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The Corruption of Politicians


John Simkin
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Paul Foot died last July. Here is an extract from his final book, The Vote: How it Was Won, and How it was Undermined (2005)

Again and again, as I grappled with this history, I was struck by the dramatic and sometimes very sudden changes in the political landscape. Sudden brightness can emerge from what seem like endless years of gloom. Encrusted reaction can turn almost overnight into great radical movements that can change the world. The changes are, I have argued, almost always associated with people's actions from below. That action, especially strikes, transforms not only popular moods but indi viduals as well. Standard biographies often assume that their subjects are consistent and can be analysed as though their characters were fixed and permanent. In reality, their only permanent feature is their susceptibility to change.

How to equate Ben Tillett, the fiery revolutionary strike-leader on the London docks in 1889, with the frightful TUC compromiser of 1927? Is Joseph Arch, the courageous strike-leader of 1874, really the same person as the drivelling Liberal MP a quarter of a century later? Nor is the drift always from left to right, from enthusiasm to despair. How can the deeply reactionary young Peter Porcupine turn into the angry old radical William Cobbett, so admired by Marx? And what exactly did happen to Tony Benn to change him from the keen young technocrat into the eloquent reformer of his old age?

Most of these changes reflect more general changes in the political landscape, almost all of which have been brought about by sudden and sporadic movements from below. All these movements, the revolutionary outburst of 1646 and 1647, the Paineite revolt of the 1790s, the massive wave of violence in 1831, the Chartists, the London dock strike of 1889, the Great Unrest from 1911 to 1914, the agitations of 1919 and early 1920, the General Strike, the "stupendous convulsion" during the second world war, the glorious summer of 1971, all these arose unpredictably, suddenly, out of the blue. This is the tug of war which will certainly, as Byron predicted, "come again", and is well worth organising for.

In 1972, I joined the staff of Socialist Worker and worked there full-time until 1978. It was, and is, sold as widely as possible by a small handful of agitators. The few full-time journalists on the paper were all my friends, all exceptionally able and engaging people.

The gentlest and most dedicated of them was a professional sub-editor called Geoff Ellen. He came from Chelmsford in Essex and was, among other things, an absurdly devoted West Ham supporter. He spent pretty well all his spare time organising for socialism. There was not a trade unionist in Essex he had not tried to push or pull into some form of revolt. On Tuesday nights we were kept late at work by the printing of the last few pages, and indulged ourselves in takeaway kebabs and long, heart-searching conversations.

As the great industrial climax of the early 1970s, to our astonishment, fell back, I began privately to worry that the entire revolutionary project, and the ideas that gave rise to it, were misconceived. One evening, as we waited for the proofs, I blurted out my apprehensions to Geoff. I had joined the staff in the autumn of 1972, at a time of huge convulsions and great hope for the future. If anyone had asked me, I would have said at once that I was hoping for, and confidently expecting, a revolution. By late 1975, however, I complained to Geoff, that change had not come. It was obviously not going to come from Harold Wilson or Dennis Healey, but we had always known that. In the decline of the movement, the issue seemed to have changed. Was the revolution going to come at all? And if not, what was to become of us if our grand aim in life was to be frustrated and even ridiculed?

To my enormous relief, Geoff cheered me up with his speciality: a huge all-enveloping grin. "If the revolution doesn't come," he said, "there is nothing much we can do about that. Whether it comes or not, there is nothing for us to do but what we are doing now: fight for it, fight for the workers and the poor."

Some years later, Geoff, still a young man, went to bed one night with a headache and died from a brain haemorrhage. All his adult life, he stuck firmly by his advice to me that dark winter evening in 1975. And so, I hope, have I.

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