The day Michael Foot stood me up for Margaret Thatcher

Twenty years ago . . .

It was late 1990, and as a middling, slightly distracted student, I was struggling my way through a dissertation on 1930s Labour foreign policy. The conceit was nice -- was there a coherent, thought-through alternative to appeasement? -- but progress was slow and meandering.

Fortunately, for me and my 10,000 words unwritten, I was going to meet Michael Foot. Foot had been Labour leader just seven years before, but I was going to talk to him about events six decades earlier.

He was the perfect "primary source", as a founding staffer from early 1937 of Tribune (issues of which I pored through for a week at Labour's old Walworth Road HQ), but also as co-author of Guilty Men. Writing under the pen-name Cato, he and his fellow authors took apart Neville Chamberlain's foreign policy; the book was a bestseller.

It took a couple of false starts before I finally made it to Norman Shaw North, where his parliamentary office was based. On one occasion, Foot cancelled on me because he wanted to be in the House for Margaret Thatcher's final Commons appearance as leader. (Asked many years later by Channel 4 News's Jon Snow what he made of Thatcher, he looked, laughed and just said: "Unspeakable.")

I was halfway down the M1 between Leeds and London when I was stood up, but it was worth the wait and the inconvenience.

When we spoke a week or so later, Foot was articulate, deeply knowledgeable, enthusiastic and, above all, enormously generous with his time: our discussion ran across one and a half TDK C90 cassettes.

During those two hours or so, he recalled the events and minutiae of the 1930s with a clarity at odds with his Fleet Street caricature. Despite his amazing contribution, I still wouldn't recommend the dissertation, but the tapes would be worth a second listen. If only I could remember where I put them.

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Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.