Luke Akehurst: From Attlee to Blair – Labour’s most successful leaders and where Corbyn might fit in

Luke Akehurst

I have been blogging for 11 years so there are certain key posts I can update as history unfolds.

This week I’m revising my tables which try to answer to the vexed question of who are Labour’s most and least successful leaders, to include Jeremy Corbyn’s performance in this year’s general election, which is of course an incomplete measure as he looks likely to fight at least one more.

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

Here are just some of the ways of considering 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. His third election as leader, in 2005, was greeted with much gloom at the time but is our fifth best result ever. His first two, in 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. The 2005 vote is, however, nowhere to be seen. Jeremy Corbyn’s 40.0 per cent just misses getting into this top ten, impressive in its own right, but also perhaps indicative of a return to two party politics.

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
Corbyn 232 262 +30
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
Callaghan 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.

This table also puts Corbyn’s performance to date in the mid-league – below Blair, Wilson and Kinnock but in a position to overtake them if he fights another general election and makes further gains.

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%
Corbyn 30.4% 40.0% +9.6%
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. Corbyn comes straight in at number three in the all-time list.

MacDonald and Clynes are again near the top. Kinnock is above Wilson and Blair, who 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 per cent 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 winning result. We are now in the odd situation that this year’s result was 4.8 per cent higher than our win in 2005 but delivered 93 fewer seats … showing that in first past the post elections the capriciousness of the electoral system means it’s not just how many votes you get that matters, but in which seats and how the opposition vote splits up.

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