Page last updated at 12:31 GMT, Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The Michael Foot story

Michael Foot
Foot was an MP for 42 years

Michael Foot was one of the great political orators, for more than half his life a political rebel and a thorn in the flesh of the establishment.

But he became a loyal and determined cabinet minister and, finally, Labour leader, although he took his party to its worst electoral defeat in 50 years.

Michael Mackintosh Foot was born in Plymouth on 23 July 1913, into a family of Liberal non-conformists.

His solicitor father, Isaac, was twice elected as a Liberal MP for the former Bodmin Constituency in Cornwall and also served as Lord Mayor of Plymouth.

The family was steeped in politics. Michael's brother, Dingle Foot became Solicitor General in Harold Wilson's administration, another brother, John became a Liberal peer while a third brother, Hugh, became UK ambassador to the United Nations.

Michael attended Leighton Park School, a Quaker establishment in Reading, before going up to Wadham College, Oxford, where he became President of the Oxford Union and converted to socialism.

After his graduation he worked as a shipping clerk in Liverpool where he was shocked by the levels of poverty in the city and social conditions which were a far cry from those he had experienced in Plymouth.

Foot joined the Labour Party and fought his first parliamentary election in 1935 when he stood for the Welsh seat of Monmouth. His political beliefs were already well established and he roundly criticised the Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, for his policy of rearmament.

The young Michael Foot
The young Michael Foot

He became a journalist, working first for the New Statesman and then for the magazine Tribune before the press baron, Lord Beaverbrook, offered him a job on the London Evening Standard.

Turned down by the military because of his chronic asthma, Foot was appointed editor of the Standard in 1942 at the age of 28. He remained there until 1945 when he moved to the Daily Herald which was partly owned by the TUC and was, effectively, the official paper of the Labour Party.

In the same year he won the Parliamentary seat of Plymouth Devonport as part of Clement Atlee's landslide victory, the first time Labour had ever held the seat.

He continued working as a journalist with two spells as editor of Tribune, and became a fierce champion of left wing causes as well as a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Foot surprisingly lost his Devonport seat to Dame Joan Vickers in 1955 but returned to parliament in 1960 as Member for Ebbw Vale, the former seat of his great political mentor Aneurin Bevan.

His opposition to defence spending led to the whip being withdrawn from him in 1961 and he was outside the Labour fold for two years.

Although the whip was restored he refused to serve in Harold Wilson's first two administrations, as he opposed Labour's policies on Vietnam, pay restraint and the Common Market.

A young Michael Foot making a speech
Michael Foot campaigning in Devonport in 1950

He also formed an unlikely alliance with the Conservative right winger Enoch Powell to oppose government plans to abolish the right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords.

After defeat by Ted Heath's Conservatives in 1970 the Labour left strengthened its position in the party and in 1972 Foot stood, unsuccessfully, for the post of deputy leader.

When Labour returned to power in 1974 Foot accepted the position of Employment Secretary and set about the task of strengthening links between the party and the trades unions.

He also campaigned fiercely for a no vote in the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should remain part of the European Economic Community.

When Harold Wilson stood down in 1976, Foot stood for the party leadership but was defeated by James Callaghan who appointed him as Leader of the House of Commons.

By now Labour was becoming deeply unpopular and a series of by election defeats reduced the party's majority in the House of Commons. It fell to Foot to oversee the workings of the Lib Lab pact, whereby Labour was sustained in power only through the support of the Liberal Party under David Steel.

Michael Foot at the Cenotaph
Foot's appearance at the Cenotaph caused controversy

A period of industrial unrest, known as the winter of discontent, further undermined the Callaghan administration and Margaret Thatcher's victory swept Labour from power in 1979, condemning the party to 18 years in opposition.

Callaghan resigned in 1980 and Labour MPs elected Foot as their leader in preference to the candidate of the right, Denis Healey, some said because they hoped for a quiet life.

But the left was determined to avenge what it saw as the failings of the Callaghan years.

There followed a huge campaign to change party rules, and replace former Callaghan supporters with left wing members who would oppose the Common Market, and support a policy of state ownership.

Foot, who had stood as a compromise leader to unite the party was, by now 67, and too frail to give the strong leadership that was needed to bring the warring sides together.

As the militants gained strength, moderate Labour members followed David Owen and the other members of the so called Gang of Four as they defected from the troubled party and formed the SDP.

Foot was heavily criticised by the left for supporting the Falklands campaign, which helped regain some of Mrs Thatcher's falling popularity ahead of the 1983 General Election.

It was Foot's unwillingness to change his appearance, his clothes or his principles, that brought him a popularity rating of just 24%, the lowest since polling began.

Michael Foot
With his wife, Jill Craigie, at the 1983 General Election

It would be 26 years before another Labour leader, in that case Gordon Brown, would be more unpopular with the British public.

Most famously, he was accused of wearing a donkey jacket at the Cenotaph in London, during the 1981 Annual Service of Remembrance. Foot later protested that it was actually a perfectly respectable green jacket and claimed the Queen Mother had complimented him on his appearance.

But, despite this royal endorsement, the tabloids' view of him as unpatriotic and badly-dressed struck a chord with many members of the public.

Foot had insisted that Labour's manifesto for the 1983 General Election should be based on resolutions passed by the Party's annual conference.

It contained commitments to unilateral nuclear disarmament, increased personal taxation and greater government interference in industry.

The document was famously described by the Labour MP Gerald Kaufman as the longest suicide note in history.

The election consigned Labour to its biggest defeat since 1918, and Foot, at 70, was quick to resign the leadership, and was replaced by his protege, Neil Kinnock.

Scholar and orator

Foot stayed in the Commons till the 1992 election, retiring after 42 years as a Member of Parliament, and refusing to go to the House of Lords, where two of his brothers had already sat.

In retirement, he saw his vision of politics surpassed by Tony Blair's New Labour. Out went the commitment to nationalisation, the famous Clause Four of the Labour manifesto, and in came a renewed belief in the power of the market.

Despite his lack of political success, Michael Foot still retained the warm affection of colleagues.

In private, he was gentle, kindly, even diffident, and his intellectual scholarship won him many admirers.

He wrote nearly 20 books, not just on contemporaries like Bevan and Beaverbrook, but on his literary heroes like Swift and Hazlitt.

As a writer, and as an orator, few could match him. His rival Enoch Powell called him "the outstanding Parliamentarian of our time".

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