10 November 1980: Michael Foot elected Labour leader

Michael Foot © Getty images
Michael Foot: fighting a civil war

A disastrous general election defeat followed by a ‘hard-left’ politician being elected to lead the party, it’s not hard to see why Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party of 2015 has been compared so often to Michael Foot’s of 1980. Both have been charged with being too left-wing, and of making Labour unelectable. But is the comparison really fair?

On 10 November 1980, 35 years ago today, Michael Foot beat the favourite, Denis Healey, to take the reins of the Labour party. It had recently been dumped out of government by Margaret Thatcher’s Tories, and now found itself in opposition. But it was worse than that. The party was tearing itself apart.

Tony Benn and his ‘Bennites’ were on the left of the party; on the right were the social democrats. Michael Foot was the compromise candidate – at least in the context of the Labour party. “Foot’s greatest success was ensuring there was a party to hand over to Kinnock after 1983. He was not elected to win power…”, writes Dr Andrew Crines for The Huffington Post blog. “He was elected leader to guide the party through a time of civil war”.

And he didn’t have to wait long for his first big battle. In March 1981, the ‘Gang of Four’ – Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams – broke away to form the Social Democratic Party. The Labour Party was plunged into crisis. It was fighting to stay alive, never mind win an election.

In the run-up to the 1983 general election, Labour published its manifesto – a list of promises and aspirations that proved to be its undoing: massive state spending to the tune of £11bn, sweeping nationalisations, a state oil company, a ‘national investment bank’ to manage the wealth coming from North Sea oil, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and withdrawal from the European Economic Community (EEC). It was, as Labour politician Gerald Kaufman famously put it, “the longest suicide note in history”. Labour has returned to a many of these policies under Corbyn.

It was the most catastrophic election for Labour since 1918, with Mrs Thatcher being returned to power. It was also, incidentally, the election that saw a young Jeremy Corbyn enter Parliament. Foot resigned the leadership a few months later.

Also on this day

10 November 1908: First Gideon Bibles placed in hotel rooms

On this day in 1908, the Gideons placed their first 25 Bibles in the rooms of the Superior Hotel in Superior, Montana. Read more here.