He may have left active politics many years ago, but Michael Foot, who has left the stage at the age of 96, was still seen regularly at Home Park, supporting Plymouth Argyle, but never lived to see his team reach the Premiership. Foot, who was better read but far less ruthless than many of his contemporaries, became a victim of the media obsession with style over substance, something that Pa Broon, his latest successor as Labour leader, still has to suffer.
Tabloid editors who mocked Foot in the early 1980s never stopped to think for a moment that the man they ridiculed had been doing their job in his twenties: Foot took charge at the Evening Standard back in 1942. Moreover, he was prescient enough to develop an early loathing for Rupert Murdoch.
But his winning the Labour leadership in 1980, at the age of 67, and taking charge of a party that had become more and more fractious, was a poisoned chalice. The Murdoch press were cheerleading for Margaret Thatcher, Labour was split by the defection of several of its MPs to the newly formed Social Democratic Party (SDP), and in the aftermath of the Falklands Campaign, Labour were routed in a landslide in the 1983 General Election.
The election campaign was frequently punctuated by ageist attacks on Foot, although the Murdoch Sun, under the less than savoury direction of Kelvin McFilth, was always ready to fawn over then US President Ronald Reagan, who was older. The Sun had previously been in the style police vanguard when Foot had worn an overcoat to a Remembrance Day parade, which was promptly denounced as a “donkey jacket” (it wasn’t, but when did facts matter to Rupe’s troops?).
The style was set for every following General Election: Margaret Thatcher was promoted as more photogenic than Neil Kinnock, John Major – actually a surprisingly vain man – was similarly supported. Then for Labour, Tony Blair’s smile outshone a succession of allegedly less stylish Tories. Now we are fed the idea that Young Dave, especially in suitably airbrushed form, is the future.
And that’s not good enough. But a look at the leadership of Michael Foot tells us much about the superficiality of modern politics. There was no politician of greater substance and depth of intellect, but with too much of the media this counted for nothing.