Political Promise

The Last True Old Labour Politician

In Matthew Wheavil on March 7, 2010 at 7:03 pm

The media tributes to Michael Foot following his death last week could not ignore the mark of failure on the former Labour party leader’s lengthy yet controversial political career. Suffering the worst defeat in a post-war general election has been a central aspect of his reputation but it represented a much greater deficit for British Politics: the loss of the left wing.

Foot was the last true old Labour politician to lead the party. He narrowly defeated Denis Healey to the leadership and stood firm on his socialist values amidst a wave of, at the time, unstoppable Thatcherism.

He built a Labour manifesto that fiercely advocated nuclear disarmament, stronger trade union presence and withdrawal from the European Economic Community. This manifesto was nicknamed “the longest suicide note in history”, which is fairly fitting – Labour in the early 80s was in a dishevelled mess divided across many lines from the party’s ideology to its position on Scottish Devolution.

Foot was in charge of an unelectable party despite some of the great principles he stood for. Following his defeat, Neil Kinnock took over and began uniting the party and the long-drawn construction of New Labour. The left wing in British politics has since died out, carrying a stigma wherever it goes, perhaps because Foot, despite his warmth, came across as so radical and barmy.

He called Norman Tebbit a “semi-trained polecat”, wore a green duffle coat to a Remembrance Day service, criticised Thatcher for lacking imagination and declared that there was nothing wrong with being a Marxist. He might even have a few points there, but Foot was clearly a man strongly on the left – too strongly for his own party even as 4 members split to form the centre-right SDP in 1981.

Foot’s eccentric attitude may have aided the media’s demonization of the left, especially following its association with the deep economic recession of the late 1970s and even communism (an extreme ideology far from centre-left principles).

Today we have a situation in British politics where Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are all clamouring around the centre right. Choice and democracy have become limited. Some voters may even still believe Labour is centre-left and yet again demonise a misplaced ideology in light of the current recession.

But recessions will happen because of capitalism and excess, not as a result of ideology. Think of one of the last standing left-wing pillars of British society – the NHS. Yes, it has many problems but ultimately, it saves more lives than it costs. If the United States had an NHS, more lives would be saved. Free access to a GP for all, regardless of their birthplace or background – an enviable achievement.

That is the kind of true socialist principle Michael Foot, and his close friend Aneurin Bevan stood for. I hope that such principles will one day return to British politics but as the old saying goes, they’re too expensive.

I’d love to believe Labour’s new slogan, “a future fair for all.” But really, a slogan like that next to a party that has stood for anything but is going to ruin the left-wing’s reputation even more. Remember the gap between the rich and poor has widened under New Labour. It will probably widen further under any Tory Government.

Michael Foot may well spend another 96 years rolling in his grave but he should never be a footnote in history.

Matthew Wheavil

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