A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Thoughts on Foot

Like many Labour people, I feel very conflicted about Michael Foot.

My first encounter with him was literary not political. I read his introduction to Gulliver's Travels (aged 8 - I was a bit of a bookworm) and have never forgotten his detailed explanation of why Swift's description of a land where the political parties were based on whether to eat an egg starting from the big end or little end was a satire on the Whigs and Tories. I also found a copy as a kid (in a jumble sale, which there were a lot of in the early '80s) of Guilty Men, and learnt somehow that Cato was a pseudonym for Foot, and that the left had played an honourable role in opposing mainstream Tory appeasement of Hitler.

Then Foot became Labour Leader. My mum and dad were fans but not members of CND and held Tony Benn and Michael Foot in equally high esteem - which was odd given that Benn was doing everything he could to undermine Foot's leadership. I remember the anger I felt as an 11-year-old from a die-hard Labour family about the attacks on him in the Tory press in the run up to the 1983 General Election. I remember the sheer embarrassment and humiliation as a Labour family who were also members of the British Legion of the cenotaph duffel coat incident (which didn't stop me as an 11 year old ultra-leftie thinking it was great to own a duffel coat as Foot had one). I remember the ridicule we were subjected to by our Tory friends and neighbours for backing Foot and having a red poster in our window when the rest of our south-eastern housing association estate were virulently pro-Maggie and most houses in the street sported blue posters (ironically posters for ultra-Wet MP David Crouch, who came and knocked on the door of our forlorn Labour bastion to praise us for continuing to fly the flag). I remember the morning after polling day our primary school teacher asking whose parents had voted Labour, and in our grotesquely swollen by Tory underfunding class of 34 kids, only 2 of us had mums and dads who had voted Labour.

At the time I thought everyone else was wrong, and we, the gallant 27% of Labour/Foot voters, were right.

Later I began to read about and understand a bit more about the policies we had fought 1983 on and how they compared to the policies Wilson and Callaghan had won elections with. I began to understand what had caused the creation of the SDP (reviled in my household as traitors) and to understand how near Labour had come to coming third in that election. That's about the time I got interested in what Neil Kinnock was doing to save Labour, and signed up to try to do my teenage bit.

I came to see Michael Foot as having represented everything that needed to be rejected in Old Labour: vote-losing policies, rubbish campaigning, old-fashioned imagery, years wasted campaigning for stuff like CND that our working class core vote despised and which drove them into the arms of Thatcher.

At university, I invited Foot to speak at a Bristol University Labour Club meeting. Already nearly 80, he packed a big meeting room and captivated his student audience with an 80 minute peroration that meant many of us missed the start of afternoon lectures. 70 minutes of it was a staggeringly detailed history lecture about, I think, Lord Liverpool's authoritarian Tory administration of 1812-1827. The final ten minutes were when he carefully explained that this was an extended analogy for the Thatcher years and that just as three years after Liverpool the Great Reform Act and 40 years of Whig ascendancy had started, so we were on the brink of a Tory implosion and a Labour landslide. He was only a few years out in his prediction. I feel honoured to have heard him speak - without notes and with flights of rhetoric that hardly anyone in politics has ever matched.

Now as I read more Labour history I begin to understand the differences between the gentler, older Bevanite left tradition espoused by Foot, and the nastier version that the Bennites pushed. I now know he took the first steps towards the expulsion of Militant. And that he desperately tried to stop the SDP split and keep the party together. And that Kinnock, my political hero, was essentially Foot's protege and creation.

I would have found Michael Foot exasperating if I had been a Labour activist in the '50s. He and Bevan played a deeply destructive role. If I had been a Labour activist in the early '80s (I guess leafleting aged 10 doesn't count) I would have been horrified that he beat Healey for Leader.

I cannot forgive his wrongness in pursuing wrong causes like CND, hostility to Lords reform and hostility to Europe. I cannot forgive him taking on a role - Leader - that he was wholly unsuited for and leading us in a political equivalent to the Charge of the Light Brigade, straight into the valley of political death towards Thatcher's massed electoral guns.

