On November 10, 1980, Labour MPs elected Michael Foot as the party’s new leader. The veteran politician was a compromise candidate, but his selection ahead of Denis Healey would change the face of British politics for the remaining years of the Twentieth Century.
The vote had been triggered by the resignation of former Prime Minister James Callaghan, 18 months after he had led Labour to General Election defeat by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives.
Healey, Callaghan’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, was the favourite to beat centre-left candidate Peter Shore and left-winger John Silkin. But with the party’s extreme left – led by Tony Benn – threatening to split the party in revenge for Callaghan’s moderate policies on nuclear disarmament and European integration, popular MP Foot presented himself as a force for unity.
Healey comfortably won the first round by 112 votes to Foot’s 83, but in the second round, 67-year-old Foot picked up more of the eliminated leftist candidates’ support and was elected Labour leader by 139 votes to 129.
Even Foot himself was surprised by the result, but the amiable intellectual proved too weak to prevent the schism in the party. Within a few months four prominent right-wingers had left to form the Social Democratic Party, and by the time the country went to the polls in 1983, the new party’s alliance with the Liberals had taken much of Labour’s share of the vote, contributing to a landslide victory for a Tory party buoyed by the previous year’s Falklands War.