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Michael Foot Michael Foot
by The Ovi Team
2017-03-03 09:17:20
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mfoot01Michael Foot, a bookish intellectual and anti-nuclear campaigner who led Britain's Labour Party to a disastrous defeat in 1983, died Wednesday March 3rd 2010 in the morning, age 96. Foot died peacefully at his home in north London following a long illness. Michael Foot personified the socialist tendency in the Labour Party, which Tony Blair successfully erased when he won power at the head of a business-friendly, interventionist "New Labour." Perhaps and hopefully his death will refresh some memories to the Labour Party and Gordon Brown.

Michael Mackintosh Foot (23 July 1913 – 3 March 2010) was a British Labour politician and writer, who was a Member of Parliament from 1945 to 1955 and from a by-election in 1960 until 1992. He was also the Leader of the Opposition from 1980 to 1983. A figurehead of what was later called Old Labour; he was a passionate supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, state ownership of major industries and British withdrawal from the European Economic Community.

Michael Foot was born in Plymouth, Devon, and educated at Plymouth College Preparatory School and Leighton Park School in Reading. He then went on to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Wadham College, Oxford. Foot was the President of the Oxford Union. He also took part in the ESU USA Tour (the debating tour of the USA run by the English-Speaking Union). On graduating in 1934, he took a job as a shipping clerk in Liverpool. Foot was profoundly influenced by the poverty and unemployment that he witnessed in Liverpool, which was on a different scale from anything he had seen in Plymouth. A Liberal up to this time, Foot was converted to Socialism by Oxford University Labour Club president David Lewis and others: "... I knew him [at Oxford] when I was a Liberal [and Lewis] played a part in converting me to socialism." Foot joined the Labour Party and first stood for parliament at the age of 22 in the 1935 general election, when he contested Monmouth. During this election Foot criticised the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, for seeking rearmament. In his election address Foot contended that "the armaments race in Europe must be stopped now". Foot also supported unilateral disarmament, after multilateral disarmament talks at Geneva had broken down in 1933.
 
He became a journalist, working briefly on the New Statesman, before joining the left-wing weekly Tribune when it was set up in early 1937 to support the Unity Campaign, an attempt to secure an anti-fascist United Front between Labour and the parties to its left. The campaign's members were Stafford Cripps's (Labour-affiliated) Socialist League, the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CP). Foot resigned in 1938 after the paper's first editor, William Mellor, was fired for refusing to adopt a new CP policy of backing a Popular Front, including non-socialist parties, against fascism and appeasement.

Foot fought the Plymouth Devonport constituency in the 1945 general election. He won the seat for Labour for the first time, holding it until his surprise defeat by Dame Joan Vickers at the 1955 general election. Until 1957, he was the most prominent ally of Aneurin Bevan, who had taken Cripps's place as leader of the Labour left, though Foot and Bevan fell out after Bevan renounced unilateral nuclear disarmament at the 1957 Labour Party conference.

Before the cold war began in the late 1940s, Foot favoured a 'third way' foreign policy for Europe (he was joint author with Richard Crossman and Ian Mikardo of the pamphlet Keep Left in 1947), but in the wake of the communist seizure of power in Hungary and Czechoslovakia he and Tribune took a strongly anti-communist position, eventually embracing NATO.

Foot was however a critic of the west's handling of the Korean War, an opponent of West German rearmament in the early 1950s and a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Under his editorship, Tribune opposed both the British government's Suez adventure and the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian revolution in 1956. Foot returned to parliament in 1960 at a by-election in Ebbw Vale in Monmouthshire, left vacant by Bevan's death. He had the Labour whip withdrawn in March 1961 after rebelling against the Labour leadership over air force estimates. He only returned to the Parliamentary Labour Group in 1963 when Harold Wilson replaced Hugh Gaitskell as Labour leader.

Harold Wilson – the subject of an enthusiastic campaign biography by Foot published by Robert Maxwell's Pergamon Press in 1964 – offered Foot a place in his first government, but Foot turned it down. Instead he became the leader of Labour's left opposition from the back benches, dazzling the Commons with his command of rhetoric. He opposed the government's moves to restrict immigration, join the Common Market and reform the trade unions, was against the Vietnam War and Rhodesia's unilateral declaration of independence, and denounced the Soviet suppression of "socialism with a human face" in Czechoslovakia in 1968. He also famously allied with the Tory right-winger Enoch Powell to scupper the government's plan to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers and create a House of Lords comprising only life peers – a "seraglio of eunuchs" as Foot put it. In 1967, Foot challenged James Callaghan but failed to win the post of Treasurer of the Labour Party.

