Aristocracy of the left turns out for Foot

Gordon Brown leads the tributes at the funeral of 'one of the greatest parliamentarians'

The age of great political oratory came quietly to a close in a north London crematorium yesterday. There is no practising politician now who could work a live audience like Michael Foot, the man they laid to rest who died this month aged 96.

The crowd of mourners were mostly grey and wrinkled – old socialists saying farewell to a dream that never came true. It included only a few representatives of an internet generation that wasn't born when Mr Foot stomped the country at election time, filling town halls to capacity, and drawing audiences to their feet in ecstatic applause.

It was magnificent, and hopeless. While hundreds were inspired by the oratory of this witty, erudite and eloquent man, millions were turned off by television images of a party veering to the left under the unsteady hand of a white-haired old gentleman with a walking stick.

The tributes were led by Gordon Brown, who first entered the Commons during the last months of Foot's leadership. He praised Mr Foot as "one of the finest writers, one of the canniest of journalists, one of the most eloquent of orators, and one of the greatest parliamentarians ever". He added: "So many talents and it is to our benefit and the world's that, early in his life, Michael decided to bring these talents to bear, not for himself, but for others. It was a life which spanned almost a century, a life lived in the service of the greatest of progressive causes."

The Prime Minister told fellow mourners that, when he and Sarah Brown took their infant son John to meet Mr Foot at his Hampstead home, which was notoriously crammed from basement to loft with books, Foot said he was going to give the child "a little gift". "Only for Michael could a 'little gift' mean a first edition of Gulliver's Travels", Mr Brown said.

After he became an MP in 1945, Mr Foot acquired a reputation as a left-wing rebel with no apparent interest in holding office. In the early sixties, his refusal to toe the party line earned a period of expulsion from the parliamentary Labour party.

He was finally persuaded by Harold Wilson to join the opposition frontbench in 1970 and started his ministerial career when he was 60. Mr Wilson's widow, Mary, was among the mourners at the Golders Green Crematorium yesterday. She was accompanied by another former prime minster's wife, Cherie Blair. Tony Blair is abroad.

Mr Foot became leader of a deeply divided party in 1980, when the left wing, lead by Tony Benn, appeared to be on the point of gaining control of Labour. His first months as leader were taken up with a doomed attempt to persuade the former cabinet ministers Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and David Owen, and others to stay in the Labour party. Despite his pleading, they broke away to set up the short-lived Social Democratic Party. At the election in 1983, the anti-Tory vote divided so evenly that Labour only narrowly avoided coming third in the popular vote, while Margaret Thatcher was returned with a huge majority.

Yesterday, Mr Foot's successor, Neil Kinnock, said that Mr Foot deserves praise for taking on a thankless task. "His most self-sacrificing act was to agree to become leader of the Labour party at the age of 67," Lord Kinnock said. He added that Mr Foot was put through "agony" by the "self-indulgence" of the Labour left and by "desertions" on the right, but ultimately "his dedication and raw courage saved the Labour party". Lord Kinnock added: "In thought and in word and in deed, Michael Foot was brave and brilliant."

A family friend Peter Jones, paid tribute to Mr Foot's devotion to Plymouth, where he was brought up and where his father, Isaac, was Lord Mayor. Mr Foot was MP for Plymouth Davenport from 1945-51, and later succeeded Aneurin Bevan as MP for Ebbw Vale.

He became a lifelong supporter of Plymouth Argyle after being taken to his first game in 1921. He stuck with them, as Mr Jones put it, "through thin and thin". At the age of 90 was made a member of the squad. His player's profile on the club website described him as a left-winger who was unlikely to veer to the right.

The other speakers at yesterday's ceremony were Mark Seddon, former editor of the left-wing newspaper, Tribune, for which Mr Foot worked for many years; Ruth Kent, his colleague in the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament; his stepdaughter, Julie Hamilton; and his great-nephew Tom Foot.

Mr Foot was not religious, but the crematorium is secular so the family were able to choose the form of the service. There were speeches, but no hymns, though at the end the crowd stood for a noisy rendering of "The Red Flag".