“Eric Samuel Heffer (12 January 1922 – 27 May 1991) was a British socialist politician. He was Labour Member of Parliament for Liverpool Walton from 1964 until his death. His working-class background and consciousness fostered his left-wing politics.” (Wikipedia entry, as at 18/10/20190.)
Eric Heffer speaks
Eric Heffer talks about why the Labour Party ended up choosing someone like Kinnock to lead it, and airs his opinions on other issues.
L&TUR How do you explain the fact that the Labour Party has ended up with someone like Neil Kinnock running it?
E.H. The first thing is that when Thatcher came into office it was a great shock to the party. She did not merely do what Heath had done, she actually did begin to overturn and make inroads into the Welfare State and the National Health Service. This had never been done before: the undermining and destroying of the positive things that had been done by the Labour party in the 1945-51 years. Up to then, these things had been more or less accepted by the Conservative party, under Macmillan in particular. Yet she referred to Macmillan’s years as “creeping socialism”. She wanted to destroy that, and she set out to destroy it. That was a traumatic experience for the Labour party membership.
We had hoped that we could win in 1983, but of course it did not work out. Nice though the fellow leading the party was, and nice though the pictures were which showed him walking on Hampstead Heath with his white hair, his stick and his slight limp, the impression was somehow given that the Labour party was decrepit, and falling to pieces.
Then there was the confusion created by the breaking away of the SDP, which managed to give the impression that it was the old Labour party, the real Labour party. These things, together with the “Falklands factor”, contributed to the defeat in 1983. And generally, I think, the party was in a state of trauma, so they wanted to skip a generation and elect a younger leader. They wanted someone of the centre-left, not of the right, who, with a right-wing deputy, could be a compromise.
But there was more trauma to come. After the leadership election Mrs Thatcher continued in the same way. But instead of the leadership exposing her and fighting every inch of the way on a socialist programme for what they really believed in, they started the “me too-ism”. Instead of fighting on the socialist programme as they had found it- and you could not really expect more than that – they said, “We are the same as you are. Vole accept your agenda”.
That had a traumatic effect. And by that time the trade union leaderships also were giving in to the legislation that the Tories were bringing in. It was an absolute cock-up in every way.
L&TUR Do you put that down essentially to Kinnock and his politics?
E.H. I think Kinnock had a dramatic effect on it. Contrary to a lot of people, I believe in the role of the individual in history. Mrs Thatcher gave a decisive lead to capitalism. Without her it might never have been as it is today. Without Kinnock, in my opinion, the party would not have been as it is today. He was able to do things that other leaders couldn’t get away with. And, of course, he did. He transformed our policies. He dished unilateral nuclear disarmament. He has got rid of the idea of public ownership – not that I agree entirely with the idea of public ownership as it was in the past. But at least it was public ownership, and we could have improved it. But Kinnock has got rid of it. It does not mean a thing any more. We have accepted the Tory policies with relation to the unions. They sometimes say things about union policy which arc far worse than what Barbara Castle ever said, and is, in fact, in line with Tory policy. So, yes, Kinnock has played a key role in the transformation of the party. And then he went and did precisely what some of us said would be disastrous. Instead of dealing with the ultra-left, and with Militant in particular, in our own way – fighting them at local level, having people stand against them and organise against them – he carried out a witch-hunt. This went right through the country. And the result is that the
Tories and the Liberals are able to use the witch-hunt to claim that Labour is divided. Yes, Kinnock is basically responsible for what has happened.
L&TUR What do you put it down to? E.H. I think it is true to say that he is still involved in student politics. He surrounds himself with a team of people, particularly the younger ones, who were all involved in student politics. I remember that when Neil first came into the House of Commons I was very friendly with him, and went out of my way to help him. He was a young man who I thought had a great future – he certainly had, but it wasn’t quite the future I anticipated. That went slightly wrong!
I can remember a meeting of the ‘Right to Work’ campaign organised by the Socialist Workers’ Party. They organised quite a few marches, and on one occasion they marched from somewhere in the North down to London, and the final meeting they had was in one of the committee rooms of the House of Commons. Neil was there, and I was there and other Tribunites were there, and the audience was shouting for a general strike. When I got up to speak I said that the calls for a general strike were a load of rubbish, and that it was ridiculous for students, and others, to chant ‘General Strike!’ When Neil got up he said he agreed with them about a general strike, and I felt I was being marginalised, even though most of the lads agreed with me. It was interesting, and I remembered that. I also remember him making a speech in South Wales calling for nationalisation without compensation. I never, ever argued that. I always said there should be some compensation for some people, minimal, but we do have an obligation. It is most interesting that he was really on the left, even, in a sense, on the ultra-left. Then, of course, he began to move, and it indicated to me that he wasn’t rooted in anything. You must have roots – real roots in the movement. And having roots in the student movement is not quite the same thing. I fear that Kinnock has never really changed.
