Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Michael Foot, 1913-2010

It was sad to hear Michael Foot died earlier today, aged 96. Of all the Labour politicians of the last 30 years, Foot was probably the Labour left's best-known figure (after Tony Benn).

Foot had a long and fruitful career as a political journalist, author and politician. But there are certain defining moments of his life that will be endlessly recycled on today's news bulletins. Undoubtedly that visit to the cenotaph will be one of them (as Anton Vowl of Enemies of Reason tweeted earlier, "Let's play the Michael Foot drinking game. Every time that Cenotaph footage is on TV today, take a drink. We'll be dead by sundown").

Another of course will be the "longest suicide note in history", the 700 page Labour manifesto for the 1983 general election. Even the dogs in the street know this document, which was based on conference resolutions at Foot's insistence, is still ritualistically unearthed by the right to browbeat the left. It is blamed for the poorest showing for Labour in the post-war period and used to demonstrate the unpopularity of left wing ideas. Of course, all this forgets Thatcher coasted back into Number 10 off the back of Britain's victory in the war and the fact the Labour vote was split - its vote declined by approximately three million while the SDP took roughly the same number of voters over to the Alliance camp. Circumstances rather than the alleged centre right policy preferences of the British electorate better explain the increase in the Conservatives' majority.

Blairites and Brownites will hypocritically heap praise on a man whose unashamed social democratic ideas were a deep embarrassment to them. For socialists inside and outside the Labour party however, Foot's political career is a lesson in the limits of establishment radicalism. At best his socialism was firmly committed to the parliamentary road. At worst, he tailed establishment opinion by cheering on the Falklands War and attacked elements of the left in Labour. But for all that he was what is now that rarest of beasts - a conviction politician. If we had a few more Michael Foots today the Labour party would be a better place.


Michael Moran said...

I have decided to join the Labour Party, partly after your post, partly in despair at the sectarian left. this is a good blog post, and a good follow up would be a review of Kenneth O Morgan's biog of Foot.cheers and best

Phil said...

Welcome aboard!

Michael Moran said...


Anonymous said...

The 1983 General Election is usually dismissed as a disaster for Labour, attributable to Michael Foot's leadership.

But the real reason Labour's defeat was the SDP split in 1981, led by the prominent renegades in the Gang of 4; Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rogers and Shirley Williams.

These "Atlanticists" regarded Foot as too weak in his dealings with the left of the party, which was rapidly gaining ground in the constituencies.

They were right in one sense;
Foot was a centre-left leader who tolerated a "broad church" within the Labour Party.
Consequently the 1983 Manifesto was probably the most left wing in Labour's history with a big input from the membership;
It advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, progressive taxation, state intervention in industry, abolition of the House of Lords, nationalisation of the banks and withdrawal from the EEC.

The SDP splitters won nearly 7.8 million votes compared to Labour's 8.45 million.
This represented over 2 million more than Thatcher's Tories, despite the Falklands adventure.

But Michael Foot backed Thatcher's adventure in the Falklands from the outset. In doing so, he showed the political weaknesses that the Tribunite left had displayed since the 1940's when they refused to break with the National Goverment.

Unsurprisingly, the BBC obituaries are now dominated by the likes of Owen who helped stop a Labour victory in 1983, now telling us that Foot was a great "West Countryman".

Or Neil Kinnock, who took over in the wake of the defeat of 1983 blaming the left and leading the witch-hunt against it.
Even the David Cameron praises Foot for "standing with Churchill against Fascism" during the war.

These people have a finely honed instinct for exploiting political weaknesses in their opponents and Foot had many.


Anonymous said...

Socialism and Democracy: a debate with Michael Foot

"Was advocating extra-parliamentary direct action to bring down the elected Thatcher government anti-democratic? Are 'by democratic means' and 'by parliamentary means' identical concepts?

"Former Labour leader Michael Foot, who we debated in this pamphlet in 1982, and on the same issues at a public meeting in 1993, has just died. While sending sympathy and condolences to his family, friends and comrades, we draw the attention of socialists and labour movement activists to this debate as part of the discussion on Foot's political legacy."

Callum said...

