POLITICO'S £30/£30 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

Old Labour to New, by Greg Rosen

Is there a magician in the House?

Labour then, like the Tories now, seemed hopelessly adrift. James Callaghan had resigned as leader after being defeated the year before by Margaret Thatcher. Ambitious MPs had a sinking feeling they would be out of power for many years. There seemed little point in working on policies which had almost no chance of being implemented. Roy Jenkins, with other leading figures, was actively planning to set up an alternative, Social Democratic Party.

Michael Foot's speech stays in my memory as one of the most enjoyable occasions I witnessed in the House of Commons. I soon forgot the context and simply remembered one of his jokes. A new book by a young expert on Labour history, Greg Rosen, has now delightfully reminded me of exactly what happened. But instead of peppering his book with opinions and hindsight, he gives us long extracts of what politicians actually said. It is a blessed relief.

The most important "ism" that Labour had to tackle at this stage was "monetarism"; it was only later that "Thatcherism" emerged as a far more potent Tory doctrine. The Labour government had accepted that to combat inflation some attempt should be made to control the money supply. It was the monetarists' insistence that you could accurately measure the money supply, and when this figure rose too rapidly all you had to do was to jack up interest rates, which Labour rightly scorned.

This was where Michael Foot's brilliant speech came into its own. His target was Sir Keith Joseph, the highly intelligent but rather dotty Trade and Industry Secretary, who once jumped into a taxi and shouted at the driver "Where am I going?" Foot claimed that Sir Keith, with his puzzled and forlorn manner, reminded him of a magician he used to see in his youth at a theatre in Plymouth. When he asked for an expensive watch, a plant in the audience would rise to his feet. The magician would relieve him of a marvellous gold watch, and proceed to smash it with a mallet.

"Then on his countenance," Mr Foot explained with relish, "would come exactly the puzzled look of the Secretary of State for Industry. He would step to the front of the stage and say 'I am very sorry. I have forgotten the rest of the trick.' It does not work." As Labour MPs roared with laughter at the obvious reference to the monetarist experiment, Mr Foot continued in mock-serious vein. "Lest any objector should suggest that the act at the Palace Theatre was only a trick, I should assure the House that the magician used to come along at the end and say 'I am sorry, I have still forgotten the trick.'"

What Mr Foot's speech achieved was similar to the effect that David Cameron managed in Blackpool. He gave the battered Labour troops the sense that a breakthrough was possible. Others, including the formidable Denis Healey, might also be able to mount a devastating attack on the government's economic policy but to many Labour MPs he looked like a trimmer. Michael Foot, in their eyes, was "Real Labour".

Mr Foot beat Mr Healey by 139 votes to 129. If only six MPs had voted the other way the most popular politician in the country would have won instead of Mr Foot and the recent history of British politics might have been radically different. Politics is often about the moment: capture the mood and you may capture your party. What then happens, of course, is another matter.

This book covers a wide range of dramatic moments, from the creation of the Labour Representation Committee - the start of the Labour Party - at the end of the 19th century, right through to the run-up to Tony Blair's great victory of 1997. Often the story is dominated by the clash between the party's Left and Right, but many of the arguments now seem weirdly out of date. The outline remains, but the passion has long since faded. Spain and the Civil War gets a chapter on its own, and towards the end Mr Rosen traces the interminable battles over nuclear disarmament.

Tories who think their present difficulties are insurmountable should be cheered by this account. It shows how even near-death experiences at Westminster can eventually be overcome. For those seriously interested in politics, Rosen's book is a must-buy.

John Sergeant is the author of 'Maggie: Her Fatal Legacy' (Pan)

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own