Michael Foot: Leftwing fighter who led Labour to poll collapse

Michael Foot was the brilliant left-wing crusader, unequalled in his day as a parliamentarian, who in 1983 led his beloved Labour party to its worst electoral humiliation.

This cruel epitaph is sadly how Foot will be remembered above all else. For he was a politician who was far more at home on the backbenches, freely dispensing discursive and sophisticated argument and debate, than as a frontbench man hemmed around by official policy lines which he was compelled to adhere to.

Wherever else his talents lay - and they were plentiful - leadership was certainly never his strong suit. By the time he was elected leader, he was already perceived by many as a shambling, white-haired, ill-groomed figure, limping along with a walking stick and a dog at his heels.

His very appearance, as an old man, epitomising, it seemed, the lumbering nature of the old Labour Party, spelled doom at the 1983 general election. Many Labour supporters felt, but were too gracious to say so, that if the rumbustious Denis Healey had secured the leadership, then Margaret Thatcher might well have been beaten in 1983.

Labour's and Michael Foot's standing was diminished even further in 1981 when Fellow Labour MP Walter Johnson denounced the leader as looking like "an out-of-work Irish navvy". This was because Foot played his major role as Leader of the Opposition at the Cenotaph ceremony wearing what his critics denounced as an old donkey jacket.

It was that which earned him the derogatory nickname, Wurzel Gummidge and which, more than any political issue, was probably responsible for Labour's election calamity in 1983.

But Foot always denied that that coat was a donkey jacket, merely a short overcoat. It was actually admired by the Queen Mother when she met the then Labour leader after the Cenotaph ceremony.

Foot's achievements - and where he excelled and enjoyed himself - were on the backbenches, delivering fascinating speeches full of wit and logic, playing to the left-wing gallery, and unrestricted by policy lines. He invariably played to a full House.

As a Cabinet Minister, although effective and generous, Foot often looked ill at ease. He seemed to detest having a brief to read from at the Despatch Box, hankering after the freedom, it appeared, of the backbenches.

Foot was also a journalist of great ability, having edited the London Evening Standard, a trenchant biographer and an author of huge merit.

Despite the crushing defeat he suffered at the hands of Margaret Thatcher, he will be remembered at Westminster with great affection as one of the kindest, most genuine and popular politicians.

Foot, although a gentle and courteous individual, always attracted controversy, whether as left-wing Tribune columnist in the 1930s, part-author of the most famous attack on Britain's wartime rulers, Guilty Men, in the 1940s, or a ban-the-bomb Aldermaston peace marcher in the 1950s.

But controversy of a less welcome kind dogged his three unhappy years as Labour leader.

In addition to the Cenotaph incident - the furore about which enraged his actress wife Jill Craigie - there was talk, mostly behind his back, of forcing him to resign.

His contemporaries could see that with a leader who, frankly, looked doddery, they were handing Margaret Thatcher election victory on a plate. Even during the disastrous campaign itself, senior Labour figures were publicly proclaiming full confidence in their leader - an unprecedented move which told the world they were dissatisfied with his performance.

But this indomitable figure stayed put, and with a manifesto later described as "the longest suicide note in history" fought the election only a month before his 70th birthday with its terrible consequences.

And within 72 hours of that three-figure disaster, Neil Kinnock's name was being bandied about as the party's ideal new leader. Foot was distinctly and noticeably irritated that the movement was already casting around for a new leader before he had even suggested he might stand down.

Whatever his personal view was, the party could not afford to keep this man in charge, even though he was then - and remained until his death - one of the best-loved figures in the Labour movement.

And unlike most of his Labour contemporaries, Foot, in keeping with his principles, refused the opportunity for a life peerage and a seat in the House of Lords.

Michael Foot was born on July 23, 1913 in Plymouth - into the most famous of West Country Liberal families.

His father, Isaac, a Methodist and leading Plymouth solicitor, was a Liberal MP who served in Ramsay MacDonald's National Government. Michael was the youngest, and most famous, of a quartet of sons who all became national figures.

Lord Caradon was former permanent British representative at the United Nations, the late Sir Dingle Foot was a Liberal MP and later a Labour Minister, and Lord Foot, a former Liberal candidate, sat as a Liberal peer.

But it was Michael Foot who first broke the Liberal tradition, something his parents found particularly galling. However, his mother's peace offering was much appreciated - she sent him a homemade Cornish pasty to celebrate his election as an MP in 1945.

Oddly, his early prowess at school was not in politics, but on the soccer field as a centre forward. Later, he took great pleasure listing himself in Who's Who as a devoted Plymouth Argyle supporter, something he remained until his death.

He went from Leighton Park School, Reading, to Wadham College, Oxford, as an exhibitioner reading philosophy, politics and economics, and in 1933 became the youngest president of the Union.

