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Last Updated: Monday, 14 July, 2003, 08:04 GMT 09:04 UK
Foot's message of hope to left

By Nyta Mann
BBC News Online political correspondent

A man half Michael Foot's age would have trouble keeping up with the celebrations of the former Labour leader's 90th birthday.

Michael Foot
It is not until 23 July but this week alone, one party will be hosted by Prime Minister Tony Blair at Downing Street; another at the Gay Hussar, traditional Soho dining venue of Labour's left. Next week, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and left-wing weekly Tribune host their own.

Cabinet ministers and assorted other New Labour panjandrums will be in attendance at them all. Does this strike Mr Foot as a bit rich, given that modernised Labour history posits his leadership as illustrating all that was ever wrong with the old Labour Party?

"They've got their history very wrong, Tony Blair and some others," says Mr Foot. "In part, of course, they're referring to what was done by Tony Benn and others in the 1980s," he adds, referring to the years of bitter internal strife that followed Labour losing office in 1979.

The following 1983 election was disastrous for Labour, which stood on the manifesto later famously immortalised by Gerald Kaufman as "the longest suicide note in history".

"I'm very happy about Gerald getting his immortality that way," says Mr Foot. "He's more famous for that than for anything else, apparently. But he would have to eat his words."

Right wrecking

He points out that Foot's Labour, far from dying from self-inflicted wounds from its left, successfully saw off a concerted plot to kill it from the right.

"It was touch and go whether the party was going to be wrecked prior to 1983 - and the wrecking was not done by the left," he insists.

"Much more dangerous than what the left was up to were the actions of Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and co," he says of the senior Labour figures who in 1981 broke away to form the SDP.

Where I think I would be most critical, where I think their attitude is most ill-judged, is on relations with the trade unions
Michael Foot on New Labour
"They were the people who left the Labour Party in very dangerous circumstances, and with the aim of wrecking it. Much more than anything the left did in any kind of way, that is what led to our terrible defeat."

Margaret (now Lady) Thatcher said of Michael Foot: "If I did not think it would offend him, I would say he was a gentleman." But even the most gentlemanly politician would surely not be human if didn't feel the smallest surge of resentment that for New Labour Blairites, his time as leader is an icon of political incompetence, a warning to the grassroots of the potential consequences of their actions?

"Not resentful exactly, [but] where I think I would be most critical, where I think their attitude is most ill-judged, is on relations with the trade unions." Partly as a hangover from the 1979 winter of discontent, which concluded with Labour out of office for 18 years, "there is a streak of antagonism towards the unions, which I think is wrong."

'Conniving' with Bush

The issue which most exercises him now, however, is foreign policy. Tony Blair has been way too close to George W Bush, he believes, not just on the Iraq war (which Mr Foot strongly opposed).

He cheered when the British government re-committed itself to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which provides for international restraints and inspections of nuclear programmes around the world, three years ago. But ministers are now "conniving or appearing to connive in quite different policies that the American government is applying in the danger spots" - Syria, Iran and North Korea - "where we appear to be going along with it."

I think we've still got to do a lot of teaching to our leaders... but that's not a novelty in the Labour Party
Michael Foot urges members not to quit Labour
Iraq's continuing post-war chaos, meanwhile, is "having very serious effects on the people there, but is also influencing the whole reputation of our party throughout the world".

As for the glaring non-discovery of any weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the uncomfortable fall-out for the prime minister, Tony Blair was "foolish to have made it such an issue. I don't think he's going to find any [WMD] now."

Stay and argue

How does Mr Foot think he'd fare if he were making his way in today's Labour Party? His answer to this question is to urge disenchanted members to stick with it. You've got to be in it to win it, is his message to left-wingers and peace campaigners alike.

"Stay in the party. I don't want anybody to leave the party, especially the people who feel strongest on this subject," he says.

"We should stay in and argue and put the case for the eventual abolition and full-scale control of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction. We're the people who've got the best policy for dealing with that.

"It's not going to come from any other party in this country."

The direction of the party may not be to his liking, but Mr Foot has been around long enough and witnessed sufficient Labour history to know that such things change.

"I think we've still got to do a lot of teaching to our leaders," he says. "But that's not a novelty in the Labour Party."

Michael's Foot Notes
06 Oct 02  |  Archive

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