YP Michael Foot: Decent, Deluded and Doomed
Published in the Yorkshire Post 23 July 2013
Michael Foot, who was born 100 years ago today, was the most improbable leader of any modern major British political party.
Why did he win against Denis Healey? Why did his party stick to him? Would any major party ever choose anyone like him again? These questions are still relevant for British politics.
Michael Foot was the last Labour leader to be elected by secret ballot of MPs alone. In his final tally of 139 were dozens expected to support Healey. What was their motive? I became Denis Healey’s political adviser a few months later (so I admit to bias in everything that follows.) Some MPs told me that they voted for Foot because they thought a ‘soft-Left’ leader would head off the coming civil war in the Labour party, and help them survive being ousted in their own constituencies by ‘hard-Left’ activists. I was also told that 6 Foot votes came from MPs who wanted an excuse for defecting to the newly-formed SDP. If so, Foot’s majority came to him from flinching cowards and sneering traitors.
As so often happens, the leader chosen to keep the party together ensured that civil war was longer and more intense.
Foot could not cope with Tony Benn’s trashy and dishonest campaign for the Deputy Leadership. He never recognized the contest as an existential struggle for the party’s future, and tried to sit above it. At one point, he was goaded into a windy statement inviting Benn to challenge himself. Benn ignored it, and Foot had no further influence on the outcome. The contest itself was a giant asset to the Tories under Margaret Thatcher and to the SDP – but so too was Foot’s response. Voters could not understand a leader who did not seem to care about his deputy.
Throughout Foot’s leadership, we Healeyites felt like the Yorkists under Henry VI. Like Henry, Foot preferred scholarship to leadership. Like Henry, Foot had favourites and took key decisions with them in secret rather than through his council. (One was Foot’s botched effort to expel the extremist Militant Tendency from the Labour party). Like Henry, Foot was convinced that he was a good king. Several leading MPs invited him to abdicate: they were wasting their breath. In fairness, Foot believed in the policies which he defended as leader, especially unilateral nuclear disarmament. He ignored the evidence that most of them were box-office poison to the Labour party. I think he sincerely believed that if he gave enough speeches in Parliament and in public meetings he could make them popular. Foot kept his faith in these traditional methods of communication. Although in earlier times a fine journalist and television performer, he disdained modern media and refused to court them or even adapt to them.
Michael Foot surprised the nation with his principled support for the liberation of the Falkland islands. However, he was always a patriot. I believe that he had a flashback to the 1930s, which formed his political outlook. Here was aggression by a brutal fascist military junta. Foot was right, but unfortunately too many people on the Left who denounced fascist juntas as a matter of ritual refused to confront one in reality. Amid their chatter, Foot pulled back from his initial clear position. He lost his chance of a personal “Falklands factor,” and it worked only for Margaret Thatcher.
Unlike the Yorkists, our leader never claimed the throne. That was a prime reason for Michael Foot’s survival. Denis Healey never countenanced any move against him. There were no trade union barons with the steel of Ernest Bevin in 1935 when he ejected George Lansbury, a Labour leader not unlike Foot. A few private plots were hatched and fizzled out. There was a serious threat to him after Labour’s disaster in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election (an issue he mishandled) but Foot was reprieved by victory in another rushed by-election in Darlington.
Under his leadership, Labour had its worst general election result since 1918, narrowly escaping third place behind the SDP-Liberal Alliance, which would have condemned it to extinction as the main opposition. The disaster was not entirely due to him, but his leadership had made it consistently harder to tackle Labour’s other giant problems with voters – unpopular policies, undemocratic processes, a general reputation for disunity, crankiness, extremism and basic incompetence.
Could a Michael Foot get elected again? Labour still has a weakness for leaders who promise to unite the party rather than lead it anywhere. However, the conditions which produced Michael Foot have long disappeared. Today’s Labour party is no longer terrified of its activists: those that remain have been deprived of any serious influence.
I doubt whether a future Michael Foot would even be chosen as a Labour candidate. Like all modern parties, it seeks above all inoffensive candidates prepared to be manicured, both physically and politically, safe media performers who have positions rather than policies.
I found Michael Foot’s leadership unbearably frustrating at the time. Now I find a nostalgic respect for a leader who dressed as he pleased, said spontaneously what he believed in, and never tried to manufacture reality for the British people.