Three weeks ago today, Tuesday 23 July 2013, marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Michael Foot. It provides an ideal opportunity for considered reflection on Foot’s long parliamentary career. Unfortunately, after the general election of 1983, Foot’s reputation hit an all-time low. To a certain extent this was inevitable. After all, he was the party leader when Labour won only 209 seats, and the party’s 27.6 per cent share of the popular vote in that election remains its lowest since 1918. Margaret Thatcher, buoyed by her victory in the Falklands war, was re-elected by a landslide, her opposition split between Foot’s Labour party and the Social Democratic party-Liberal Alliance, formed after the ‘Gang of Four,’ Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams made their famous Limehouse Declaration of January 1981.
Foot’s party leadership came to be symbolised by his appearance at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday 1981 in what became known as his ‘donkey jacket.’ Nobody doubted Foot’s brilliance as an orator, writer and essayist – Foot published Debts of Honour in 1980 – but assessments of his performance as a front-rank politician were highly critical. As a journalist, Foot, a favourite of Lord Beaverbrook, had been editor of the London Evening Standard while still in his thirties. Yet as a political leader he was consistently derided as inept. Even Roy Hattersley once asked, ‘Why does a first-rate Michael Foot want to be a second-rate Aneurin Bevan?’
Foot’s reputation has, however, improved over time. Kenneth O Morgan’s excellent, sympathetic biography was published in 2007. Indeed, Foot’s career as a cabinet minister should not be underestimated. As employment secretary from 1974 to 1976 Foot ensured that the landmark Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 reached the statute book. As leader of the House of Commons from 1976 to 1979 he kept a minority Labour government in office with considerable skill.
As party leader, he undoubtedly faced enormous challenges. The party was split both horizontally and vertically to an unprecedented extent. There was a sense among some grassroots members that the leadership had been too far removed from their aims, and when Foot became leader in November 1980, the campaign for an electoral college to elect the party leader was reaching its height. In addition, on the right, established leaders within the Labour movement were threatening to break away to form a party which would supplant Labour in the two-party system; on the left, Foot had to deal with the entryism of the Militant Tendency.
Foot started the process of dealing with the Militant Tendency, and in doing so he began the process of detaching the ‘soft’ left from the ‘hard’ left which was so vital under Neil Kinnock. In addition, while he did not prevent the formation of the SDP, he did mitigate the scale of the defections far more than is often thought. He spoke to every MP individually and offered to speak at their constituencies. Put simply, he did all he could. Above all, Foot delivered a Labour party to his successor, Kinnock, able to fight and win another day.
1983 general election, Bill Rodgers, David Owen, Falkland Islands, Kenneth O Morgan, Labour, Labour history, Margaret Thatcher, Michael Foot, Militant tendency, Neil Kinnock, Nye Bevan, Roy Hattersley, Roy Jenkins, SDP, Shirley Williams