Michael Foot: RIP

Some of his much-mocked policies remain relevant even in the 21st century.

The former Labour leader Michael Foot has died at the age of 96. He was a brilliant man, a prolific writer (and a former New Statesman journalist), a natural orator and a legendary if infamously unsuccessful leader of the Labour Party. Oh, and he was also a devoted Plymouth Argyle fan and the oldest registered professional player to date in the history of football. (Here's a link to some related New Statesman profiles, interviews and stories.)

Personally, I can't help but agree with Craig Murray, writing on his blog in May 2009:

The sad thing is that Michael Foot was perhaps the most honourable man ever to lead a major political party in this country. Foot would never have dreamed of milking his MP's allowances, or letting anyone else do so. It is totally inconceivable that Foot would have tolerated creatures like McBride and Draper around him. He was not in politics for backstabbing and smear.

The irony is that it was Foot's innocence of the dark arts we now deplore in politicians, that led to his extreme unpopularity. He deliberately and consciously abjured the media soundbite, in favour of the well-made and complete argument that did not fit in a news bulletin.

He absolutely refused image makeover. I remember very well that this came to a head when he arrived at a cold Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph wearing a duffel coat. The Murdoch press went crazy, calling it a "donkey jacket". It was at the time as big a media sensation as the MPs' expenses claims are today.

Foot's political legacy will be much discussed and much disputed in the coming days, but here is the architect of "New" Labour himself, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, speaking about him at the Labour party conference in 1997, shortly after coming to power:

Thank you to the Party organisation, the volunteers, the professionals who fashioned the finest political fighting machine anywhere in the world. And thanks to those that led before me . . .

My own debt of honour to Michael Foot: you led this Party when, frankly, it was incapable of being led and without ever losing a shred of your decency or your integrity. Thank you.

Also in the coming days, among the inevitably innumerable profiles, essays and obituaries, you'll hear much about Labour's 1983 general election defeat under Foot and his "crazy" left-wing election manifesto, often described as "the longest suicide note in history" (copyright: Gerald Kaufman).

But here's a thought experiment. Read this extract from the 1983 election manifesto, from the "Finance for Industry" section:

It is essential that industry has the finance it needs to support our plans for increased investment. Our proposals are set out in full in our Conference statement, The Financial Institutions. We will:

* Establish a National Investment Bank to put new resources from private institutions and from the government -- including North Sea oil revenues -- on a large scale into our industrial priorities. The bank will attract and channel savings, by agreement, in a way that guarantees these savings and improves the quality of investment in the UK.
* Exercise, through the Bank of England, much closer direct control over bank lending. Agreed development plans will be concluded with the banks and other financial institutions.
* Create a public bank operating through post offices, by merging the National Girobank, National Savings Bank and the Paymaster General's Office.
* Set up a Securities Commission to regulate the institutions and markets of the City, including Lloyds, within a clear statutory framework.
* Introduce a new Pension Schemes Act to strengthen members' rights in occupational pension schemes, clarify the role of trustees, and give members a right to equal representation, through their trade unions, on controlling bodies of the schemes.
* Set up a tripartite investment monitoring agency to advise trustees and encourage improvements in investment practices and strategies.

We expect the major clearing banks to co-operate with us fully on these reforms, in the national interest. However, should they fail to do so, we shall stand ready to take one or more of them into public ownership. This will not in any way affect the integrity of customers' deposits.

Funny to see "New Labour" Brown and Darling going beyond "Old Labour" Michael Foot and Denis Healey in terms of nationalising the banks, eh? If only it had happened sooner . . . !

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.