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In Defence of Michael Foot

22/07/2015 11:57 BST | Updated 22/07/2016 10:59 BST

Michael Foot was the leader who led the Labour Party into the 1983 election defeat. It was a complete disaster, and as a consequence he has become synonymous with this failure to secure power. This legacy has then been used to justify Kinnock's modernisations, Smith's reforms, and ultimately Blair and Brown's 'New Labour'. This was a modernisation strategy which enjoyed Foot's support. However, to some extent it is worth considering why he was elected leader in the first place.

Firstly, Foot was a loyalist. He was loyal to the Labour Party in a way that both Corbyn and Blair would claim to be. But this loyalty was instrumental to him securing the leadership. As a member of the Labour cabinets, he was loyal to Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, he had a tremendous loyalty to Parliament as an institution, and although a republican he had affection for the Queen. Indeed, he often sought her advice and they enjoyed many productive conversations together. This was important because to demonstrated to the social democratic right of the party that he was no radical Marxist. He was not a Bennite, Stalinist, or revolutionary communist as he is mistakenly portrayed as by critics. Rather, he was loyal to Bevan, both as a politician and as a thinker. The only time this diverged was after the 1957 conference. As such, given the unique circumstances of the 1980 leadership election, the social democrats felt more at ease supporting him than their usual preference, Denis Healey.

Secondly, the internal context facing Labour in 1980 was significant in Foot's leadership. Under conventional circumstances, Denis Healey would have been the most likely candidate to succeed James Callaghan. However these circumstances were not conventional. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and the Bennite Left were demanding constitutional reforms which would (in theory) have shifted the balance of power towards the CLP's, whilst simultaneously transferring control of the Manifesto to the conference. It was a genuine crisis for social democrats who stayed in the party, such as Roy Hattersley and Denis Healey. Only a small number of social democrats splintered to form the new party, whilst the majority remained in the party under Foot's leadership. The moderate left (of which Foot was associated) was distinct from the Bennite Left, and so also opposed the radical implications of the CLPD's strategy. However the Bennite Left would find challenging Foot for the leadership highly problematic at CLP level, as such by supporting Foot the social democrats were able to hold back the radical tide. As his deputy, Denis Healey would act as a balancing force as a way of showing that change was possible once the radicals had been defeated.

Thirdly, as leader Foot remained deeply loyal to his deputy. When Benn challenged Healey for the deputy leadership (unable to challenge Foot), the Labour leader demanded Benn challenge him instead, knowing it would be much harder for Benn to win. In the event, the campaign became a battle for the future of the party, which Healey won by a whisker. But a whisker was enough. This defeat began the slow decline of the Bennite left. Also the first modernisations which culminated in New Labour were initiated by Foot when he began an investigation into the power of Militant Tendency in the party.

So, Michael Foot was a loyalist who steered the party through a highly turbulent time. By 1982, that turbulence was in full subsidence. However, the damage had been well and truly done. As the 1983 election approached, the issue of the Manifesto was discussed at a committee meeting where John Golding (of the social democratic right) pushed for a hard left manifesto so it could be hung around the radical's neck as their failure. The committee knew they would lose, but Golding was keen that blame be placed at the door of the Militant's. Roy Hattersley was not keen for this strategy, and Foot was powerless to stop it because the party had been reconfigured so the leader couldn't impose a will on the Manifesto. As such, many of the resolutions passed by the conference from 1973 became features of the Manifesto. Resolutions which had been passed before the 1974 or 1979 elections with little interest were suddenly pushed centre stage. The strategy worked, and the hard left was blamed for the defeat.

Foot's leadership will forever be tainted by the election. However, the causes of the defeat are far deeper rooted in the preceding years and are not the fault of the party leader. Indeed, Foot spent his time between 1980 and 1982 fighting the hard left as much as the social democrats. Before 1981, Labour enjoyed polling leads, yet it was Benn's challenge for the deputy leadership which the ratings nosedived, never to recover for the remainder of the term.

But Foot's greatest success was ensuring there was a party to hand over to Kinnock after 1983. He was not elected to win power. No one expected Foot to be PM, but that was not why he was elected. Thus to use electoral performance as a measure of Foot's success is facile. He was elected leader to guide the party through a time of civil war which had broken out under the remaining months of Callaghan's leadership. Foot's election was not the start of the fight. He did very well in keeping Labour together because of his cross ideological appeal to moderate left and right figures. Indeed, Michael Foot may have been one of Labour's most successful party leaders, even if he led them to their worst electoral defeat in recent memory because without Foot, the party would not have survived.

Today the Labour Party is facing something of a crisis. It has been caused by the scale of the defeat, and by the subsequent leadership election. How this plays out will be a matter for history, as it was for Foot's leadership.