Socialist Worker

Tony Benn reviews Paul Foot's 'The Vote'

Tony Benn reviews Paul Foot’s last book, The Vote: How It Was Won and How It Was Undermined.

Issue No. 1940

Paul Foot was throughout his life a passionate fighter for freedom, justice, internationalism, socialism and democracy. Though his death has silenced his voice, his ideas and his commitment are still available to us through the printed word and the recording of his speeches. The Vote, his best, most scholarly and readable book will, I believe, be remembered as his most influential. It looks at the struggles we had to win our rights, re-assesses the struggle to maintain them and looks forward.

Paul had a wonderful sense of history and he writes in a way that makes it all live again. We can understand what these old battles were about, why they mattered and why they matter still.

He starts with the famous debates that took place in Putney Church in 1647 between the Cromwellian grandees and the radical Levellers. They read with a resonance that links us directly to the same arguments that now take place between governments and big corporations on the one hand and the people on the other.

He goes on to explore the faltering progress made in the 19th century that was only sustained by the Chartists, the suffragettes, the labour movement and the socialists who demanded the right to be represented in the House of Commons as the franchise became extended.

Paul’s account of this dramatic story is meticulous in its detail, allowing us to understand what a massive change in our system of government was involved by extending the vote. The powers that be conceded defeat only when they realised the strength of the popular movement that was demanding the vote.

Tony Benn

Tony Benn (Pic: Ray Smith)

The second part of the book deals with the way in which the progress made has been undermined by a series of factors. These include the capitulation of the social democrats to the onslaught from the growing power of capital, which was quick to see how it could recover the ground it had lost when the pressure on it eased.

He takes us through the industrial struggles of the 1920s and explains the differences of opinion, analysis and tactics that opened up inside the labour movement and the Labour Party, which still exist today.

Paul moves on to the classic betrayal by Ramsey MacDonald when he capitulated to the bankers in 1931 and formed a coalition with the Tories and Liberals. In the general election he then called, Labour was reduced to a mere 50 MPs. This ushered in the grim 1930s with slump, fascism, rearmament and war.

It is impossible in a review to do justice to the beautifully documented account that Paul has provided of the machinations of the right wing in the Labour Party to sidetrack the more radical — and relevant — campaigns that the left was seeking to develop.

Any serious student would do well to read and re-read it. I know of no better record of those years from a socialist perspective.

Paul goes on to explore the election of a left wing government in 1945. This government was demoralised by Cold War propaganda and the rising confidence of international business in its ongoing war against the interests of labour, which it had been elected to represent.

The last part helps us to understand the counter-revolution launched by Mrs Thatcher and the conversion of New Labour to its philosophy.

This important book is a major contribution to an understanding of British politics and the way it developed.

It gives us a new perspective for the future, to which we will often need to turn if we are to make sense of what is happening and rebuild the democracy to which Paul was so passionately committed.

The Vote: How It Was Won and How It Was Undermined by Paul Foot is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, at a special price of £20. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to See Bookmarks advert for details of the book launch

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Sat 26 Feb 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1940
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