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Campaign Down the Drain (1983)

On Monday morning the Michael Foot bandwagon was loaded up at its starting-point for the week’s festivities. The news conference at Transport House took place in a large room entirely full of jostling media, except for the Labour Party spokesmen up on the dais, who sat in front of a backdrop dipped in the standard blood-stirring shade of radical crimson.

The backdrop also featured some radical grammar, to help remind you that this is the party of change. THINK POSITIVE ACT POSITIVE VOTE POSITIVE. This is more quickly said than THINK POSITIVELY ACT POSITIVELY VOTE POSITIVELY but one doubts if it is more quickly understood. Substituting adjectives for adverbs doesn’t necessarily galvanise the act of comprehension.

As subsequent events were to demonstrate, Mr Foot, while placing great emphasis on the importance of your listening to what he is trying to tell you, has not always the knack of putting it in a way the normally equipped human being can unscramble. But at least his suit conveyed a clear message. The suit, which settled approximately into position with Mr Foot leaning at various angles inside it, was blue. It meant business. It also meant wrinkles, but not even the redoubtable Jill Craigie can keep her husband pressed and brushed when he is on the move. For now, it was enough that he looked less like a minor Georgian poet than usual.

Even bluer than the suit was the tie. Mr Peter Shore’s tie, which was also present, showed you how red a Labour big-wig’s tie can still be. But Mr Foot’s tie was at the opposite end of the spectrum. Just around the corner, the Conservative Party news conferences were being staged in a deep-space blue ambience like a NASA briefing room. Without laying overt claim to the cold-eyed slickness of Tory PR, Mr Foot had borrowed something of that atmosphere and got it into his tie, plus those parts of his suit which were visible above the podium.

But the borrowed clothes reached no higher than the neck. There was nothing crisp or glossy about his opening remarks, which even those reporters with good shorthand were finding it hard to get down. The remarks were often accompanied by the Little Laugh, the laugh which says that the question you are hounding him with has been answered often, and with exemplary clarity, before. Almost invariably it hasn’t, but the laugh is meant to arouse the sympathy of the onlooker. Almost invariably it doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean that Mr Foot has lost faith in the technique. It has served him ill in the past, so he sees no reason to abandon it now.

Mr Foot’s Little Laugh, however, is the merest distraction when compared with his syntax. He doesn’t just say that ‘this election is about jobs’. He has to add that ‘this is the number one issue we raised at the start of the campaign and shall continue to raise until the end’. He says that he has said it before, as indeed he has, at the beginning of the sentence. Then he says he will say it again, as indeed he does, at the end of the sentence. Except there is no end of the sentence. The most you can hope for is that the sentence will get back to roughly where it started, so that the man uttering it will be struck by some recognisable phrase which he will pause to savour. This he does by nodding his head vigorously, in full agreement with himself.

But while the echo of his voice was still travelling in circles among helpless reporters comparing notebooks, Mr Foot’s body was now lunging in a relatively straight line towards the waiting black Rover 3500 radio car which would take him out for the day’s stint of stumping the country. The media had been issued with a cyclostyled itinerary listing the venues in which Mr Foot would arouse enthusiasm with his renowned oratory. But wheels were not supplied.

To follow the unscrupulous Mrs Thatcher it was merely necessary to climb aboard the bus which had so cynically been provided, but to follow Mr Foot required acumen, maps and a current Access card. Luckily the first destination was an easy one. Through fields of rape which looked as if the low hills had been thickly spread with Colman’s English Mustard, it was possible to reach Leicester town hail by 125 mph train just in time to see the candidate ascending the stairs of the double-decker open-topped bus which would take him on a tour of the city through ecstatic crowds.

Largely due to the presence of the dishevelled media, there were more people on the bus than were detectable lining the streets, either at any one point or considered as a total. Lack of publicity was held to be the cause. It was also recalled that Sir Harold had spoken to sparse audiences and won. Meanwhile, the media massed tightly on the top deck of the bus did their generous best to point their cameras at the greatest concentrations of people they could find. Wherever two or three were gathered together, the image was captured. ‘I’ll just get a cutaway of these demented hordes waving,’ said a cameraman, as two women in saris stood looking puzzled in front of the GANGES SPORTING CLUB (Members Only).