L&TUR Do you see any possibility of an alternative to Kinnock?
E.H. I suppose it is too late now, because we are too close to a general a general election. But I would have settled for someone on the right, one of the younger people, as long as they had shaped better and had more roots in the movement – even though they wouldn’t be my personal cup of tea. But you have to ‘live and let live’ if you want to win an election, and the beginning of any stage of our future development is winning an election.
L&TUR You are one of the few people who has been active in politics since the Forties and Fifties. Obviously as the Bevin Society, we would like to know what you think of Bevin and the attitudes that are taken towards him.
E.H. Well, Bevin was undoubtedly a great figure within the Labour movement and he did create the biggest union within the Labour movement. It has to be remembered, of course, that he began as a Left-winger and was associated with Left-wing groups of all kinds. He was a very considerable figure. The great tragedy was of course that we had a leader who was a pacifist, Lansbury, who believed that all you had to do was talk to Hitler and Mussolini and they wouldn’t pursue their imperialist and fascist aims. Well of course he was wrong, but the movement had had a very strong pacifist streak in it ever since the first World War and had more or less repudiated violence in every way. But it was clear that the German rearmament under Hitler could no longer continue, and parts of the left felt that as strongly as people on the right. In fact some people on the right were also pacifist!
Of course what Bevin did was pretty brutal, but unfortunately looking back on it if I had been around and active in the movement I would have supported him. I would have voted for him at conference because I think he was right and that Lansbury, though a wonderful man and a great socialist , was wrong. And if he was wrong then that has to be said. It is later that I would have fallen out with Bevin, after the war, on trade union matters. I have always believed that workers should have the right to strike even against a Labour government. It is a fundamental right.
I was also influenced by the Israel situation after the war. We all felt guilty about happened to the Jews after the war. And I supported very much the promotion and creation of the state of Israel after the war.
L&TUR Do you think he was wrong about Israel?
E.H. It is easy to say with hindsight, but there should have been provision for a Palestinian state and we shouldn’t have allowed the Israelis to carry out their terrorist attacks on the Palestinian people in the way they did. Yes I think he was wrong. I said so at the time because I nearly volunteered to go and fight for Israel, it was only because I had just got married and it wouldn’t have been fair to my wife, that I didn’t go. But we felt a great deal of not personal, but collective guilt after they had opened up the camps at Dachau and elsewhere.
L&TUR It is said in Bevin’s defence that he was not supportive of Israel because he feared an even worse repetition against the Jews in the middle of the Arab world.
E.H. Well he may well have been right because it was a very complicated situation and Crossman and the others had come back with a policy report and they thought they were more important than they really were.
L&TUR The 1945 Government was the highlight of that period. What momentum was lost that led to so many years of Tory rule?
E.H. I think it was the Morrisonian concept afterwards of consolidation. I think the idea of consolidating after three and a half or four years of good work was a mistake, We should have had a rolling programme and continued to fight. Because we did actually win the biggest vote ever won in this country in 1950. It was because of the electoral system that we only just scraped into power.
L&TUR What are your views on the electoral system now?
E.H. Well I have always supported that system because it enabled us to do the things we did but I think that now there may have to be some modification because the idea of having a minority Tory government for ten years is simply appalling.
L&TUR What system do you think could replace first by the post?
E.H. Well I think that first past the post should remain throughout the country but I think that there has to be stricter control over the sizes of the electorate. And I think that a certain percentage of votes could be cast on a PR basis. We cannot have a position which is like it is now.
L&TUR Do you think that the present electoral system works to the disadvantage of women and ethnic minorities?
E.H. I think that the parties themselves discriminate more than the system itself does. The parties should select more women and ethnic minority candidates. The problem is that a quota system causes its own problems.
L&TUR Why do you think they don’t select more women and people from ethnic minorities? Would you put it down to prejudice?
E.H. I think it is a historical thing, though there is a certain amount of prejudice against women in particular.
