Who are Labour’s most successful leaders?

Luke Akehurst

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One of the up sides to having blogged for nine years is that there are certain key posts that you can update as history unfolds.

This week I’m updating my tables which try to answer to the vexed question of who Labour’s most and least successful leaders have been, to include this year’s General Election.

The problem is that the answer changes depending on which measure you look at.

Here are just some of the ways of measuring it.

Length of time spent as Labour Prime Minister (suggested as a measure by Blair’s biographer John Rentoul):

Blair 10 years, 2 months
Wilson 7 years, 9 months
Attlee 6 years, 3 months
Callaghan 3 years, 1 month
Macdonald 3 years
Brown 2 years, 11 months

 

Labour’s top 10 election results by seats:

Blair, 1997 419
Blair, 2001 413
Attlee, 1945 393
Wilson, 1966 364
Blair, 2005 355
Wilson, Oct 1974 319
Wilson, 1964 317
Attlee, 1950 315
Wilson, Feb 1974 301
Attlee, 1951 295

 

On this ranking only three leaders (Attlee, Wilson and Blair) get a look-in. Blair is clearly the stand-out election winner, with three of the only five clear wins we have ever had. 2005, greeted with much gloom at the time, is our fifth best result ever. 1997 and 2001 are in a league of their own – to my mind 2001 was even more impressive than 1997 as it was achieved after four years in government so was a judgement on our performance, not the Tories’.

Labour’s top 10 election results by vote share:

Attlee, 1945 49.7%
Attlee, 1951 48.8%
Wilson, 1966 48%
Attlee, 1955 46.4%
Attlee, 1950 46.1%
Wilson, 1964 44.1%
Gaitskell, 1959 43.8%
Blair, 1997 43.2%
Wilson, 1970 43.1%
Blair, 2001 40.7%

 

On vote share the two-party dominance in the 1940s and 1950s makes Attlee look more impressive than Blair (lots of narrow defeats but on spectacular shares of the vote), and Gaitskell’s 1959 defeat gets into the top 10! But looking at it another way, the 1997 and 2001 results do brilliantly to get into the table as they were achieved in a three-party system. 2005, however, is nowhere to be seen.

How each leader grew or shrank the PLP:

Inheritance Legacy Change
Attlee 46 277 +231
MacDonald 142 287 +145
Clynes 57 142 +85
Blair 271 355 +84
Kinnock 209 271 +62
Wilson 258 319 +61
Hardie 0 29 +29
Adamson 42 57 +15
Henderson (1910) 29 40 +11
Barnes 40 42 +2
Gaitskell 277 258 -19
Miliband 258 232 -26
Callghan 319 269 -50
Foot 269 209 -60
Brown 355 258 -91
Henderson (1931) 287 46 -241

 

The legacy versus inheritance table on MPs starts to do justice to the achievements of our early leaders as it shows how they grew the party.

MacDonald’s presence near the top is troubling as most of us only know about the end of his career, when he split from the party he had built up and headed a Tory-dominated coalition to push through cuts. He is, for good reasons, such a bogeyman for most Labour people that we tend not to study his role in building the party through to 1929. Clynes is almost totally forgotten but was an interesting figure – as Home Secretary he blocked Trotsky’s asylum claim to enter the UK! Kinnock’s achievement in dragging Labour out of the mire shows through here.

How each leader grew or shrank Labour’s vote share (Inheritance/Legacy/Change):

Inheritance Legacy Change
Attlee 29.4% 46.4% +17%
Adamson 7.1% 21.5% +14.4%
Clynes 21.5% 29.7% +8.2%
MacDonald 29.7% 37.1% +7.4%
Kinnock 27.6% 34.4% +6.8%
Hardie 0% 4.8% +4.8%
Henderson (1910) 4.8% 7.6% +2.8%
Miliband 29% 30.4% +1.4%
Blair 34.4% 35.2% +0.8%
Barnes 7.6% 7.1% -0.5%
Callaghan 39.2% 36.9% -2.3%
Gaitskell 46.4% 43.8% -2.6%
Wilson 43.8% 39.2% -4.6%
Brown 35.2% 29% -6.2%
Henderson (1931) 37.1% 29.4% -7.7%
Foot 36.9% 27.6% -9.3%

 

This table shows a slightly different picture. Another little-remembered early leader, Adamson, takes the number two slot. MacDonald and Clynes are again near the top. Kinnock gets up there into the top five. Wilson and Blair underperform on this measure as their final wins were on vote shares not much different from the defeats of their immediate predecessors – in fact this table puts Miliband above Blair, a status I doubt he would personally claim.

Perhaps the most interesting question for contemporary historians of Labour – and still a relevant matter of political debate – is how to view the 2005 results of 355 seats on 35.2 % of the vote. Was this a unique historic hat-trick, and an amazing defensive victory given the context of the aftermath of the unpopular Iraq War? Or was it the four million lost votes thesis (from 13.5m in 1997 to 9.5m in 2005) put about by Blair’s detractors? Until we have another victory to compare it to, it remains our most recent “good” result. I suspect many of those who decried it at the time would have given their right arms for 35.2% and 355 seats this year.

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