Stuck in the stairwell with an earphoned sound-man who had his rifle mike up on a stick like a periscope, I got a close-up view of the heels of Mr Foot’s tractor-tread shoes as he stood at the front parapet of the bus, ducking his head under low bridges and waving to the assembled children of the proprietor of Shabir’s Takeaway. The Central TV crew got off the bus to snatch an action shot of it moving. They got the shot of it moving but then they couldn’t catch up with it. They were last seen sprinting along the traffic island as the bus arrived back at the city centre, like one of Mr Foot’s sentences returning to its point of origin after the maximum possible waste of energy.

A press conference then took place at which Mr Foot, given the opportunity to clobber the Tories’ patronising poster about blacks, said inter a lot of alia, ‘another of their wretched posters... thought up by Saatchi and Saatchi who haven’t got the slightest interest in the politics of the matter. What the Labour Party is going to do and is pledged to do and will most certainly do...’ Sludge without nuggets. The TV cameras picked it all up but you could tell that the producers would find it impossible to edit. Tough on the Asians, who could have used a few memorable phrases to help keep them warm through the next five cold Tory winters which the polls were insisting stretched ahead.

Overland to Nottingham went the black Rover with the media Grand Prix in pursuit. Nobody wanted to miss the thrills and spills of the afternoon walkabout in the Broad Marsh shopping centre. The excitement was intensified by an element of secrecy, since the public has obviously not been forewarned, lest they congregate in too great numbers and impair the candidate’s progress. ‘Ooze iss?’ said a woman in zip-fronted felt bootees. ‘None of um’s any good,’ opined her morose companion. By now several members of the public had attached themselves to the frantic half-moon of media in whose brightly lit cusp Mr Foot lurched forward like a floppy toy on Benzedrine. He has an impressive turn of speed at those moments when slowness is what’s called for. But when a baby was presented to be held, he stopped and held it. The baby hated him.

Mr Foot, although patently a very nice man, handles objects in the real world as if they ought to be books, and a baby can tell when the pair of encircling hands would rather be holding a copy of Hazlitt’s Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth. It was also possible that Mr Foot’s hands would rather have been holding the neck of the local organiser, who in theory was a different man in each place, but in practice seemed to be the same chap moving one day ahead and making sure that no posters were put up, or, at best, that the word was spread by a single clapped-out Ford Escort with a defective bull-horn.

Tuesday started in Birmingham, with a public meeting in St Agnes Hall, Pershore Road, Cotteridge, out past the Stirchley 10-Pin Bowl and Fred’s Frocks, just across from Richelle Frozen Foods (12 FISH FINGERS 55p). The church hall itself had a wooden vaulted ceiling, a stripped pine floor and the proudly displayed, yellow-tasselled banner of the Eighty-seventh Birmingham Company of the Boys’ Brigade. The walls resounded with the unmistakable forlorn echo of generations of pimply boys in forage caps numbering off from left to right.

But by the advertised time the place was full, and not just with media, who were soon uncomfortably aware of being in possession of that increasingly precious thing, a salary. Most of the 150 or so people in the audience were unemployed, including the convenor, a stout man in a brown suit who called out, ‘Reg! Reg! Is there any chance of a joog and a couple of glasses?’ Mothers in anoraks cuddled already fractious toddlers, one of whom, a militant in the making, held the string of a pink balloon. Here were the converted waiting to be preached to.

The preacher arrived to a standing ovation, which was certainly not for his clothes. Grey instead of blue, today’s suit was a reversion to type. If he didn’t precisely look like a minor poet, he did look like a minor essayist. After sitting down and pretending to be riveted by an introductory speech of death-dealing tedium from the local candidate, Mr Foot rose to remind the local candidate that when it came to the handing out of boring speeches the champion was now in town.

‘Friends may I. First of all thank you for your. WELCOME, and I...’ The full stops, as always, were seldom at the end of the sentence, but today were cropping up with remarkable frequency during it. For an audience to whom good words would have been bread, here came a whole cargo of stones. There was passion in his heart, but he couldn’t say what was on his mind. ‘I know that reports appear in the newspapers about the polls but I say that they should. Report faithfully mass meetings like this.’

Reg having neglected to open the windows of the tiny hall, the mass meeting began to heat up under the television lights. Babies with dummies breathed smoke through the nose. ‘Year after year after year the curse of unemployment hitting people harder and harder.’ He believed it, but said it as if he didn’t.

