Putting His Foot In It
In 1979, Jim Callaghan not only lost power as prime minister but also lost Labour power for nearly two decades after a no-confidence vote and loss in the 1979 election to Margaret Thatcher. The Winter of Discontent has seriously hampered any attempts at retaining power, punctuated by The Sun’s headline “Crisis? What Crisis?” Chosen over Denis Healey by a small majority ballot of 10 votes, the most left-wing leader in about half a decade was chosen as Michael Foot was elected leader.
Despite being a cult favorite in some circles, Foot’s results in the 1983 general election were a sight for sore eyes for Labour supporters. Many issues factored into this such as:
- The absence of moderate members who would form the Social Democrat Party (SDP). An SDP-Liberal alliance gave the liberals the best post-war result with the exception of 1945, almost beating Labour in the vote share. Labour had 8.45 million compared to the alliance’s 7.78, a difference of far less than three-quarters of a million.
- A too left-wing and radical manifesto. Labour supporter and author John O’Farrell called it “the worst campaign in electoral history.” This campaign included nuclear disarmament, abolishment of the House of Lords, and EU – as it now is 0 withdrawal. Considering the effort taken to join the European Economic Community (EEC) and USSR threat, some pledges were seen as reckless and endangering. Tony Blair later claimed: “I won my seat in spite of our programme, not because of it.”
- A Labour leadership crisis was present too with Foot seen incapable of leading his own party. Foot, the much older of the two, was far less adept in televised occasions. Whilst Thatcher had been a common face on TV to win support, Foot was less well prepared and present.
In the end, the Labour Party had their worst result since the 1930s as the Conservatives, who had still actually dropped in their vote share since the previous election, gained a further majority of 100 seats, attaining 143 from 44 in 1979.
An additional controversy that would not have aided his cause was the ‘Donkey Jacket’ fiasco in 1981.
On Remembrance Day in 1981 at the Cenotaph, many dignitaries and leaders laid wreaths to the fallen. Michael Foot suffered “wretched treatment” as Neil Kinnock put it, for his choice of non-tradition jacket for the occasion.
Foot wore a dark green coat, later described by the press as a ‘donkey jacket’, which he brought for the occasion. Due to its unconventional style – black was the traditional colour – he was hounded by the press, with his choice further adding to the impression of Foot as a weary, old man alongside his depiction in the press as Worzel Gummidge. The satirical newspaper Private Eye ran with a mocking front cover with a blanket-wrapped Foot shown as weak and immobile.
This was despite the fact that the ex-Evening Standard editor had actually been complimented on his choice by the Queen Mother.
Labour has long been attacked for a more relaxed dress sense with a Newsnight throwback clip showing how Tory Terry Dicks was opposed to the dress sense of a young Jeremy Corbyn, with a shirt knitted by his mother and a Co-Op-bought shirt. Like his predecessor, Corbyn was too slammed for his dress at the occasion nearly three decades later by very reliable and unbiased sources such as The Daily Mail(!)
Although not career-ending, the controversy has largely today been seen as trivial. It hampered Foot’s attempts at aiding Labour, perhaps what the man is best remembered for today, only compounding his image as incompetent, unprofessional, and senile.
An interesting aspect of ‘New Labour’ was the support it garnered even from the right-wing press. The Tony Blair-led iteration of the party dropped socialist elements of the party, as demonstrated by the alteration of Clause IV to drop more socialist aspects. This meant even the right-wing Sun – which had famously been “Wot Won It” for the Conservatives under John Major in 1992 – backed Blair.
Another unusual supporter was The Daily Express, who – for the only time – supported Labour in 2001, with founder Richard Desmond donating £100,000 to the party. It was controversial due to Desmond’s ownership of various pornographic titles.
Of course, controversial donors was nothing new to Labour, with the Bernie Ecclestone controversy after the 1997 election being one of the first scandals for the government. In this, the Formula One owner had paid £1 million to exempt F1 from the tobacco advertising ban, seemingly buying his way into power.
For Richard Desmond’s contribution, Blair saw himself famously quizzed by Jeremy Paxman over Labour sleaze claims, claims that had caused ruin in the previous Conservative administration. The Newsnight journalist listed off porn publications: “”Honey Housewives, Megaboobs, Posh Wives, and Skinny and Wriggly”, following up with, “do you know what these magazines are like?”
Blair replied: “If someone is fit and proper to own one of the major newspaper groups in the country, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t accept donations from them.”
Any sordid sex will see itself displayed on tabloid pages and this is no different, with the pull of pornography naturally printed to boost some interest and sales. Really, there was not much to this. It was a donation from someone who just so happened to have a part in the pornographic sector. The controversy followed the previous Ecclestone affair yet this had much less substance and less corruption. Nothing was asked for but Labour accepted a donation from an unlikely source.