet in parliament – of course, we will resist it with all our strength – the next proposition that they have on the agenda for us and the country is that we should sell off our oil to their friends, or maybe even to the country’s enemies – because nobody knows exactly where it is going to be sold.  (Applause) We will do everything in our power to resist that gross betrayal of the rights of the nation. 

Or steel.  I agree with the resolution that is on the order paper for this conference, and I understand the shiver of anxiety which is now going through the great steel areas of our country about another great blow to be inflicted on that industry.  I know it because of the part of the world where I came from; but I went up to the North East the other day and, of course, they are shivering with anxiety too that a further blow on top of everything that has happened to steel is going to be inflicted upon them.

The Tories do not seem to need a steel industry, but we in the Labour Party and in the next Labour government – we will need a steel industry, so we must fight to protect it now and to protect the jobs there now.  (Applause) You will never be able to build full employment in Britain, as we are pledged to do, on 12, 11, 10 million tonnes of steel.  We have got to get back to the targets that we had before us a few years ago.  We will need 20 or 25 million tonnes of steel in order to build real full employment in this country. (Applause) We must stop the wreckage of the steel industry now, not only in the interests of the steel workers and all those associated with them, but in the interest of the whole nation.

One of the very first tasks which the last Labour government undertook was to establish and introduce and finance and back the Plan for Coal.  It looks as though that is one of the very first tasks we will have to do as a Labour government when we come in again; and certainly we will carry through the Plan for Coal – bring it up to date, and ensure that we protect one of the most essential sinews of the future industrial strength of this country.

But look at how they have wrecked one industry after another.  Look how they have been prepared to accept mass unemployment on a scale we have not known since the war and, indeed, perhaps since before the war.  You would think that that was sufficient; you would think that these were the problems to which they might be applying their minds in the cabinet.  Not at all.  If the reports about their so-called Think Tank are correct, they have chastised us with whips, and all they have done at the recent cabinet meetings is to prepare the scorpions.  What they are proposing to do now, it seems, is – even to consider it at such a moment as this is an outrage against human decency – to dismantle the higher educational system of this country at the very moment when the country is going to be crying out for more skill and more brains over the next 10 or 20 years.  (Applause) What they have been considering is the destruction of the system, dropping even the pretence – because we know that they have already injured it – of trying to sustain social security provision to keep pace with inflation.

We know that they have done everything in their power over the past two or three years to undermine those principles applying to a whole range of members of the public.  But now what they are doing is a larger scheme to dismantle the social security system itself.  And further and beyond that, what they are apparently considering is the dismantlement of the health service itself, and the destruction of the essential socialist principles on which that health service was founded.  Well, we will fight them on all those matters with every power – in parliament, out of parliament, and everywhere else.  (Applause)

I congratulate all those who organised and participated in the day of action on September 22.  I agree with everything that was said in the debate which opened this great conference on Monday on the subject, and I certainly believe that what happened then can be an example and an inspiration to us all.  But what we have to do in that field – the name of it is low pay.  That is what we have to deal with, and we have got to have a  policy, not only for tackling this government on it, but of ensuring that, when we get the next Labour government, we deal with that problem in perhaps a more ambitious way than we have ever done before.  (Applause)

I am not saying that in any derogation of what we attempted before, because I know what we did attempt.  I know that one of the first things we did in 1974 was to proceed with the trade union minimum which we had discussed with the TUC beforehand.  It was some mitigation of the situation; it was a move in the right direction.  But I know also what happened later and the misunderstandings that arose.  I know also of the discussions – because I participated in them all – which took place right at the end, and involved the establishment of the Trade Commission and the other comparability studies that were prepared then.  I believe that, if that policy had been followed, this strike need never have occurred and, indeed, the whole of the health service would have been in much better shape on that account.

But I am not merely saying that we should revive the Clegg procedure or something comparable to it; I am not merely saying that we should proceed on these lines.  As I have said, in the field of low pay alone, I believe that we have got to use that as the way in which we design a whole new policy for ensuring that we shall avoid such industrial disputes when we have the next Labour government, by seeing before hand how we can provide the means of fair treatment for the lowest paid and a real low pay policy.  I know the TUC passed a resolution on this subject a few weeks ago; I think we should follow that up – I believe these matters should, of course, be devised in full consultation with the trade unions.

And that is the great difference between us and the other parties in the state.  We are the only party that can shape an economic policy for the nation in association with the trade unions.  We are the only party that understands that that is absolutely essential; in that sense, we are the only party that can recruit the genuine democratic forces of the nation to enable us to escape from this catastrophic slump in which we are caught.

