Michael Foot, 1913-2010: adored even in defeat | Diane Abbott

He led Labour to a disastrous rout and was wary of my Bennite generation, yet Michael earned our loyalty and admiration

Perhaps my enduring memory of Michael Foot is at 1983 Labour party conference. We had just gone down to catastrophic defeat, narrowly avoiding being beaten into third place by the SDP.

I had close working knowledge of what a hopeless campaign it had been because, at the time, I was working in the tiny politics unit of TV AM alongside a youthful Adam Boulton and the ever-serene Jackie Ashley. We were mostly closet Labour supporters (except for Adam). Every day, we would mournfully look at the wires and watch a truly terrible campaign unfold. Walworth Road (the then Labour party headquarters) had no idea about television deadlines (particularly breakfast television), and the photographs we peeled off the fax machine all seemed to make Foot look particularly elderly. To cap it all, the campaign was built around evening rallies, obstinately put on too late for the evening news.

Even party members who were not working journalists understood what a poor campaign it had been. Yet no party leader was more truly loved than Foot. As he launched into his leader's speech at that conference, our eyes began to fill. And he ended it quoting Conrad and admonishing us to be of good courage: "Always facing it … Always facing it."

He had taken us to the worst defeat of a generation. Yet we rose adoringly, as one, our eyes filled with tears.

Not all my encounters with Michael Foot were so sentimental. I entered parliament in 1987 as a card-carrying member of the hard left and a proud supporter of Tony Benn. There was no love lost between the old-school Bevanites, whom Foot represented, and my generation of Bennites. They found our interest in the politics of race, gender and sexuality inexplicable. And they were deeply suspicious of Tony Benn.

So Michael Foot treated all us new Bennite MPs with his habitual courtesy, but warily. I remember being on the platform with him at an uncomfortable rally in his own constituency of Ebbw Vale. His local leftwingers had happily invited me, but Foot himself was clearly uneasy.

Still, it was a privilege to enter parliament when he was still serving. He was a tremendous speaker. MPs would pour back into the chamber to hear him. I had read all his books. To me, he stood in direct line of descent, not just from Nye Bevan, but from the legendary, 18th-century radical Whig orator Charles James Fox.

And more than a decade later, Foot was a useful bogeyman to scare authoritarian chief whips like Jacqui Smith with. When she hatched an ambitious plan to arrange for the easier expulsion of troublemakers like me, we would point out that Michael Foot himself had been expelled from the Labour party. And his rightwing opponents had lived to see him return as leader.

My other lasting memory of Foot came from his final months as a serving MP, then in his seventies. At the end of the day, MPs would cluster around the member's entrance of the House of Commons – some to climb into government cars, others into their own big cars, and still others waiting for a taxi. But rain or shine, Michael Foot would politely refuse all offers of a lift and stomp off in a serviceable coat waving his stick – off to catch the No 24 bus to Hampstead.

How politics could do with his integrity today.


Diane Abbott

The GuardianTramp

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