Why Michael Foot would have made a good PM

On Michael Foot’s death, Neil Clark remembers not a woolly old dreamer but a shrewd political operator

BY Neil Clark LAST UPDATED AT 08:59 ON Wed 3 Mar 2010

The popular image of Michael Foot, the former Labour party leader whose death at 96 was announced today, is of an intellectually brilliant but rather dreamy political incompetent: a sweet and immensely loveable eccentric, who despite his great gifts, was silly enough to wear a donkey jacket to the Cenotaph and whose romantic attachment to old-fashioned socialism caused his party to suffer - in 1983 - their heaviest electoral defeat for 50 years.
 
The reality is rather different. Far from being a hopeless dreamer, Foot was in fact a shrewd and pragmatic political operator whose career was far from unsuccessful. He was much more than a great orator; he was in fact much more special than people have given him credit for.
 
Michael Foot was a man of enormous talents. A superb polemical journalist, who made his name attacking the Tory appeasers of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, he became the editor of the Evening Standard before his 30th birthday. His biography of his socialist hero Nye Bevan remains one of the greatest political books of all time. He was also arguably the most inspirational public speaker of his generation.
 
Foot, who first became a Labour MP in 1945, did not serve in government until he was in his 60s. But his record in office was impressive. In the Labour government elected in February 1974, Foot, as Minister of Employment, acted as a conduit between the unions and the government at a time of great industrial unrest.

He helped settle the miners' strike, which had brought down the Conservatives, and oversaw the implementation of the 'Social Contract', the agreement between Labour and the unions under which the government undertook to repeal anti-trade union laws and introduce various policies to help working people, in return for pay restraint from the unions.
 
Foot proved an extremely competent minister and his time in office was marked by the introduction of ground-breaking legislation which improved the lives of millions of ordinary working people.

The Employment Protection Acts established tribunals to deal with cases of unfair dismissal and gave working women rights to maternity leave. The Health and Safety at Work Act protected people from injury and illness in the workplace.
 
After Foot became Labour's deputy leader and Leader of the House in 1976, he once again showed his practical skills, playing a key role in negotiating the Lib-Lab Pact, which helped keep Labour in power after they lost their parliamentary majority in 1977.
 
In 1980, Foot became the leader of his party at the age of 67. Popularly portrayed as someone totally unsuited to a leadership role, he in fact did a remarkably good job.
 
Labour had descended into civil war following their election defeat in May 1979 and Foot faced an enormously difficult task. Although he was unable to prevent the breakaway of the so-called Gang of Four - a quartet of right-wing former ministers who left to set up the SDP - he did manage to keep the rest of his disunited and quarrelsome party together and start it on its long road back to power.

Neil Kinnock, Foot's successor and protegee got the credit for Labour’s revival, but we should not forget that it was Foot who was at the helm during the Labour's darkest hours.
 
Labour's left-wing manifesto in the 1983 election, famously labelled the "longest suicide note in history", is routinely blamed for the party's heavy defeat. But the truth is that Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives, their popularity boosted by the success of the Falklands War the previous year, and enthusiastically supported by a partisan media, were always going to win a handsome victory, regardless of what policies Michael Foot and Labour advocated.

Had the Falklands War ended in a British defeat, or if the islands had never been invaded at all, then things might have been very different. In December 1981, with unemployment rising dramatically, Margaret Thatcher had received the lowest approval ratings ever recorded by any British prime minister.

We shouldn't blame Michael Foot's leadership of the Labour Party for the Thatcherite domination of the 1980s: it was the Gang of Four who were responsible for splitting the non-Tory vote - and General Galtieri of Argentina for invading the Falklands.
 
Had Michael Foot become Prime Minister in early 1983, there is no reason why he should not have made a success of it. Our national assets would not have been flogged off and our North sea oil revenues would have been used for the benefit of the whole nation.

And we would have had as our Prime Minister a truly exceptional man - whose enormous talents stand in stark contrast to the mediocre bunch of politicos who have followed him. · 

Read more about