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Book brings memories of an old adversary

By Graham Cooke - posted Thursday, 9 January 2014

A period of indisposition gave me the opportunity to catch up on some reading and in particular a book, sent to me under mysterious circumstances some years ago, which until now I had put to one side.

The book, The Vote: How it was Won and How it was Undermined, by Paul Foot, was not sent by the publishers, Penguin, nor could it have been from the author, as I had read his obituary a few months earlier. I can only surmise that it had been sent by someone connected with him, perhaps a family member, who thought I would be interested.

I knew Foot decades ago in the United Kingdom, but I can hardly say we were friends. We had a few outstanding rows at National Union of Journalists conferences in the late 1960s and early 70s, when we were ideologically poles apart, myself an advocate of a moderate middle-of-the-road negotiating path for the union and he an out-and-out Marxist, demanding all forms of industrial disruption as a means of instigating a worker-led revolution against the Government of the day, leading to the installation of an administration that would take over the productive and financial capacity of the nation leading to what he believed would be a true socialist democracy.


While I might have refined my views and moved slightly to the left over the years, Foot remained fixed on his far-left vision until his death from a pulmonary aneurysm in 2004 at the age of 66.

He came from a family steeped in political activism. His grandfather was Isaac Foot, a Liberal Member of Parliament at Westminster. His father, Hugh, was British Ambassador to the United Nations during the Wilson Labour Government of 1964-70 and an uncle, Michael, led the Labour Party after its defeat in 1979 and might well have become Britain's Prime Minister had the Falklands War not intervened to boost the previously failing popularity of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Paul Foot was also an outstanding investigative journalist, his ideological credentials pushing him to go the extra mile to expose institutional corruption and support those who he believed had been wrongfully sentenced for terrorist offences. In several cases his work was instrumental in having convictions overturned. Despite stints on several national newspapers at different times during his career, his first loves were the satirical magazine, Private Eye, and the Socialist Worker newspaper where he was employed for at a fraction of the wage he could have earned elsewhere.

He apparently described The Vote as the crowning achievement of his literary career. He worked on it for more than a decade and finished it just months before his death. In fact its bibliography had to be completed by his children. In part it is a masterly example of sustained research and historical scholarship, beginning with the initial push for universal manhood suffrage by the Levellers during Cromwell's Commonwealth in the 17th century, to the reform movements of the 19th century and the final victory of votes for women in the 20th.

At this point ideology takes hold. Foot attacks early Labour Party figures: Ramsay McDonald, for all his fine speeches, sold out the labour movement to lead a National Government composed mostly of Tories and Liberals; Clement Attlee led a post-war Labour Government with a large majority that went some way towards the socialist dream by nationalising health, the railways and mines, but then lost its nerve; the Wilson Government in the 60s and Jim Callaghan's of the late 70s were thwarted by international capitalists – the 'Gnomes of Zurich'.

He reserves his greatest condemnation for the so-called New Labour of Tony Blair under whom "the unions remained shackled by Thatcher's laws and workers became increasingly passive and demoralised by their passivity". Meanwhile New Labour Ministers "basked in the enjoyment of their new importance and abandoned their youthful aspirations".


Foot was firmly of the belief that once socialist leaders begin to make compromises with the capitalist system, they are lost to true socialism. He despaired of Parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage bringing only a succession of leaders who ritually betrayed the people who voted for them. The only path to true democracy was through revolutionary socialism.

This was hardly a view in keeping with the times in which he lived, but Foot never wavered. He cheerfully admits that in his one attempt to enter Parliament, representing the Socialist Workers Party in a working-class Birmingham constituency, he received one per cent of the vote, well behind the candidate from the ultra-right National Front.

Even with New Labour riding high and politics everywhere seeming to take a rightward turn he could take heart from the 1999 street demonstrations in Seattle against a meeting of the World Trade Organisation - "a symbol of world capitalism and its relentless desire to snuff out what is left of public ownership and public responsibility" - and successive protests whenever organisations with a hint of international capital about them, chose to meet. Had he lived I am sure he would have drawn similar satisfaction from the Occupy Wall Street movement and its various offspring around the world.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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