This is a slightly updated version revised during the Labour conference, 2017. After the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership, the example of Michael Foot was much remarked upon. Jeremy Corbyn is not a Michael Foot. Corbyn has, until then, had been nothing but an outsider, a maverick rebel. In his younger days, Michael Foot was every inch the rebel, but by the time he was elected Labour leader, he was very much an insider, having been Minster of Employment, Leader of the House of Lords and Deputy Leader of the party. Indeed, Corbyn’s spiritual father, Tony Benn, at that point in the process of reinventing himself as the people’s Tony, had in fact been even more of an insider: Postmaster General, Minister of Technology, Minister of Industry and then Energy. By contrast, Corbyn has never held office of any sort. Furthermore, Foot was elected leader as the man it was hoped could hold the party together in the face of the Bennite insurgency that was threatening to tear it apart. In contrast, Corbyn is the Bennite insurgent.
There might be some comparisons that can be made. The first is one Corbyn would not approve of, because it is personal. By 1980, Michael Foot seemed, and in truth was, a figure from another age. Foot’s magnificent mane of hair, in the style of Lloyd George himself, even the so-called donkey jacket (which was not, in fact, a donkey jacket at all) seemed from another place than the 1980s. His oratory gave us words like Hitlerite, the language of the ‘thirties or the CND of the ‘fifties. Foot was also the very epitome of the radical Hampstead socialist, the London left of his age (the London left, indeed, of Ralph Miliband). If Foot appeared principled and passionate, he also seemed rather like an eccentric and even likeably bonkers uncle whom the family loved and tolerated, just as long as no one left him in charge of the annual get together or the family business.
The irony was, of course, that just at that time, the new left of which Corbyn was a part (entering parliament in 1983) was on the rise. Foot had credibility with the left in part because of who he had once been. In the ‘fifties and ‘sixties Foot was serial Labour rebel, perhaps best remembered for going against the party line over unilateral disarmament (over which he even fell out with his political idol, Nye Bevan) and the EEC. Famously, under Foot Labour took a sharp turn to the left. The 1983 manifesto, famously described by Gerald Kaufman as ‘the longest suicide note in history’, promised unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the EEC, higher taxes, an interventionist industrial policy and the nationalisation of the banks. It was, in truth, even more left-wing than the Labour manifesto in the 2017 election.
Corbyn himself, as a good Bennite, was coming from a left that looked to ‘democratise’ the Labour Party: in truth, to put it in the hands of its activists. And those activists, especially in the London I knew at the time, were very much to the left. There was, famously, the Militant Tendency itself, a genuinely Trotskyist insurgency, but beyond them many in the party and its supporters were decidedly left wing: Ken Livingstone’s GLC was not to the left of its party in London. The Labour left of the 1980s concerned itself with a raft of passionately felt causes: support for the miners, CND, the Nicaraguan revolution, the ANC, Troops Out (of Northern Ireland) and many, many others. They were, they believed, in the right, and they campaigned as such in packed meetings, marches and gigs for CND, the Anti-Nazi League, Rock Against Racism, Red Wedge and the rest. If they were sure they were right, they were certain in their self-righteousness too. Here is Red Wedge (prominent among whom was Billy Bragg, he of The Red Flag) from 1986.
And Margaret Thatcher won two landslide victories as many of the left’s much vaunted working class, especially in the south east and midlands, bought their council houses, saw their living standards rise and were wholly alienated by the earnest leftists who seemed antithetic to them, and who they believed were short on patriotism, common sense and regard for Britain’s security.
It took Labour until the 1990s to recover.
If there are comparisons we might make between Corbyn and Foot, we might also make comparisons with the Labour leader from 1932-35, George Lansbury. Lansbury was, like Corbyn, a veteran London left winger with a lengthy resume of passionately supported causes. He had left the Liberals in 1892 over the issue of women’s suffrage, joining Britain’s fledgling Marxist Party, the Social Democratic Federation led by the eccentric Henry Hyndman. In 1903, however, Lansbury ditched Hyndman for the Independent Labour Party, in some ways the socialist wing of the new Labour movement. Lansbury soon became involved in local politics in Poplar, in London’s East End, and became a noted campaigner against the Poor Law, eventually becoming MP for Bow and Bromley, but lost it over the issue of women’s suffrage to a Tory opponent fight under the slogan of ‘No Petticoat Government’.