The idea peddled by some – that somehow or other the British people can escape from such a crisis as this when the whole of the trade union movement has had the door slammed in their faces and there is no discussion with about how we should deal with the crisis – such nonsense is barely credible, particularly after the experience of the last 30 or 40 years.  Well, we in the Labour Party and in the labour movement as a whole must draw the moral more closely than ever; right from the very first day we must have the closest possible co-operation with the unions.  Indeed, the more we can prepare those plans in advance, the better we are likely to be able to put them into operation on the first day.  Indeed, many, most, all the policies on these economic matters presented to conference have been devised by those methods, by those means and by those discussions, and thereby offer the possibility of success.

In this context, when I say that we are the only party in the state that can offer this to the nation, I should make some passing reference to the other parties.  I notice that Mr Roy Jenkins a few days ago, having dealt with the momentous questions of proportional representation and the disposition of seats in the Alliance, has now been kind enough to indicate that he is prepared to give his mind to the affairs of the nation.  It is very gracious of him, is it not?  I think it is very gracious of him to make such a splendid gesture.  But I have to inform you – and I will do it quite quietly, because I do not want to cause too much offence – that in these discussions (I have looked at them fairly closely), he has been diddled by David!  If you want to find the list of seats that the SDP is not going to win at the next election, Bill Rodgers has got it – he’s been handed it.  And if we do our job properly there will not be enough SDP members in the next parliament for them to be able to have a three-way split when we carry through the repeal of the Tebbit legislation.  (Applause)

Of course, we have still got other matters to settle between ourselves and the trade unions.  I have followed with the utmost care the discussions and debates that took place at the TUC on this subject and on the national economic assessment, about which we have agreed.  We have had lengthy discussions about them, and we recognise the importance for the trade union movement and for the future Labour government in having those understandings and, indeed, in building on them and making them even clearer and more ambitious than they are.  That does not mean that a national economic assessment is a codename for an incomes policy – because it is not.  I am opposed to any statutory incomes policy.  Indeed, in the last Labour government I was one of the people who played a prominent part in abolishing the Heath statutory policy.  And I do not think that any such policy would ever work.  But I do say this too, and I say it especially because I heard the speech of the spokesman for the National Union of Mineworkers at the conference at the TUC when he referred to these questions.  He talked as if all the arrangements made under the social contract were not any use to anybody in the unions.  I tell you – and I do not think any miner will deny it – that pretty well the two best settlements that the miners had in this last 30 years were the two settlements made under the social contract.

I was associated in all the discussions with the miners in the first two or three days when we were seeking to get the strike called off.  We had to have a proper settlement to do that.  We had to bring pressure on the Coal Board in order to achieve it.  What the miners stood out for then, even after we had won the election (and I think they were quite right to do it), was a demand which at first the Coal Board were not prepared to accept, but which we were prepared to back.  The miners were demanding that the surface workers should get a decent deal, as well as the people at the face, and that the proportion between the two should be altered.  And it was altered.  It is a kind of primitive incomes policy if you like to call it that.  You can call it anything you like; but it is a way of trying to ensure – and individual unions can seek to do it and they can do it in their bargaining.  Indeed, if we are going to carry out what I talked about before, and what is in many of the resolutions about low pay, then we shall have to have policies that cover a much wider field.

I believe that that is well understood by everyone who has participated in these matters before, that we are determined that when we get that new Labour Government that we shall carry out our pledge to get the unemployment figure down to less than a million in five years.  It is a huge commitment that is going to take tremendous energy, application and determination.  There is no possibility of that happening if we have got a Labour government that is quarrelling with the TUC – not the slightest chance of that happening.  (Applause) So we have got to get it together; we are the only party in the country that can offer that road of salvation for our people.

But we have got to do it in the wider context too, we have got to do it in the international context.  It I sour plain duty as socialists to think in those terms, but it is also in our economic interest.  Because if anybody imagines that we can carry out our commitment to get the unemployment total down to a million in those five years in the context of an international economic blizzard without trying to stop that blizzard, that of course is nonsense.  So we have got to have an international economic policy too, a policy to deal with what the scourge of monetarism has inflicted on the rest of the world besides.  And although the task is an enormous one, we have got some considerable allies in other countries, many of them fighting for the same things that we are fighting for.  Fighting for them often in their own national context – but there is nothing wrong with that – but fighting for them to try to lift this Western world of ours out of this hopeless groove in which it is now stuck.

In France the election of President Mitterrand and a socialist government was a momentous event in the history of Western Europe.  (Applause) Do not be misled by the Tory tale that President Mitterrand is going to abandon all his policies.  President Mitterrand is a man who has shown considerable persistence throughout his political life, and I am sure he is going to do so over the next six or seven years when he is there to carry through his policies.  And it can be, if we co-operate, a great help to us.

There are many other places where it is happening.  In Greece they elected a good left-wing government, also dedicated to an expansionist policy.  We also welcomed the return of Olaf Palme to power in Sweden.  (Applause) It was Sweden under the socialists which, maybe, set as good an example as any other country in the world in dealing with this economic crisis.  It was a shame and a shock when they were turned out, but we are very glad to see them back, able to apply socialist doctrines there once more.

