A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Friday, 5 March 2010

A tribute to the last principled politician

Former Labour Party leader, peace campaigner and radical socialist journalist Michael Foot spent a lifetime lambasting the Tories. For over 40 years he was an outstanding figure in Parliament as he tore into one hapless Tory front-bencher after another, assailing them with his searing wit and fierce oratorical style. He was also for many years the scourge of the Labour right wing and the acknowledged leader of the parliamentary left after the death of his great hero Aneurin Bevan in 1960. In 1961, Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell spitefully expelled Foot from the parliamentary party after he led a rebellion against the leadership over defence spending. He was not allowed to return to the Parliamentary Labour Party until 1963, after Harold Wilson replaced Gaitskell following his sudden death. In those days Foot was regarded with fear and suspicion by many rightwingers, despite his personal charm and his private kindness shown even towards his political opponents.

Yet Foot eventually rose to become leader of the party between 1980 and 1983, moved towards centrist policies and then later made only the feeblest of public criticisms of the disastrous free-market capitalist policies pursued by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from 1997 after the successful coup d'etat by so-called "new Labour." A former editor of the left-wing Tribune newspaper in its heyday, he continued to support the declining and rightward-moving paper after his retirement from Parliament in 1992. Foot boasted of his role in pursuing government policies aimed at controlling workers' incomes and in combating the left wing of the party led by Tony Benn. He even publicly praised his former right-wing adversary Denis Healey for playing "a most honourable part" in extirpating "Bennfoolery." A foundation member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Foot became a familiar sight trudging doggedly along in the front ranks of successive Aldermaston marches.

He spoke at the packed and enthusiastic inaugural mass meeting of CND in Westminster Central Hall on Monday February 17 1958. Among those alongside him on the platform were philosopher Bertrand Russell and author JB Priestley. He kept up his membership of CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) right to the end and in recent years could be seen in his wheelchair at peace events proudly displaying his CND badge on his lapel. Perhaps the most vivid national images of Michael Foot are the TV flashbacks to the failed Labour election campaign of 1983, when he shuffled with his stick from public meeting to public meeting driving himself to exhaustion, while his TV performances were a flop. He seemed stuck in 1940s-style campaigning and failed to grasp modern media techniques. He suffered a cruel campaign of personal vilification in the media - egged on by the rampantly Thatcherite Tories. Amid thunderous applause at a Young Conservatives' rally, comedian Kenny Everett leapt on to the stage and roared: "Let's bomb Russia!" and "Let's kick Michael Foot's stick away!" This was relayed on TV screens around the country at the height of the election campaign.

In fact Foot's mobility problems resulted largely from a terrible near-fatal car crash in Herefordshire 20 years before, which had inflicted severe injuries both on him and his wife, feminist film-maker and writer Jill Craigie.
Under Foot's leadership, Labour fought the 1983 election with a radical manifesto which called for increased public spending, a return to public ownership of all assets privatised by the Tories, and a "significant" public stake in the electronics, pharmaceuticals and building materials industries. It also called for the creation of a new public bank operating through post offices and demanded much closer direct control by the Bank of England over bank lending, with much tighter control over banks and financial institutions.
The manifesto was denounced by Labour rightwinger Gerald Kaufman MP as "the longest suicide note in history" and it came under severe attack from traitorous breakaway Labour rightwingers who contested the election in alliance with the Liberals as the Social Democratic Party - led by "gang of four" defectors Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and William Rodgers. In the event, Labour received 8,456,934 votes, 27.6 per cent of the total, and held 209 seats. The Tories under Thatcher won 42.4 per cent and 397 seats, while the Liberal/SDP Alliance gained 25.4 per cent and just 23 seats.

Foot was born in Plymouth on July 23 1913 into a prominent Liberal Party family. His father Isaac was a solicitor and a Methodist who was a Liberal MP for 23 years. One of his brothers, Hugh (Lord Caradon), was the father of the late left-wing journalist Paul Foot. Michael studied philosophy, politics and economics at Wadham College, Oxford, where he was an active Liberal. He joined the Labour Party in Liverpool in 1934, when he was working as a shipping clerk following graduation from Oxford. After standing unsuccessfully as Labour candidate for Monmouth in the 1935 election, he set his sights on a career in journalism. During the second world war, Foot worked tirelessly alongside prominent Communist Party members in the campaign to open a second front against the nazi war machine, which was ravaging the Soviet Union. He developed a long-standing friendship with Communist Party general secretary Harry Pollitt after they took the platform together at vast rallies demanding aid to Russia.

Foot was introduced by Aneurin Bevan to wealthy Tory press magnate Lord Beaverbrook, who accepted Foot into his trendy social circle and gave him a job on the London Evening Standard, promoting him to editor in 1942 at the age of 28. He left the Evening Standard and joined the Labour-supporting Daily Herald in 1945, where he wrote as a political columnist for 20 years. He served as editor of Tribune from 1948 to 1952 and again from 1955 to 1960. He was elected Labour MP for Plymouth Devonport in 1945, but lost his seat in 1955. He returned to Parliament as MP for Ebbw Vale in 1960 following a by-election in the seat left vacant by the death of his great friend and mentor Aneurin Bevan. Foot addressed a Morning Star birthday rally in London's Festival Hall in March 1969. He made an impassioned plea for the tearing down of sectarian barriers between one section of the labour movement and another. In his speech, he praised the late Harry Pollitt as "a person with whom you could have deep and bitter arguments, and yet you could remain comrades with him at the same time."

Summing up his late 1960s view of socialism, Foot told the Star rally: "In my opinion, Marxism is a great creed of human liberation. It is the creed which says that when all other empires fade and vanish, our business is to enlarge the empire of the human mind." He added: "But if we are to do that we must let people speak freely, we must recover the ideas of socialist freedom." Foot accepted the offer of a Cabinet post from Harold Wilson in 1974 after Labour was returned to office. He became secretary of state for employment and played a major role in abolishing Tory anti-union legislation but also in promoting the bitterly controversial "social contract" with the unions, which aimed at clamps on wages in return for vague promises from bosses and government. During the 1975 referendum on British membership of the Common Market, Cabinet ministers were allowed by Wilson to express their pro or anti views in public. Foot became a major figure in the No campaign alongside Tony Benn, Barbara Castle and Peter Shore. Foot was elected deputy leader of the Labour Party in October 1976, defeating Shirley Williams by 166 votes to 128.

In the same year, the new prime minister Jim Callaghan appointed Foot as leader of the Commons and Lord President of the Council. This post entailed regular meetings with the Queen at Buckingham Palace and although the usually rather crumpled dresser Foot purchased a new suit for the purpose, he still wore in his lapel his badge of honorary membership of the National Union of Mineworkers when he went to the palace.
Foot was elected leader of the Labour Party in 1980, beating Denis Healey in the second round by 139 votes to 129. He resigned as leader in 1983 shortly after Labour's election debacle, to be succeeded by Neil Kinnock. Foot was a prolific writer throughout his life, publishing around 20 books, including major biographies of Aneurin Bevan, Byron, Jonathan Swift and HG Wells. He produced numerous essays and articles on his many other heroes, including William Hazlitt, Thomas Paine, HN Brailsford and Benjamin Disraeli. Despite his passion for writing, he never managed to produce a major detailed work on socialist theory and practice. Upon his retirement from the Commons, the staunch republican and House of Lords abolitionist Foot turned down all offers of honours or being dispatched to the dreaded Lords.

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