Foot's finest hour

The former Labour leader's courageous stand against appeasement.

In addition to being a great parliamentarian, Michael Foot was a brilliant essayist and polemicist. I first discovered his writing in the form of his book Guilty Men, a coruscating attack on the pro-appeasement faction of the Tory party.

Foot co-wrote the book with the former Liberal MP Frank Cook and the Conservative Peter Howard under the pseudonym Cato. It was published by Victor Gollancz, founder of the Left Book Club, shortly after Winston Churchill took over as prime minister in July 1940. The "guilty men" of the title included such figures as the then prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, and the lord chancellor, John Simon.

The irony, rarely noted by Conservative admirers of Churchill, is that had it not been for left-wingers such as Foot, Churchill would almost certainly never have become prime minister. As Foot later recalled:

Churchill, on his entry into the Commons, was greeted with loud Labour and Liberal cheers, but with almost total silence on his own side. So deeply ingrained was the subservience to Chamberlain among the men who still retained a parliamentary majority. This fact was quickly blotted from the public memory.

The moral clarity of Foot's attack on those who believed it was possible for Britain to compromise with Nazism made this his finest hour.

His principled anti-fascism later led him to defy many of his comrades and support both the Falklands war and the Nato intervention in Kosovo. He had little patience with those on the left who denounced the rescue of the province from Slobodan Milosevic as an act of western imperialism.

This self-described "peacemonger" turned out to have a lot to teach the left about the need to intervene against tyranny. In the coming days, Foot's contribution to this cause deserves to be recognised more widely than it has been.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.