BOOK REVIEW / How Worzel came to save the Labour Party: 'Michael Foot' - Mervyn Jones: Victor Gollancz, 20 pounds

'THE TRUTH about Foot's place in history is that he was the man who saved the Labour Party.' This is the controversial thesis of a monumental, though far from definitive, biography of the amiable chap who led the Labour Party in the early Eighties, its most difficult years.

Known to Private Eye as 'Worzel' or 'The Old Bibliophile', and born before the First World War, Foot seems like a figure from some black and white, Picture Post past, before political postures were defined in living colour and polished by Saatchi & Saatchi or Labour's posturing shadow communications agency. Foot's biographer, Mervyn Jones, is himself an elderly socialist journalist and novelist, a man out of the same Bevanite, Tribune stable that had, a generation earlier, spawned Foot. He is, moreover, one of Foot's closest friends and admirers. Jones learnt that the erudite Oxford-educated eccentric who led the Labour Party during its most awful period had decided not to write his memoirs. And when he then offered to write Foot's biography, Foot agreed and made unpublished letters and documents available.

From his own point of view, Foot was wise to entrust the task to a journalist friend rather than an impartial academic who would have asked harsher questions - about, for example, his early association with Beaverbrook and his later switch from parliamentary poacher under Harold Wilson to authoritarian gamekeeper under James Callaghan.

It will be a long time before a similarly weighty, but harder- nosed, tome is produced. In the meantime, Foot emerges looking rather too good - because Jones's fascinating and effortlessly readable study glosses over most of the crucial issues. He has chosen to invite us to judge Foot, not as a great parliamentary debater, nor yet as a great radical pamphleteer (Guilty Men, the attack on the Thirties appeasers, remains one of the great polemic works of this century). He is, Jones insists, to be judged as a political saviour.

In a technical sense Jones is correct. The Labour Party survived that ghastly decade. Today it dominates the opinion polls, for what that may prove to be worth. However, the general election of 1983 - the only one for which Foot was directly responsible - was a defeat unequalled since 1918. His self-indulgence and self-righteousness, his ambiguity over unilateral nuclear disarmament, his decision to appear on the same platform as Militant candidates, his casual alienation of those of social democratic inclination, dragged his party to the verge of third place to the Social Democrat/Liberal Alliance. It is inadequate to argue that, say, Tony Benn or Denis Healey might have generated yet more unrest in the ranks and led the troops to even greater disaster.

But the fundamental criticism of this work is that the author does not integrate the libertarian Foot who made such an appalling nuisance of himself during the Attlee and Wilson governments of 1964 to 1970 with the sup-with-the-devil apparatchik who ran Callaghan's government with cynicism and ruthlessness a decade later.

Why, for example, was Barbara Castle's attempt at union reform and wage restraint in 1968 a betrayal of everything Labour stood for, and Foot's similar efforts for Callaghan the very epitome of democratic socialism? Why did Foot, an instinctive free thinker and free writer, attempt to impose a statutory union-controlled closed shop on journalists? Why did he support the obnoxious state of emergency imposed upon India in 1975 by his friend Indira Gandhi?

These are deep waters into which Jones does not wish to sail. Instead, his ultimately unsatisfying biography remains safely anchored in the shallows. Jones has served his friend better than he serves the reader.