In the Great War, Lansbury was editor of the Daily Herald, which was anti-war, calling for a negotiated peace, sympathetic to the Irish and strongly supportive of the Russian Revolution, campaigning against intervention in the Russian Civil War. In 1920 he travelled to Russia, meeting Lenin and the other Bolshevik leaders.
Like most of Lloyd George’s opponents, Lansbury was soundly defeated in the Coupon Election of 1918. In 1921, Lansbury led Poplar council in refusing to pay their share of the costs of London County Council on the grounds that they needed to meet the costs of the Poor law to the unemployed, which they refused to cut. Lansbury was imprisoned, but in the end the government gave way. As a popular hero, Lansbury was re-elected in Bow and Bromley in 1922.
Lansbury was not part of MacDonald’s first government. He was a republican, though one who chose (like Corbyn) not to pursue a lost cause. However, he had accused the king of trying to stop Labour taking office, and was only offered a junior post, which he declined. In 1929, Lansbury was First Commissioner of Works.
If 2015 was a traumatic defeat for Labour, it had nothing on 1931. Faced with a run on the pound MacDonald’s government collapsed, not being able to agree on cuts in unemployment benefit. When MacDonald took office as head of a national government with the Conservatives and Liberals, all bar 13 Labour MPs refused to support him; MacDonald was expelled from the party. When he called an election, he won the greatest landslide victory in British history: Labour were reduced to 52 MPs.
Lansbury was the only senior figure left in the parliamentary party. He became head of the parliamentary party and then, in 1932, of the party itself by default. He was also popular among the rank and file, and did a great deal to re-invigorate the Labour Party in the country, winning by-elections in what had been Labour seats before and seeing Labour take control of London County Council under Herbert Morrsion in 1934. Their vote would recover to 38% in the 1935 election, but by then Lansbury was no longer leader.
Lansbury’s socialism was radical enough to countenance revolutionary as well as parliamentary methods, but what really defined his radicalism was his attitude to world affairs. Labour’s policy under MacDonald and Henderson, the men who did most to create the modern Labour party, was based around the idea of collective security enforced through the League of Nations and multilateral disarmament. Lansbury was a pacifist, and believed in unilateral disarmament.
I would close every recruiting station, disband the army and disarm the airforce. I would demolish the whole dreadful equipment of war, and say to the world; ‘Do your worst!’
This was just as Hitler and Mussolini threatened the epoch of the world. It was his pacifism that cost him the leadership, when his position was torn to shreds, most of all by the Transport and General Workers’ Union leader, Ernie Bevin, who accused Lansbury of wanting to leave Britain defenceless, and unable to resist the threat of Fascism. Lansbury resigned, to be replaced by Clement Attlee, who would begin taking Labour on its long road to the rejection of appeasement, support for the war, a renewal of its commitment to democratic socialism and rejection of the far left and communism. The reward would come in 1945.
Jeremy Corbyn is, incidentally, the second leader of Labour to sport a beard: the other was Keir Hardie. Hardie enjoys a status in Labour similar to that of John the Baptist. Like Lansbury, Hardie was once a Liberal. He was instrumental in creating the ILP; he also played a key role in the creation of the Labour Representation Committee, the body that became the Labour Party, in 1900. After Labour won 29 seats in 1906, thanks to not being taken on by the Liberals as a consequence of the MacDonald-Gladstone Pact of 1903, Hardie was elected chairman of the parliamentary Labour Party (the equivalent of leader at the time) for primarily sentimental reasons: he represented the soul of the party.
It was not a happy experience. Hardie was temperamentally unsuited to leadership. It is also true that the early Labour Party was pretty unsuited to being led. It’s conscience clause that allowed MPs to defy the party whip, and the divisions between trade unionist MPs and the ILP, rendered it, as the Fabian Beatrice Webb was to observe just before the First World War, and embarrassment. Hardie’s activism had mattered, but was not then way to build a cohesive national party or parliamentary force.
The party would be transformed by Arthur Henderson and Ramsay MacDonald, and would become the second party of British politics after the First World War. After the disaster of 1931, it would recover: the uber-patriots Attlee and Bevin et al would win a landslide in 1945. Harold Wilson and Tony Blair won, broadly from the centre, and won big in 1966, 1997 and 2001. Does history have lessons? If it does, Labour did not grow, and more than once plunged to disaster from the far left. Can Corbyn’s Labour, post-Brexit and all, do what the likes of Lansbury and Foot couldn’t?
Here is a rather good obit of Michael Foot from Nick Robinson:
And Foot with the young Tony Blair:
And the full documentary of Foot’s life this clip is from: