A new biography of Michael Foot, the former Labour leader, lays open the contradictions at the heart of the Labour Party. During his long career Foot was a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), a journalist and pamphleteer, and a cabinet minister.
Now in his 90s, he still occasionally makes forays into politics – he strongly opposed the war on Iraq.
Foot came from a family of rich radical Liberals and was active in the Liberal Party as a student at Oxford university. But the horrors of 1930s capitalism had a profound impact upon him and he joined the Labour Party in 1935 at the age of 22.
In a letter to his mother, Foot defended his break with his former party. “Liberalism offers absolutely no contribution to the problem of poverty which, with peace, is far and away the most important problem,” he wrote.
“I realise of course that the Labour Party possesses a rotten set of leaders, but as I believe in socialism and still believe in democracy and parliamentary methods, I do not think there is any other course but to support the Labour Party in the hope it will improve.”
Foot was attracted to Labour by justified indignation at real social evils. But in one crucial respect Foot still stuck true to his liberal upbringing – his political focus was parliament, not the working masses.
The Labour Party existed to represent workers in parliament. It had been born from a split with the Liberals, and still carried a strong streak of liberalism within it. It was this tradition that attracted Foot, and it was a tradition he remained true to throughout his life.
After leaving university Foot started work as a journalist. In 1937 he joined Tribune, the newly founded magazine of the Labour left. He wrote many articles attacking the capitalist system.
While working at Tribune, Foot met the Labour left winger Aneurin Bevan, one of his heroes throughout his life.
Foot also met the reactionary Tory imperialist Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express. Beaverbrook hired Foot to work on the London Evening Standard, where he eventually rose to become editor from 1942 to 1945.
Part of what made the odd friendship between Foot and Beaverbrook work was a common political commitment to “Britishness”.
At the start of the Second World War, Foot became famous as a co-author of Guilty Men, an anti-appeasement pamphlet that attacked the Tories who had tried to strike a deal with Adolf Hitler for treachery and lack of patriotism.
Foot was elected as a Labour MP in the 1945 general election that saw Clement Attlee’s Labour government come to power. Foot was on the left of the party on domestic issues – he stood firmly behind Bevan when the latter resigned from cabinet over the introduction of NHS prescription charges. But his nationalism made his position on international policies less clear cut.
Initially Foot railed against the Cold War foreign policy of the Attlee government, but he later supported Nato. Foot welcomed the US propping up the South Korean dictatorship in the run up to the Korean War, yet he opposed the British invasion of Egypt during the 1956 Suez crisis.
Labour lost power in 1951, and Foot found himself battling Attlee’s successor, Hugh Gaitskell, a man on the hard right of the party. He was shocked when Bevan capitulated to Gaitskell, betraying the left by opposing unilateral nuclear disarmament. Foot stood his ground and stuck to his unilateralist principles.
When Foot wrote about Bevan he expressed the dilemmas faced by people on the Labour left: “Bevan saw the chasm opening at his feet, he saw the destruction of any hope for a new Labour government... He never had the taste, despite the taunts for martyrdom, for the locusts and the wild honey. He was interested in power to achieve great objectives.”
Many on the left responded to this dilemma by beginning to look outside the Labour Party to extra-parliamentary action. CND members tore up their party cards, but Foot pleaded with them to stick by Labour.
Foot loved parliament and the cut and thrust of debate among the country’s elite. He gained his reputation as an orator with his biting speeches, which were full of clever literary and historical allusions. He admired others who could play the game well – even the racist Tory MP Enoch Powell.
During Harold Wilson’s government in the 1960s Foot rejected overtures to join the cabinet. He opposed the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race.
The Labour government of 1974 was elected on the back of a huge wave of workers’ struggles. But the economy was in trouble and rather than confront the rich and big business, Labour planned to wreck parts of the welfare state that were its proudest boast.
Foot became employment secretary in the new Labour government. Trade union leaders were able to impose “voluntary” wage restraints and cut real wages for the first time in a generation. What the Tories had failed to do by force, Labour and Foot achieved with the collaboration of the trade union bureaucracy.
The Labour government of the 1970s presided over the biggest fall in the living standards of employed workers for a century. It doubled unemployment and stoked up racism. Yet Foot remained in government as it turned to neoliberal economic policies and militarism.
He claimed no knowledge of economic affairs, so was a bystander in the cabinet when the government was pushed into getting a loan from the International Monetary Fund in 1976.
Similarly, Foot, the committed anti-nuclear campaigner, seemed simply to avert his eyes when the secret Chevaline nuclear missile programme was pushed through the cabinet.
By 1979 workers felt demoralised after years of attacks from what was supposed to be “their” government. The Tories came into office under Margaret Thatcher determined to take on the union movement and boost bosses’ profits.
The paradox of Foot was that while he sided with the left of Labour on some policy issues, he sided with the right on the key battles that shaped the party in modern times. This explains why he could become a compromise leader of the Labour Party in 1980.
Foot was seen by the left as someone who could hold back the rampant capitulation to neoliberalism sweeping the right of the party. When elected leader, Foot said, “I am as strong in my socialist convictions as I have ever been.”
The media vilified Foot as either a dangerous left winger or as an incompetent. But in reality the politics of working within the system didn’t just wear down his principles – it began to transform them altogether.
So Foot, the lifelong CND stalwart and “inveterate and incurable peacemonger”, made one of the most bellicose and nasty speeches in the initial debate on the Falklands War.
At a time when the Tories were on the rocks, Foot put “Britain” first. Late into his life Foot continued his belief in some wars. In the mid-1990s he campaigned to get the Labour Party to support war in the Balkans, though he has opposed Tony Blair’s murderous imperialism in the Middle East.
Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 election created a crisis in the Labour Party. Left wingers pushed through constitutional changes in the party to make it more democratic. The high point of this campaign was in 1981 when Tony Benn stood for the deputy leadership.
Foot devoted his energies to opposing Tony Benn and his supporters, paving the way for Labour’s massive swing to the right. He soon found himself leading anti-left witch-hunts of the sort that he had opposed all his political life.
But it was the right wing of Labour that wrecked the party’s electoral chances. In 1981 four leading right wing MPs left Labour to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which then struck an electoral alliance with the Liberals and split the anti-Tory vote. Thatcher won the 1983 general election by a landslide and Foot resigned as Labour leader.
Foot’s whole career expressed the contradictions of a party that is supposed to represent workers within a system that is hostile to their interests.
He attempted to balance this contradiction, unlike Blair who would like to simply cut Labour’s links to organised working class people altogether. But by ignoring the potential of mass mobilisations to win change, Foot was inevitably pushed back onto the establishment.
After over a decade of New Labour the lesson should be clear – a party whose whole rationale is centred on the parliamentary approach is never going to be able to carry through fundamental social change.
Michael Foot: A Life by Kenneth Morgan is published by Harper Press, priced £25. It is available from Bookmarks, phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com