On leaving university, his political and journalistic careers went hand in hand. He joined the Labour Party in Liverpool in 1934, convinced that socialism, and not his father's liberalism, was the only answer to the widespread poverty and unemployment of the period.

Foot fought the no-hope seat of Monmouth in 1935 and two years later became assistant editor of the respected left-wing journal Tribune, which he was later to edit from 1948-52 and 1955-60.

An unlikely friendship developed between the young left-winger and the press baron Lord Beaverbrook, who became Mr Foot's "second father". This paved the way to what could have been a glittering future in journalism. Even so, in 1942 he became editor of the Evening Standard before his 30th birthday - an achievement beyond the dreams of even the most ambitious journalist of that age.

His reign at the Standard lasted two years, and he left to begin a 20-year stint as political columnist on the Labour-sympathetic newspaper, the Daily Herald.

It was in 1945 in Plymouth, the city of his birth, that he achieved Parliamentary success - as MP for Devonport division. He fought at Westminster for cash to rebuild the blitzed centre of the city, where his father was lord mayor at the time.

During the campaign he first met Jill Craigie, then making a film in Plymouth. He later married her.

Much to her annoyance, in the heat of his victory over former War Secretary Leslie Hoare-Belisha, he neglected to invite her to the celebrations.

In Parliament, he quickly became a fiery spokesman of the Bevanite left, advocating nationalisation, disengagement from the Cold War and alliance with the United States, non-participation in Europe - and, above all, nuclear disarmament.

His opposition to nuclear defence was to play a leading part in his 100-vote defeat in the dockyard constituency of Devonport in 1955. And when unilateralism was finally a Labour policy plank, under his leadership, it was to contribute to the party's thrashing at the polls.

His anti-nuclear views also led to the one major argument between him and his hero, Nye Bevan.

Yet their friendship survived, and Foot went on to succeed him in his Ebbw Vale constituency in 1960 - and to write Bevan's biography, perhaps his greatest literary achievement.

Not until 1970, after Labour's general election defeat, did Mr Foot agree to become a frontbencher. From this point his rise was unstoppable.

In Opposition, he was spokesman on the Common Market, against which he campaigned tirelessly. In Government, he received the key post of Employment Secretary under Harold Wilson. His task was to end the miners' strike, repeal the hated Industrial Relations Act and give greater rights and freedoms to trade unions.

On Mr Wilson's resignation, he topped the poll in the first ballot of the leadership election but lost to James Callaghan in the second.

He always gave the impression of being a reluctant contender as he was thrust further into the limelight as deputy leader, Leader of the House - and deputy Prime Minister.

If he enjoyed the power, then he showed no signs of it, always, it appeared, hankering after the freedom of the back-benches.

With Labour's majority becoming ever more slender, Foot played a central role in negotiating and maintaining the Lib-Lab pact and masterminding the Government's devolution plans.

His speech in the confidence debate in 1979 - unlike many of his ministerial utterances - was regarded as one of the finest modern parliamentary performances, even though Labour lost the crucial vote and was forced to call an election.

Foot again hesitated before challenging for the leadership in 1980, but typically, "he could not decently refuse" pressure on him to stand from his many political friends and trade unionists, the excuse used by all "reluctant" potential leaders.

He won, but by only a narrow margin, and afterwards critics claimed that his opponent, Denis Healey, would have given the party a better chance against Mrs Thatcher - a view which is still widespread today.

Foot faced monumental problems, such as the defection of the "Gang of Four" to form the SDP and a host of splits on policy, which made leadership virtually impossible.

For many, Foot was never a serious potential prime minister. He gave the impression he would have been happier in his familiar role as backbench rebel which he partially resumed after handing over to Neil Kinnock.

Although his refusal to enter the House of Lords meant he effectively bowed out of political life, his name continued to appear regularly in the book pages of the broadsheet newspapers.

Then, in 1995, he was the subject of a bizarre allegation in the Sunday Times that he was a KGB agent. It was an allegation most people found laughable and that Foot himself fiercely denied. As a result he issued libel writs against both the Sunday Times and the News of the World which also carried the allegation.

Foot was never a hard-nosed politician, although he delivered his trenchant left-wing views in a fiery and attractive manner. He was revered by young left-wingers as the only senior Labour figure, in their view, who could represent their hopes and aspirations.

But he was seen at Westminster as a slightly eccentric intellectual, happiest of all when writing books and walking his dog on Hampstead Heath, his stick in his hand and white hair blowing in the wind.

To the end, he retained great affection for the two constituencies that sent him to Parliament - Plymouth Devonport and his Welsh seat, renamed Blaenau Gwent. He was made a freeman of both.

To his regret, he and his wife were unable to have children. His wife died aged 85 in December 1999.

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