11 March 2007


Roy Hattersley reviews Kenneth O Morgan’s Michael Foot: A Life (HarperPress, £25) in the Observer today (click here). I have just finished reading the book myself and I’m writing about it elsewhere, so I’ll not say what I think about the tome for now. But I was struck by Hattersley’s vehemence in condemning Foot’s leadership of the Labour Party between 1980 and 1983:
On page 436 (as incredulous readers can confirm for themselves), Morgan examines why and how Michael Foot became leader of the Labour party and concludes, with masterly understatement, that it was not 'in order to win an election'. He was elected 'to keep the party together'. But, dubious though that contention is, it cannot compete for improbability with what Morgan goes on to claim about the way in which Foot discharged that duty: 'This he did with patent sincerity and literary flair.'

In fact, he did not do it at all. He certainly tried. But during the first year of his leadership, Labour suffered a split that was worse than anything in its history except possibly the schism led by Ramsay MacDonald in 1931; and the number of defections from both the parliamentary party and the party in the country were far greater than those that followed the creation of the National Government. And, unpleasant though the fact may be, it was all precipitated by the choice of Foot as leader.

A couple of weeks before Jim Callaghan's resignation, I discussed the party's future with David Owen as we walked from the TUC to the House of Commons. Owen told me: 'It looks as if Denis [Healey] will get it and we'll be all right for another three years.' Last week, to confirm what I remembered, I asked Lord Owen if he would have left a Labour party that was led by Healey. He replied that the thought would not have entered his head. Nobody doubts that Healey would have produced a better election result than Michael Foot managed in 1983. We must not create the myth that Healey's defeat in the leadership election was necessary for the party's welfare.

The crucial votes that guaranteed Healey's defeat came from craven members of the parliamentary Labour party who mistakenly believed that troublemakers in their constituencies would quieten down if an old left-winger became leader. They preferred the certainty of Labour losing the next general election to the risk of being ejected from their safe seats. Their cowardice was compounded by the treachery of a group of Social Democrat defectors who postponed their resignation from Labour until they had voted for the party leader who in their estimation was most likely to guarantee electoral disaster. Morgan identifies three of them. They did not think that Healey was the wrong choice to lead a revival.

Now I don’t want to reopen old wounds – and I was nowhere near the action in 1980 (I wasn’t even in the Labour Party) – but I think Hattersley gets Labour’s mood in 1980-81 completely wrong here. To put it bluntly, he refuses to recognise that the party in the country – both the constituency parties and the unions – had swung (petulantly but decisively) way to the left, and that Healey’s election as leader would have been followed by an even-worse civil-war-cum-schism than the one that ensued under Foot. Which would in turn have resulted in an even-worse electoral defeat than Labour suffered under Foot in 1983.

I don’t buy the story that the Gang of Three would have stayed if Healey had won: their planning for a new party was too far advanced by the time Foot won, and the real reason they left was not Foot but policy on nuclear arms, Europe and mandatory reselection of Labour MPs. I’m not a great fan of the Bennite insurgency of 1979-82, but it was much more than a few troublemakers in the constituencies, and only a leader from the soft left could have kept any sort of lid on it. Foot was the only credible candidate that came close to fitting the bill – and although he had a torrid time as leader (and wasn't very good at certain aspects of the job, not least sorting election manifestos), he did see off Tony Benn and made a start on chucking out the Trots. Morgan, in other words, is right.

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