After 1970, Labour moved to the left and Wilson came to an accommodation with Foot. In April 1972, he stood for the Deputy Leadership of the party, along with Edward Short and Anthony Crosland. Short defeated Foot in the second ballot after Crosland had been eliminated in the first. When, in 1974, Labour returned to office under Harold Wilson, Foot became Secretary of State for Employment. In this role, he played the major part in the government's efforts to maintain the trade unions' support. He was also responsible for the Health and Safety at Work Act. Foot was one of the mainstays of the "no" campaign in the 1975 referendum on British membership of the European Economic Community. When Wilson retired in 1976, Foot contested the party leadership and led in the first ballot, but was ultimately defeated by James Callaghan. Later that year, Foot was elected Deputy Leader and served as Leader of the House of Commons, which gave him the unenviable task of trying to maintain the survival of the Callaghan government as its majority evaporated. In 1975, Foot, along with Jennie Lee and others, courted controversy when they supported Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, after she prompted the declaration of a state of emergency.

Following Labour's 1979 general election defeat by Margaret Thatcher, Foot was elected Labour leader in 1980, beating the right's candidate Denis Healey in the second round of the leadership election (the last leadership contest to involve only Labour MPs). Foot presented himself as a compromise candidate capable, unlike Healey, of uniting the party, which at the time was driven by the grassroots left-wing insurgency centred on Tony Benn. The Bennites demanded revenge for the betrayals, as they saw them, of the Callaghan government, and pushed the case for replacement of MPs who had acquiesced to them by left-wingers who would support the causes of unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the Common Market and widespread nationalisation. (Benn did not stand for the leadership: apart from Foot and Healey, the other candidates – both eliminated in the first round – were John Silkin, a Tribunite like Foot, and Peter Shore, an anti-European right-winger.)

When he became leader, Foot was already 67 and frail – and almost immediately after his election as leader was faced with a massive crisis: the creation in early 1981 of a breakaway party by four senior Labour right-wingers, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and William Rodgers (the so-called "Gang of Four"), the Social Democratic Party. The SDP won the support of large sections of the media, and for more than a year its opinion poll ratings suggested that it could at least overtake Labour and possibly win a general election, as the Tories were proving unpopular due to the economic policies of prime minister Margaret Thatcher which had seen unemployment reach a post-war high.

With the Labour left still strong – in 1981 Benn decided to challenge Healey for the deputy leadership of the party, a contest Healey won by the narrowest of margins – Foot struggled to make an impact and was widely criticised for it, though his performances in the Commons, most notably on the Falklands crisis of 1982, won him widespread respect from other parliamentarians. (He was however criticised by some on the left who felt that he should not have supported the Thatcher government's immediate resort to military action.) The right-wing newspapers nevertheless lambasted him consistently for what they saw as his bohemian eccentricity, attacking him for wearing what they described as a "donkey jacket" (actually a Duffel coat) at the wreath-laying ceremony at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day, for which he was likened to an "out-of-work navvy". Foot didn't make it generally known that HM the Queen Mother had complimented him on it, he later donated the garment to People's History Museum in Manchester. When the Falklands conflict ended on 14 June with a British victory over Argentina this caused a massive boost in popularity for the Tories, as did the return to economic growth later in the year.

Through late 1982 and early 1983, there was constant speculation that Labour MPs would replace Foot with Healey as leader. Such speculation increased after Labour lost the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, in which the gay rights activist Peter Tatchell was its candidate, standing against a Tory, a Liberal (eventual winner Simon Hughes) and the right wing John O'Grady, who had declared himself the "real" Labour candidate and fought an openly homophobic campaign against Tatchell. Critically, however, Labour held on in a subsequent by-election in Darlington and Foot remained leader for the 1983 general election.

The 1983 Labour manifesto, strongly socialist in tone, advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, higher personal taxation and a return to a more interventionist industrial policy. The manifesto also pledged that a Labour government would abolish the House of Lords, nationalise banks and leave the EEC. Among the Labour MPs newly-elected in 1983 in support of this manifesto were Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Foot's Labour Party lost to the Conservatives in a landslide – a result which had been widely predicted by the opinion polls since the previous summer. The only consolation for Foot and Labour was that they did not lose their place in opposition to the SDP-Liberal Alliance, who came close to them in terms of votes but were still a long way behind in terms of seats. Despite this, Foot was very critical of the Alliance, accusing them of "siphoning" Labour support and enabling the Tories to win more seats.
 
Foot resigned and was succeeded by Neil Kinnock as leader. Gerald Kaufman, once Harold Wilson's press officer and during the 1980s a key player on the Labour right, described the 1983 Labour manifesto as "the longest suicide note in history". This wasn't just through the orientation of the policies, however; it also included the marketing aspect. As a statement on internal democracy, Foot passed the edict that the manifesto would consist of all resolutions arrived at conference, making the manifesto over 700 pages long. The party also failed to master the medium of television, while Foot addressed public meetings around the country, and made some radio broadcasts, in the same manner as Clement Attlee in 1945. Members joked that they hadn't expected Foot to allow the slogan "Think positive, Act positive, Vote Labour" on grammatical grounds.


     
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