The death of former Labour leader Michael Foot has brought him many accolades from his friends in the labour movement, and also, with some hypocrisy, from some of his political enemies amongst the Tories.
Michael Foot was on the left of the Labour Party. Having come from a Liberal family, he spent his whole political life in the Party and was committed to causes such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Even in his nineties, he was seen addressing anti-war demonstrations against the war in Iraq – a war unfortunately pursued by a Labour Prime Minister.
He first became a Labour MP in 1945 , winning the seat of Plymouth Devonport. After an absence from Parliament following his defeat in the 1955 election, he became the MP for Ebbw Vale, following in the footsteps of his mentor, left-wing MP Nye Bevan, founder of the NHS in the 1945 Labour Government. During the 1950s when Cold War policies affected the Labour Party, Foot remained on the left and became a supporter of the Tribune Group,. His views on defence led him into conflict with the right-wing Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell. However he joined the Labour front bench under the leadership of Harold Wilson.
As minister for employment in the 1974-1979 Labour Government, Foot was responsible for the repeal of the anti-trades union legislation which had been introduced by the 1970-74 Tory Government, led by Edward Heath. Much of this legislation, such as outlawing secondary action and the closed shop, had effectively been condemned to the dustbin of history by the militancy of the trades union movement in the early 1970s. Most notable in this was the solidarity action which led to the closing of the gates of the Saltley Coal Depot, leading to the success of the first miners’ strike in 1972. However much of this anti-union legislation was to be put on the statute book again by the Thatcher government which took power in 1979. This time none of it has been repealed, even after 13 years of Labour Government.
Foot was elected as leader of the Labour Party after its electoral defeat in 1979. The 74-79 Labour government had presided over a difficult time when living standards had fallen. The Government had sought a deal, known as the “Social Contract” with the trades unions. Under this deal, unions agreed to pay restraint, in return for the protection of the “social wage.” As inflation rose above 20%, living standards fell. But the number of strikes under the Labour Government fell dramatically. The right-wing consolidated its hold over the trades union leadership. The economic crisis of the 1970s put the government into financial trouble and in 1976 the IMF was invited in – cuts in public expenditure were ordered on a large scale. The Prime Minister,James Callaghan told the Labour Party Conference in 1976 that “The Party was over.” What he meant was hat the there would be cuts, particularly for public sector workers and public services. There are parallels with what we are seeing today! From that time onwards the “Social contract” was over and unions, including those representing low paid public sector workers took strike action in the so-called “Winter of discontent” of 1978/79.
With the election defeat of Labour in 1979, the left of the party increasingly campaigned for democratic reforms such as the re-selection of Labour MPs and the right of all members to elect the leader of the Party (previously it had only been the Parliamentary Labour Party.) In the constituencies the Labour Party moved to the left – however the Left never had full control over the Party, especially as the leaderships of the trades union movement had seen a shift to the right, from the heady days of the early 1970s.
Michael Foot narrowly won the leadership election over Dennis Healey, the candidate of the right. However he rapidly found himself caught in what was termed “factionalism” in the Party, a buffer between the established right wing, and the hard left, led by Tony Benn. The obituary of Foot in the Financial Times argues that he might have prevented the Party from moving “even further to the left”. Nevertheless there was never the sort of loss of members which we have seen under the leadership of Tony Blair! Over the past ten years we have seen thousands of activists who have spent their lives in the Party leave in disgust. In fact those who left the Party in the 1980s, trying to cause a split, were the “Gang of Four” who, followed by 25 MPs, went on to form the Social Democratic Party. Very few within the ranks of the Party followed them. They recruited mainly political novices and within a few years had merged with the Liberals. However in the 1983 General Election, an election fought within the shadow of the Falklands conflict, they did enough damage to Labour to ensure a Tory victory.
Labour lost the 1983 election, against a background of rising unemployment and industrial decline, inflicted by the Thatcher Government. The Party was knocked back to its electoral level of the 1920s. Michael Foot, as leader, has been blamed for this, along with Labour’s election manifesto, which was allegedly left-wing and according to a right-wing Labour MP, Gerald Kaufman “the longest suicide note in history.” This proved, we are told, that left wing policies do not win elections. However the reality was that this manifesto was less radical than that of 1974 – when Labour was elected twice, and certainly not nearly as radical as the manifesto of 1945 when Labour won by a landslide. There was little in it about nationalisation at all. Ironically, as has been remarked by Larry Elliott in the Guardian – nationalisation measures taken by the present government to tackle the banking crisis have overshadowed anything envisaged in the 1983 election manifesto! More tellingly, the Labour right wing made it very clear that what reforms were in the manifesto would not be implemented should Labour have won. So much for these defenders of democracy.
Perhaps then, the myths generated from 1983 can be put to rest and the labour movement can go forward, confident that socialist policies are necessary and can be popular. Many have said that Michael Foot became something of a prisoner of the Labour right wing during his later years in government and as party leader. There was more than element of truth about this, as was noted by the likes of Tony Benn in his published diaries. His attacks on the Marxists inside the party was just one expression of this, as was his treatment of Peter Tachell as Labour candidate in the Bermondsey by election. . Howegver this should not detract from his commitment to socialism and a hatred of oppression and injustice. He should be remembered for that rather than the right wing plaudits being mouthed today about what a "great parliamentarian" he was. One thing is certain, he stood head and shoulders above those who came after him as holder of the position of Labour leader.