Austria has a good a record as any country in the world in dealing with this crisis, not merely in economic affairs but also in seeking to keep open the door of détente in this highly dangerous world.  And with Austria too, we welcome the work that they have done.

Even more, it is possible this autumn, when they have the election in Spain, that there will be elected for the first time since 1935 as prime minister of Spain a democratic socialist.  That will be an event of great significance, I believe, and certainly for all us in the Labour Party who remember some of those times.  I tell you, the Labour Party had got quite a good record in these matters because throughout most of the period of the Franco oppression – thanks primarily to the Transport and General Workers and Jack Jones, but not solely them – we kept open a Spanish workers’ defence committee which came to the aid of many socialists threatened with gaol and murder by the Franco tyranny.  We came to their aid – and the aid of many of those who now figure in the government which, I trust, is going to come to power in Spain.  (Applause)

We follow, too, with great anxiety the affairs in Germany.  It has been a fortunate matter, not merely for Germany but for the whole of Europe, that there has been a socialist government there in Western Germany over these years – a socialist government which has sought to apply some of the policies we agree with, not all of them but some of them, and also to keep open the door to a détente in Europe that has really got a chance of working.  And if, in fact, after all the work that they have done, if that government was set aside, it could be a grave setback for all democrats all over Western Europe.  We trust that nothing of the sort will happen.

However, if you look at that list, it is a somewhat different picture from the one that is sometimes presented, that of democratic socialism in retreat.  I tell you that that is not the case.  In many parts of the world, democratic socialism in coming back into its own precisely because it is the only creed truly relevant to such modern industrial conditions.  (Applause) Some of the countries I mentioned in that list, you may note, are in the Common Market; some of them are out of the Common Market.  That does not prevent international co-operation.  We are committed as a party to come out of the Common Market.  (Applause) That is a conference decision, like the one we took yesterday.  (Applause) But I say to you also – and I say it, I am sure, with the concurrence of everybody, in our party alongside that commitment (and I am not seeking to weaken it in any way at all) we are also committed as socialists to understand our international obligations, both in our own interests and in the interests of other countries and other socialist parties as well.  We must carry through our commitment in that field in a manner which is in proper conformity with our international obligations and our obligations as socialists to other people in other lands.  In the Eighties, more than ever, socialism is international or it is nothing, and if we do not understand that we have not understood the kind of world we live in.  (Applause)

This is the reason why we place such emphasis on the Brandt Report – we want to take it out of the pigeon holes, or the dungeons or wherever it is that they have buried it.  We want to improve the Brandt Report, we want to strengthen it; we want to make it a central feature of what is to happen in the Eighties throughout the world and between the poorer countries and the richer countries.  It is essential.  And I cannot help saying in passing that, in doing so, we shall be carrying out the instructions and the wishes of one of the spokesmen on this subject recently – one of the finest socialists most of us have ever met – Frank McElhone, whose death we so deeply deplore.  (Applause) If he were here, he would speak to us in these international tones, and we should not forget it. 

But I tell you also another reason, even more important.  Tomorrow Joan Lestor will introduce the international statement to the party.  I hope, by the way, that Joan Lestor – she is not only our spokesman on international affairs, she is also our spokesman on women’s rights, the first appointed in the history of the party – and I hope it will not be long before she is exercising that job in a cabinet as well.  And the sooner we can get there, the better.  (Applause)

Returning to this scene where, indeed, we need the co-operation and the enthusiastic co-operation of allies in order to succeed, I come to the most desperate question of all.  It is incomparably the greatest question, as I think we in the labour movement understand, even if it not to well understood elsewhere.  I mean the nuclear arms race, of course, and the other interlocking dangers.  Our policy for dealing with it is in that document.  I believe it is a very good document; it is going to be presented to conference tomorrow and I think it will be carried in the same terms that I have referred to some other conference decisions.

The situation is underlined afresh by the news we get from strange quarters, if you like to call it that.  I read only a few days ago the leading article in The Times, headed ‘India and the Bomb’.  It describes how India is one of the countries that refused to sign the non-proliferation treaty about nuclear weapons, because they did not believe that they should agree to accept the pressures which at that time were put upon them by the Americans, the Russians, ourselves and many others.  They did not sign, but they did not want to go ahead with building nuclear weapons; my guess is that they still do not want to do so because the burden for the people of India on top of their other burdens would be a very heavy one indeed.