L&TUR One of the issues that we are particularly concerned with is the Irish situation. As a Liverpool MP you obviously have some feeling for the Orange and Green conflict. What are your thoughts on the Northern Ireland situation?
E.H. I have a real feel for the Orange/Green conflict. I married into a Liverpool Irish family which is half Catholic and half Protestant, so I learned about it fairly early on. When I stood for the council and got involved in Labour politics I found people on both sides of the fence in Labour politics in quite high positions. I noticed first that within the council there wasn’t too much of a problem at least in my ward. But I remember canvassing in the parliamentary seat and going to the door of a house I knew was not likely to be one of ours because there was a brass statue of King Billy in the window. An old lady came to the door in her shawls and petticoats and I introduced myself as the Labour Party candidate. “I don’t vote papist” she said. “I’m not a papist” I said, “I’m asking you to vote Labour”. “That’s what I mean” .she said “I don’t vote papist”. The rest of the area was the same then, protestant to the core. But that has all changed now and it’s a solid Labour area. It has all broken down and people vote on the basis of their class attitudes, not their religious attitudes, and that is excellent. I have to admit that I have always been a republican. I was a republican long before I went to Liverpool. My Dad taught me about republicanism, although he was a British soldier. He was brought up in the Labour movement and had a real sympathy for a united Ireland and for figures like Connolly and the great Irish trade unionists like Larkin. To him they were great heroes, and he taught me all about them – on his knee, actually. But the more you get involved, and the more you know, the more you realise how complicated it is. I was fascinated to read about the debates of the Workers’ League, one of which was a debate between Connolly and William Walker. And then, of course, I learned about Harry Midgely and read a biography of him. All the unionists were not right wing, were not capitalists by any means, but were real working class.
L&TUR Do you think there are a lot of people in the movement who do not have such a feel for the Irish situation and jump to conclusions very quickly?
E.H. I’m afraid some do. Some don’t really understand it at all but just get up and mouth policies which they don’t really understand. I have argued with them over the years that it is not quite as simple as that; it is more complicated.
L&TUR You have been very busy with your writing since your illness. Could you describe some of the work you have been doing?
E.H. I have written quite a number of articles. There was one about the Labour party conference, which was pretty strong; also one about the future of Europe. Ny memoirs are going to be published, I hope. in September. Then there is why I am a Christian, which will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in September or October. This attempts to answer many of the questions on religion which I have tended to dodge. I wasn’t religious from the age of 16 or l”‘ until I went to Israel, where I had a certain religious experience and went back to the Church, though I had never really left it. I often went into a church during that time and sometimes went to Midnight Mass and Mass on a Sunday. After writing that book, I realised that there was a great debate going on about the future of socialism. Mrs Thatcher and the Tories were claiming that it had all collapsed through them. But she wasn’t the only one. The Communist Party in this country contributed towards it: people like Martin Jacques, among others, so I thought I’d better do something about that and I wrote a thirteen-chapter book called Has Socialism a future? It is with the publishers at the moment. After I had written that, I decided I was sick and tired of what the Labour party had done about the Gulf situation and I have written a book about that which is in the last stages of being typed.
L&TUR Were you shocked by Fred Halliday’s position?
E.H. I was, because Fred Halliday is a friend of mine. He was a member of my Middle East committee, and a very good member. Whenever we wanted a paper about the Middle East, particularly about Iran or Iraq, he knew a hell of a lot about it; he was an expert. I was really shocked, yes.
L&TUR Why do you think he took up that position?
E.H. It surprised me, because he understands the situation as well as Noam Chomsky understands it. Indeed, he was that sort of critic in his books on the cold war and the US. These were absolutely wonderful. I really don’t know the answer. He is obviously very upset about it, because his reaction to those who wrote about it, particularly to young Cockburn, was very nasty. I have dealt with some of his arguments in my book • as a friend, as an old friend.
L&TUR Are there any other things you would like to say?
E.H. I would like to make a comment about your paper. I am very impressed with it. I know that the politics of the paper is not entirely the same as my own. We had always regarded it as a somewhat right-wing paper – not that I had ever read it. No one had ever drawn it to my attention. But since you gave me back copies, and I have had a chance to read it, I think it is an excellent paper. All grist to your mill. Carry on. You are doing a good job. I am sure I won’t agree with everything you say, but that doesn’t matter. The essence of my socialism is libertarian socialism. I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of thought. Socialism to me is the right to disagree, as Rosa Luxemburg said.
This article appeared in May 1991, in Issue 23 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.