Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Michael Foot : from "Suicide Note" to Salvation?
Gerald Kaufman's claim that Labour's 1983 General Election Manifesto was "the longest suicide note in history" has helped to fuel the impression that Labour's subsequent disastrous election result rested primarily on the shoulders of its policy proposals. To this, is normally added the argument that Michael Foot looked like Worzel Gummidge, which in a television era helped to destroy Labour's popular image.
The above crude analysis conveniently ignores two major alternative explanations for Labour's drubbing.
(1) In 1981, the Labour Party suffered a massive split with the defection of the "Gang of Four" and the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) under the leadership of Roy Jenkins. As it takes two to tango, the blame for Labour's split can not be laid exclusively (or even mainly) on the shoulders of its leftward move. Jenkins and company made the break, refusing to accept the legitimacy of Labour Party Conference decisions. In the 1983 General Election the combined Labour and SPD vote was almost exactly the same as that which an undivided Labour Party had achieved in October 1974 when it won an election under Harold Wilson's leadership. A united Labour Party in 1983 could have achieved something similar.
(2) Prior to the split and then the 1982 Argentine invasion of the Falklands, plus Margaret Thatcher's popularist response, Michael Foot had been ahead of her in the public opinion polls. So much so at one time, that Thatcher was seen as being the most unpopular Prime Minister in British history. But the Falkland Factor (added to the split) was played out to her considerable political advantage.
It is also a paradox that Michael Foot was seen to have had a bad television image, for back in the 1950s he had been a popular and regular television performer in discussion programmes. But by the 1980s, television had become an avenue for those with a simplistic style, rather than those with great oratorical skills, passion, intellect and feeling.
See this article by Jon Williams which stresses the contemporary relevance of the much maligned 1983 manifesto. It is likely to turn out to be far more important for the modern Labour Party than anything that is likely to emerge from its current policy reviews.