Obituary: Michael Foot

The former Labour leader Michael Foot has died today at the age of 96.

By Jonathan Moore

A long-serving politician who served as a member of parliament during a 47-year period, he is best known as the man who led Labour through some of the toughest times in its history and managed to hold the party together.

Taking over the leadership from James Callaghan in 1980 following Labour's defeat in the 1979 election, he was to see the party through a period where the breakaway Social Democratic Party (SDP) threatened to overtake Labour as the official opposition. He eventually oversaw an election campaign in 1983 in which the Conservatives won their most decisive electoral victory since 1945.

Although he lived with the reputation of a failed Labour leader and was remembered as such by many in the country, it has been said by some that he was the only person who could have prevented Labour disintegrating into factions at that time. While he may never be considered a great leader, he is remembered with great affection by many in Westminster who saw him as a great parliamentarian noted for his integrity and generosity of spirit.

Michael Mackintosh Foot was born in Plymouth on July 23rd 1913. He was introduced to politics from an early age through his father Isaac Foot, a Liberal councillor at the time of Foot's birth who contested several parliamentary seats during his childhood before being successfully returned as the MP for Bodmin in a 1922 by-election.

Indeed most of the Foot family would find their way into politics in later life. Of the five sons that Isaac and his wife Eva had, four would later enter politics as either MPs or peers.

He served as the president of the Oxford Union while studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Wadham College and after graduation went to work in Liverpool where the scale of deprivation he witnessed converted him to the socialist cause.

At the age of just 22 he stood as a Labour parliamentary candidate, contesting Monmouth in the 1935 general election. Failing in this first attempt he turned his attentions to journalism, working for both the New Statesman and the Tribune in the 1930s, the latter of which he resigned from when his editor was fired for political reasons.

Unable to serve in the Second World War due to chronic asthma, he went to work for the Evening Standard - where he would later become editor - recommended to its owner by no less than Aneurin Bevan.

In 1940 he published the book Guilty Men with two other journalists under the pen name Cato. An attack on the policies of the national government towards the Nazis, it became a bestseller and was widely considered to be one of the seminal books attacking the policy of appeasement.

He remained a journalist, columnist and editor for many years after this but from 1945 most of his attention was taken up by his activities as a politician. In 1945 he became the first ever Labour MP for Plymouth and held that seat for ten years until his defeat in 1955.

Throughout this early period in his political career Foot displayed early signs of the campaigns he would be committed to his whole life. He was highly critical of the west's handling of the Korean War and the rearmament of West Germany and was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). But his opposition was not partisan by any means. In 1956 he was strongly opposed to both the Conservative government's actions during the Suez Crisis and of the Soviet Union's suppression of the Hungarian revolution.

He returned to parliament in 1960 as the MP for Ebbw Vale, following the death of his friend and colleague Aneurin Bevan. A vociferous member of the Labour left - he had the whip withdrawn in 1961 which was not returned until 1963 - he would gain a reputation in the proceeding decade as a powerful orator and principled politician.

Despite two failed attempts at elected office within the party - treasurer in 1967 and deputy leader in 1970 - Foot was eventually brought into government by Harold Wilson in 1974 as the employment secretary. As the voice of the party's left he was instrumental in keeping the unions onside during this period and was also responsible for the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act.

He would fail in his leadership challenge in 1976 even though he led the first ballot - something of a pattern in his early attempts to gain a party office - but would eventually be the man to replace Callaghan just four years later.

Foot's election was seen as something of a compromise to bring together the increasingly disparate factions of the Labour party. However, in early 1981 the 'Gang of Four' - Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams - split to form the SDP and would later be joined by 28 Labour MPs.

While the SDP enjoyed a great deal of media support, the Labour they left behind was in turmoil. The left were gaining in strength and in 1981 Tony Benn made a challenge for the deputy leadership. Denis Healy managed to edge his rival in the election but Foot's failure to provide any sort of decisive intervention was seen as a weakness. Strong parliamentary performances were earning him the respect of fellow politicians - notably his speeches on the Falklands War - but the wider public saw only an ineffectual leader who was struggling to hold together a party cracking at the seams.

He was not without personal controversy during this time either. It was during this period he infamously attended a Remembrance Day service wearing a duffel coat, outraging the right-wing press who attacked him for wearing what they described as a 'donkey jacket'.

His disastrous 1983 election campaign, however, is what he will most be remembered for. The socialist manifesto - famously dubbed the longest suicide note in history - advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, higher personal taxation, a return to a more interventionist industrial policy, the abolition of the House of Lords, the nationalisation of the banking sector and the exit of Britain from the EEC.

It was to prove disastrous and despite gaining the support of some of those new MPs elected in 1983 - among them one Anthony Blair and Gordon Brown - the party suffered one their worst defeats in history as the Conservatives completed the most decisive electoral victory by any party since Clement Attlee in 1945.

Following his resignation he returned to the backbenches where he would continue to serve and remain politically active until his retirement in 1992.

Even after his retirement from parliament he remained fairly active in politics, involved with the CND and occasionally speaking in public. Unlike many former party leaders, he remained true to his republican roots and opposition to the House of Lords until his death, refusing to accept several offers of knighthoods and peerages.

It is perhaps unfortunate that a man so well-respected by his peers and admired by those who came after him should be remembered only for defeat. Universally renowned for his integrity, oratory skills and generosity he was well-liked by members from all sides of the House from a number of generations.

Despite leading the party to one of the least successful elections in its history, it is for holding Labour together at a time when it could so easily have disintegrated, that many will remember the name Michael Foot.

Michael Mackintosh Foot, politician, born July 23rd 1913, died March 3rd 2010.


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