But it is impossible even for an ungracious and pugnacious Labour moderate like me not to feel great affection for a man who always did what he thought was morally right, never looked for self-advantage or promotion, and loved the Labour Party and the people it represents. He will be sorely missed.


Blogger Wilfred said...

Nice Donkey jacket!

far too honest, intelligent and compassionate for parliament.

9:44 pm, March 05, 2010

Anonymous Mary said...

Luke, you are - without doubt "ungracious and pugnacious" but I don't think anyone would accuse you of being a "Labour moderate".

And why would you "forgive" Michael Foot for things he was, most clearly, unrepentant for doing? Do you see yourself as some sort of Pontiff now as well?

6:23 am, March 06, 2010

Blogger southhackneypunter said...

I'm glad you mention 'Guilty Men'. Under the pseudonym 'Cato', Michael Foot and his fellow authors wrote what remains the greatest English-language polemical text of the 20th Century.

'Guilty Men' gave diamond-sharp focus to the furious pent-up anger of a British public enraged at the inevitable outcome of Tory government misrule during the 1930s. This had been characterised by venal ministers facilitating so their friends could profit handsomely from re-arming Hitler abroad whilst they imposed savage public spending cuts at home. 'Guilty Men' spelt out how this shameful decade of cant and corruption had led directly to the obscene result of poorly-equipped British soldiers being pinned down at Dunkirk by soldiers from a previously bankrupt Germany who were now nattily dressed in new uniforms fresh from Tory-owned Lancashire cotton mills and aiming English-made rifles at them!

'Guilty Men' didn't merely explain opposition to Appeasement, it established in historical orthodoxy our view of Appeasement as a disasterous policy, and this has been an orthodoxy which in 70 years has never had to be revised or rehabilitated.

'Guilty Men' is one of the most influential books of all time. It played an enormous role in securing the landslide Labour victory of 1945 and it contributed significantly to the moral climate which justified the creation of the Welfare State.

It is 'Guilty Men' rather than '1984' which helped shape the best about our country even today and for that we all owe Michael Foot an unrepayable debt of gratitude.

RIP Michael, here's hoping the values you represented don't die with you.

10:47 am, March 06, 2010

Anonymous Arnold said...

Thatcher was an intellectual pygmy compared to Foot. Unfortunately his age and eccentric appearance made him an easy target for the vitrolic Tory press. I'd have been happy to have him as Prime Minister.

12:36 pm, March 06, 2010

Anonymous tim f said...

Better to write something honest than unthinking platitudes, nonetheless I have to take you to task on some of this, Luke.

Healey could not have kept the party together, and we would have come third to the SDP (the traitors had already decided to leave, so don't kid yourself that the SDP would've never happened with Healey as leader) in 1983. Who knows what would've happened then - maybe we would not have a Labour Party now or certainly not one which could've won 3 elections. The point is that Foot did a good job in impossible circumstances and was right to take on the role of Leader, to keep the Party in existence.

You don't mention Foot's reaction to the Falklands war, or the fact that he led Thatcher in the polls in the early 80s, or the fact that his "rubbish campaigning" closed the gap in 1983 by six points during the short campaign alone. (Wouldn't it be great if we could do that this year - we would win the election if we did!)

Yes, I think Foot did go too far in the early 50s. He actually went much further than Bevan, who was not a destructive influence but pushed outside the mainstream by the real destructive influence who ended Attlee's broad tent approach and introduced a factionalism within the LP which has seriously hurt us over the years - your hero Gaitskell.

2:46 pm, March 06, 2010

Anonymous Rich said...

At least he stood for something, which is more than you can say for most mps these days. Very few politicians these days would side with cnd.

It also shows how little choice there is these days and how fragmented our political system is. If foot had been succesful I'm sure this country would not be in this mess now.

8:31 pm, March 06, 2010

Blogger Mark Still News said...

The trouble is now just what do many Labour politicians actually stand for that the Tories and Liberal don't?

11:17 am, March 07, 2010

Blogger marry said...

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6:57 am, March 08, 2010

Blogger Bill said...