However, like other people, the Indians look to see what is happening in some of their neighbouring countries: they have seen how some people have been not merely re-equipping Pakistan with so-called conventional weapons, but seeking to assist them in other nuclear fields as well.  And the Indians know that they have had arms races in their subcontinent – arms races fed, I am ashamed to say, from the West.  Some of the worst evils that are happening in the Third World are fed from the policies pursued here in Britain and the United States.  (Applause) So I want to see that we stop that arms traffic in other kinds of weapons, because – heaven knows! the scale on which that has increased is an obscenity almost as great as the nuclear arms race itself.

But I take note of what I read now.  This is why I was a supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and why I remain a supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  (Applause) I warn you that I am not reading from Tribune or even from Militant, but from The Times.  However, after they have discussed – and I think intelligently discussed – in this article the dangers for the world, the perils for India if in fact, they felt themselves forced into this ugly business of going into the nuclear arms race themselves, they go on: ‘However, it does not lie with existing Western members of the military nuclear club to argue that nobody else should be allowed to achieve the same status’.  Quite a powerful argument.

They go on to say: ‘If they were prepared to show their readiness to give up nuclear weapons, their arguments would be more convincing’.  I think that is true too.  I do not say it would all be done by an example, but I do say that if this country insists on saying ‘we will sustain our nuclear status whatever happens’, then a lot of other countries are going to say exactly the same.  (Applause)

But then The Times goes on about the sale of arms to Pakistan, which is part of the cause of the crisis: ‘Their methods’ – that is, the methods of the Western nations – ‘of controlling nuclear supplies have been subverted by the lure of commercial gain’.

Profit: people have been selling these arms for profit.  That is part of the danger, and it is all there in The Times.  It says that India may only decide to go nuclear if Pakistan does, and that applies in some other parts of the world as well.  I say that the greatest tasks that this labour movement of ours will ever have to undertake, when we get that next Labour government, is to carry out our policy for securing nuclear disarmament in this country and throughout the world.  (Applause)

But I say to you also that if we can realise that opportunity, it can be the greatest opportunity in the history of our movement.  And we have done some great things for our people and for other people – we do not need to be instructed in patriotism, or anything of the sort, from elsewhere.  (Applause) All through the Falklands crisis the phrase of George Orwell kept drumming in my ears: ‘I do not want to see England humiliated or humiliating anybody else’.  That is a very good form of patriotism, even if I ask my fellow Celts to join in such a tribute to English patriotism, because George Orwell would have put it in English terms.  That is not imperialism; it is upholding international authority and international rights.  It is upholding the international authorities which we, as socialists, have always said have got to be substituted for international anarchy.  We have got to hold to that doctrine too – more especially because there are fewer voices in the world raised on that account, and we have got to multiply their number.

We have got to prepare for that day – the day when we set about rescuing our country, the day when we set about changing the whole climate of international affairs.  It is going to be a great day when we start on that task, a great day that we will all wish to celebrate.  But we all know in our hearts, that if we are going to be able to succeed – particularly because our people, the British people, are a sensible, commonsense and intelligent people, and a compassionate and a tolerant people – the party that wins them has got to have those qualities too.  If we do not have those qualities we will not win.  (Applause) I believe that those qualities are deeply embedded in the whole of our inspiration.  From what we heard of the merit awarders a few minutes ago, they spoke to us in those terms too.  We have to revive that compassion and tolerance, the good nature and good will of our movement, on a scale we have never done before.  We have got to demonstrate to people with every possible power of advocacy at our command; we have not got all the newspapers assisting us and therefore we have got to say it all the more clearly and, on occasions, all the more in unison.  I am not in favour of doing it in unison all the time, because I know you have got to argue about lots of things; but I do say that you have also to set the world in its proper perspective.  And democratic socialism is relevant and more relevant than ever today, precisely because it does that.  H G Wells used to say; ‘You can throw socialism out of the window and you will come in and find it astraddle your hearth’.

And that is what is happening in so many parts of the world.  People are discovering, particularly in the poorest parts of the world, that the only way that they can lift their people from the gutter is by the power, intelligence and purpose of democratic socialist ideas.  (Applause)

So I ask you at this conference, although we concentrate on our own affairs, I ask you also to think in these international terms.  I would like to read to you the words that I came across in a book the other day, written by a great Italian socialist, Angelica Belabanov.  She wrote a book called My Life as a Rebel in 1936-37, under the fascist dictatorship.  But she put at the beginning of her book words quoted from a great German socialist, August Babel, and she wrote in terms that I believe elevate democratic socialism on an international scale to where it should be.  This is what she said:

And if in the course of this great battle (she was describing the battle against our political enemies) for the emancipation of the human race we should fall, those now in the rear will step forward and we shall fall with the consciousness of having done our duty as human beings and with the conviction that the goal will be reached, however the powers hostile to humanity may struggle or strain in resistance.  Ours is the world despite all!

Ours is the world!  That is what I say to you as socialists, here and throughout the rest of the world! (Standing ovation)

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