"a conviction politician"

A bit of a journalistic cliche this. It's not that the fact that figures like Cameron and Blair "lack conviction" that makes them vile. What makes them vile is the bourgeois, anti-working class nature of their "convictions". George Osborne is an inveterate "conviction politician". He is a dyed-in-the-wool, principled, loyal and committed class warrior. What we seem to be assuming is that "conviction", no matter its content, is prima facie admirable. It isn't.

When we get our Tory government in a few months (as we will), we should all HOPE that Cameron and Osborne lack conviction. I fear they don't.

ModernityBlog said...


You'll have to change your tag line

"Sociology with a less than militant twist" :)

Anonymous said...

The 1983 manifesto was not "700 pages long." It was short enough to be stapled rather then bound.

Dylan said...

Ive lived on Mr Foot's street all my 33 years. He was a lovely gent who you could stop and talk to whenever you saw him, something i did from about 5 yrs old (when i invited him round for tea with my gran and he came) to a few years ago when i saw him last and he asked me about my studies.

Your final sentence – "If we had a few more Michael Foots today the Labour party would be a better place" – is very apt.

Although i think he was too good for the party today, a man of a different ilk to those in government now.

We'll miss him

skidmarx said...

I saw Foot at his nephew's memorial event at the Hackney Empire, where he got a very warm reception from an audience noticeably to his left. Although already physically struggling, he brought tears to the eyes with an account of Paul's attempts to obtain his copy of The Black Jacobins. Plymouth Argyle will find it hard to get another striker of his ilk.

Unknown said...

What Foot will be best remembered for in India is his support given to Indira Gandhi when she suspended democracy, jailed the opposition and imposed a "State of Emmergency" for a brief period. She then restored democracy, only to be thrashed in the following elections (she was only the second prime minister in history to lose her own constituency). But Foot's closeness to the unwavering democrat Nehru blinded him to the faults of Nehru's daughter.

James Heartfield said...

29.Of the Falklands Taskforce Foot said: ‘our first concern in the Labour Party as in the country as a whole must be for their safety and success’.

This, of course was the same Foot who wrote that he ‘would never allow the Tories to purloin the patriotic argument’.

Radical? ‘We envisaged working a mixed economy in a country involved in the Western alliance’.

In March 1981, Michael Foot sent spokesman to Bobby Sands death bed to say that Labour would never support political status for republican prisoners. When Sands died ‘There were loud cheers from all parts of the commons yesterday as Mr Michael Foot, leader of the Labour Party, placed himself firmly behind Mrs Thatcher in her firm rejection of the IRA hunger strikers,’ the Times reported.

Phil said...

He may not meet your impeccably radical standards, James, but within the context of establishment politics in this country he certainly was.

Boffy said...


Actually, I think Foot has more right to the title of best Leftist than Benn. Benn's early politics as a Minister in the Wilson Government was hardly marked by Left radicalism. Foot's politics remained pretty much the same throughout.

What is rarely mentioned is that when Foot first took over, the LP under his leadership was getting scores of over 50% in the opinion polls, which is unprecedented. That was at a time, when Foot was calling, and marching at the front of huge marches in Liverpool and other major cities opposing the Tories cuts etc. That shows the need not just to put forward a radical manifesto, but to be embedded in, and seen to be leading and mobilising the class itself. In part it was the fact that such actions had waned as the election approached that saw Labour's support fall.

I also doubt that the Gang of Four would have left, or if they had would have had any great impact, if those mobilisations had continued, and if Thatcher had not rallied voters round the flag in the Falklands War. The effectiveness of that can't be udnerestimated, for example the large banners on returning warships proclaimning, "Call off the strikes, or we'll call down an air strike".

It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had Foot remained Leader, but we have to also remember that Kinnock was his preferreed choice, and was effectively ushered into office. Somehow, though given Foot's own experiecne of being witchhunted, and his willingness to break with Bevan over UND, I doubt he would have undsertaken the witchhunt of the Left with the voracity that Kinnock did, or that he would have taken the attitude to local Councils standing up to the Tories over cuts.

But, in a way its all besides the point. The Labour Movement has to get away from fetishising what might have happened had this or that leader won this or that struggle. The future is in our own hands, its up to us to make it, not some leader, however, much conviction they have.

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