My memory is shonky, but it wasn't that he was hostile to Lords reform, but an actual unicameralist, which is itself a worthwhile and honourable position, irrespective of whether you actually agree with it?

10:41 am, March 08, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

'At least he stood for something, which is more than you can say for most mps these days'
What exactly does a ring winger like you stand for? What did your hero Blair stand for?
Get rich quick, help the bankers to get even richer and shaft the rest of us.

11:53 am, March 08, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Foot was a poor campaigner and his support for the Falklands war was unwise. However, it is highly misleading to claim that opposition to nuclear weapons is an inevitable vote loser. If you look at opinion polls for the last few years, they all show more people oppose Trident replacement than support it.

12:46 pm, March 08, 2010

Blogger anonymous said...

Blair stood for Keir Hardie's three benchmarks; the minimum wage, devolution and the abolition of hereditary peers. He achieved more of Labour's objectives than any other Labour leader.

Michael Foot may have been a nice person, but he was a disaster for the Labour Party. The people didn't want his vision for the country then and they don't want it now. Talk all they want about him being so much better than Labour politicians today, it is today's Labour party that has appealed to the electorate and that has actually done anyone any good.

6:35 pm, March 08, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Thatcher was an intellectual pygmy compared to Foot."

Reminds me of when the accountants went to meet the sales guys.
Says one of the salesmen -
'It's always nice when the accountants come to visit us. The average IQ goes up by 50%."
The accountants smile.
'But,' the salesman continues 'the average income drops by 50%.'

My point is a brain the size of a planet is no use if you haven't got a bit of common sense.

8:02 pm, March 08, 2010

Blogger Miller 2.0 said...

Luke, moderate you ain't.

I can't see how the party would have survived if Healey became leader and Benn was still about. The party would have split from the left instead of the right. When I ask myself who was fit to be leader in the early 1980s, the answer is clear: nobody.

In terms of damage, what in my view was damaging in the 1950s was Gaitskell's deliberate policy of spending money on massive armed forces expansion at the expense of people's teeth and eyesight. Bevan, Foot and Wilson all called it right.

4:25 pm, March 10, 2010

Blogger Miller 2.0 said...

"Yes, I think Foot did go too far in the early 50s. He actually went much further than Bevan, who was not a destructive influence but pushed outside the mainstream by the real destructive influence who ended Attlee's broad tent approach and introduced a factionalism within the LP which has seriously hurt us over the years - your hero Gaitskell."

I couldn't agree with this statement more.

4:32 pm, March 10, 2010

Blogger Newmania said...

Interesting , the authoritarian Liverpool administration compares well with your real ancestors across the channel. It is a rather childish description but if there was any paranoia in the ruling classes at that time it is not hard to see why ands whose fault it was. On that subject it is not so much the CND membership as the support for the Soviet Union and the refusal to fight Hitler that marks Foot down for me ..

3:22 am, March 11, 2010

Blogger Merseymike said...

I didn't agree with all Michael Foot's policies by any means - I sympathised with him re: CND, disagreed with him about the EU, and Lords reform - well, it really hasn't been much of an issue until recent years.

However, it wouldn't have mattered who led Labour in the early 80's, given that the party had decided to tear itself to bits. We can forget that until the Falklands Foot was actually doing quite well, electorally, and it was really only post Falklands that Labour decided to have a civil war instead.

Healey is someone I equally admire, but to be frank he would have been a worse leader than Foot as the divide would have been all the wider. Personally, I think that he would have been forced out of the leadership before the 83 election.

Foot was intelligent, had a hinterland, and the Labour party without the legitimate traditional left - which I am not really part of, given my Europhile views and support for PR - is hardly worthy of the term Labour, as we have sadly come to see over the past few years.

1:10 am, March 12, 2010

Anonymous tim f said...

Newmania - think you have confused Michael Foot with someone else.

Wasn't his refusal to fight Hitler - in fact he wrote the most devastating critique of appeasement ever. Nor did he flirt with supporting the Soviet Union as admittedly some Labour folk did - in fact he won a considerable sum after being libelled on the matter.

2:19 pm, March 12, 2010

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