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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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