Crosland, Healey and Jenkins: Lessons from 1976

Healey FootBy Paul Burgin / @Paul_Burgin

A lot of politicos have their favourite leadership election, or one that readily springs to mind. For some it’s the drama of November 1990, when Margaret Thatcher was removed from office. For others it was the side event to the 1994 Labour leadership race: when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had that now infamous chat at Granita.

For me, however, it is an earlier leadership election. Not 1992 when John Smith won with over 85% of the vote, or 1983 when Kinnock started the long crawl back to the centre ground. Not even 1980 when Denis Healey was robbed of the leadership by just ten votes of the PLP.

No, for me it is 1976, when Harold Wilson resigned and six cabinet ministers stood in the first round, inlcuding three worthy successors to Gaitskell and predecessors to Blair, namely Roy Jenkins, Anthony Crosland and Denis Healey.

For anyone involved in politics, having a dip into the history books is always worthwhile. Lessons can be learnt and a better understanding of the party as we know it today can be gleaned. And 1976, in particular, can provide plenty of lessons for today’s leadership contenders and, more importantly, their followers.

To start with, the rivalries between Crosland, Healey, and Jenkins ran deep, as well chronicled in Giles Radice’s excellent book. They were not so much ideological as temperamental but they were long lasting. They started at Oxford and continued for another forty years. Healey and Jenkins had personality clashes and easily irritated each other. Crosland thought that Jenkins was his number two, and was hurt when Wilson promoted him to Chancellor in 1967 while Crosland was still President of the Board of Trade.

I am in no way saying such rivalries exist between our leadership candidates today, but in the struggle to bring forward each individual agenda, misunderstandings can take place, especially between acolytes and it is vital that we avoid that, particularity when we are singing from various parts of the same hymn sheet.

The 1976 election also showed an incredible range of talents, which time and caricature have somewhat eroded. Crosland was a brilliant economic theorist – although not perfect as the IMF Crisis showed – and had a clear view of socialism being about opportunity for all and not to any particular group. Healey was a pragmatist and and conciliator: for all Jenkins’ jibes about Healey being a heavy gun-carriage carrying light ideological baggage, it was he who stood and fought his corner when the going got tough (unlike Jenkins) and it was he who had the humility to start over and bring forward the necessary reforms when Chancellor of the Exchequer. His actions during the IMF crisis helped bring a degree of economic stability in the long term, although Thatcherism helped to disguise that.

As Deputy Leader several years later, Healey kept the social democratic torch going in the Labour Party when it was all but extinguished. Roy Jenkins had many faults and yet he was not quite the permissive, indulgent home secretary that his detractors make out.

And I have to say that I am no fan of Roy Jenkins myself, but you cannot fail to appreciate his work in rebuilding the economy after devaluation in 1967 and his defence of the importance of European free trade.

Today, again, we need to recognise the talents our leadership candidates have and where they are best suited. And above all we need to be united. We have gone into opposition more confident and less depressed than we could have been. We know the coalition has its tectonic fault lines, that Osborne will make serious mistakes as chancellor, and that we have a good chance of winning the next general election, but only if we know what our aims are, where we have gone wrong and what we need to apologise for. And we will have to stay focused and together.

Simply, we need our own coalition of ideas – and we need to also look on the consensual style of some of our predecessors, such as Healey, as well as learning from their faults.

There is a caveat to all this, however, and it comes from Denis Healey himself. I briefly met the former deputy leader three years ago, at the time Tony Blair was about to step down, and I asked him what sort of Brown Premiership he envisaged. Healey gave some ideas but then added that there was always Harold Macmillan’s comment of “Events dear boy, events!”

We must be aware of possible unforeseen circumstances – easier said than done, of course – and make sure that when they happen we have the humility to accept them and to act in calmness and in a manner you would expect of a mature government in waiting.

Unity, lessons learnt, and preparation. Those are the ideals we should be aiming for now.

More from LabourList

Winter (election) is coming

Forget the spin. The Prime Minister said he wouldn’t, under any circumstances, ask for a Brexit delay. He…