The next event was an intersuburban media motocross to Redditch, for Mr Foot’s scheduled walkabout in the new Kingfisher Centre, a hardened ICBM silo masquerading as a shopping mall. On the upper level of a precinct, or the upper precinct of a level, was the Labour Party district office, where Mr Foot paused for tea and a brief interview with ITN, all other media in attendance. When Mr Foot’s noble forehead is lit up by a sun-gun the veins show through the skin. Venerable and vulnerable, he looks what he is, an intellectual in a false position. But on the matter of nuclear disarmament the false position now began to sound untenable. ‘Stage by stage ... move towards ... along the lines...’

Stage by stage along the lines of the upper lower precinct level, Mr Foot moved towards Sainsbury’s between glass shop-fronts and under tropical foliage growing in suspended concrete pipes. With Jill Craigie and Dizzy the wonder-dog in hot pursuit, he proceeded in a sun-gun halo to run tight circles around a grove of palm trees. Once again the security blackout had been almost totally successful. Apart from the local candidate and some ladies Knitting for Peace, few seemed interested. To those who might be, Mr Foot promised ‘a thumping majority for Dick’. A blind lady asked, ‘Dick who?’

Dizzy, a 2½-year-old Tibetan terrier who looks like an astrakhan tea-cosy soaked with shampoo, and who will instantly attack any other dog threatening to cramp his style on national television, moved on, towing everybody else with him.

Wednesday started at Transport House, with Mr Foot back in the blue suit but wearing a red tie with white polka dots. Overnight a new word had entered the nuclear debate. The new word wasn’t peace, but pace. ‘I think in five years we will be able to. To move towards ... the pace must be judged by the government that is there.’

Then into the Rover and away to Peterborough, for a public meeting in the Wirrina arena, a roller-skating rink with yellow walls and a sign saying Beadle Roller Skates PERFECTION ON EIGHT WHEELS. The joint was the size of an airship hangar and there were scarcely 200 people in it. The Labour Party’s cunning policy to wear out its leader with meaningless, botched engagements had reached fruition.

‘What I believe,’ said Mr Foot to the reverberating void, ‘is going to be decided on July the. On June the 9th.’ The cameras. had already drooped, the sound-men as usual had not bothered to re-load, and no producer would screen such slips anyway. Although Mr Foot finds it hard to believe, television is not out to cross him up. He does that all by himself. He is a man who has been mastered by the English language. It can do anything with him.

At the Thursday morning news conference, in the presence of Norman Mailer, the effluent finally hit the air-conditioner. Speaking about the allegedly crystalline clarity of Labour’s position re Polaris, general secretary Mr Jim Mortimer put Foot in it. The question about whether the party hierarchy still had confidence in Mr Foot’s leadership was answered by Mr Mortimer resoundingly in the affirmative. Unfortunately, he answered the question before any of us had asked it. As it happened, the first reporter to ask the question that had just been answered was myself; but that was only because I was too naive to realise the full import of what Mr Mortimer had said. Everybody else, with the possible exception of Norman Mailer, was thunderstruck. The party wise men looked as if they just received word that a Soviet SS-20 was about to arrive by air at Labour headquarters in Walworth Road, SEI7 1JT.

Mr Foot spent the rest of the day being worn out by eventettes in South London. The grey suit came into contact with the hot pants of Michele, billed as a professional photographer’s model and non-operative chimney sweep. He cuddled a convalescent fox cub, which was more than Dizzy would have done. He told a hospital that he would replenish its funds. It was the right promise, but given out of turn. On Nationwide that evening he was pressed flat on the Polaris issue by Sue Lawley.

The sentence he started on Nationwide was still going when I switched on TV Eye three hours later. Then, for once in a blue moon, he paused for breath. Alastair Burnet asked him whether there was dissension in the leadership, and before he could get started on the next interminable evasion a tiny, glowing chip of candour popped out. ‘We have got trouble...’ He had forgotten to think positive and given a straight answer. It is a weakness to which good men are prone.

(Observer, 29 May, 1983)
* * *

As the book which he later published reveals, Michael Foot took particular exception to the above piece, which he believed typified the way in which the media framed him. But really he received, from the up-market papers anyway, a fair press, and the men responsible for his shambolic campaign a better than fair, because they threw him to the wolves and were called nothing worse than fools for doing so. My one lasting regret about guying an honest and considerate man is that the piece contributed, I hope in only a small way, to the general impression that the Labour Party lost the election because of bad public relations. Actually they lost because of that and their defense policy, a point made more obvious by the general election of 1987, when Neil Kinnock’s presidential-style campaign ran like clockwork but the vote scarcely increased.