Labour’s most and least successful leaders, now including Corbyn

Luke Akehurst

I have been blogging for 13 years, so there are certain key posts I can update as history unfolds. This week, I’m revising my tables that try to answer to the vexed question of who are Labour’s most and least successful leaders. I will include Jeremy Corbyn’s performance in the two general elections he has fought, now that he has stated he won’t fight a third. 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 Tony Blair’s biographer John Rentoul):

Tony Blair 10 years, 2 months
Harold Wilson 7 years, 9 months
Clement Attlee 6 years, 3 months
James Callaghan 3 years, 1 month
Ramsay MacDonald 3 years
Gordon Brown 2 years, 11 months

Labour’s top 10 election results by seats:

Tony Blair, 1997 419
Tony Blair, 2001 413
Clement Attlee, 1945 393
Harold Wilson, 1966 364
Tony Blair, 2005 355
Harold Wilson, Oct 1974 319
Harold Wilson, 1964 317
Clement Attlee, 1950 315
Harold Wilson, Feb 1974 301
Clement 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. It was a judgement on our performance, not that of the Tories.

Labour’s top 10 election results by vote share:

Clement Attlee, 1945 49.7%
Clement Attlee, 1951 48.8%
Harold Wilson, 1966 48%
Clement Attlee, 1955 46.4%
Clement Attlee, 1950 46.1%
Harold Wilson, 1964 44.1%
Hugh Gaitskell, 1959 43.8%
Tony Blair, 1997 43.2%
Harold Wilson, 1970 43.1%
Tony 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% in 2017 just misses getting into this top ten.

How each leader grew or shrank the PLP:

Inheritance Legacy Change
Clement Attlee 46 277 +231
Ramsay MacDonald 142 287 +145
J. R. Clynes 57 142 +85
Tony Blair 271 355 +84
Neil Kinnock 209 271 +62
Harold Wilson 258 319 +61
Keir Hardie 0 29 +29
William Adamson 42 57 +15
Arthur Henderson (1910) 29 40 +11
George Barnes 40 42 +2
Hugh Gaitskell 277 258 -19
Ed Miliband 258 232 -26
Jeremy Corbyn 232 203 -29
James Callaghan 319 269 -50
Michael Foot 269 209 -60
Gordon Brown 355 258 -91
Arthur 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 Leon Trotsky’s asylum claim to enter the UK! Neil Kinnock’s achievement in dragging Labour out of the mire shows through here. Corbyn comes below Miliband, his position in this table flattered by the already small PLP he inherited but managed to shrink still further.

How each leader grew or shrank Labour’s vote share (inheritance/legacy/change):

Inheritance Legacy Change
Clement Attlee 29.4% 46.4% +17%
William Adamson 7.1% 21.5% +14.4%
J. R. Clynes 21.5% 29.7% +8.2%
Ramsay MacDonald 29.7% 37.1% +7.4%
Neil Kinnock 27.6% 34.4% +6.8%
Keir Hardie 0% 4.8% +4.8%
Arthur Henderson (1910) 4.8% 7.6% +2.8%
Jeremy Corbyn 30.4% 32.1% +1.7%
Ed Miliband 29% 30.4% +1.4%
Tony Blair 34.4% 35.2% +0.8%
George Barnes 7.6% 7.1% -0.5%
James Callaghan 39.2% 36.9% -2.3%
Hugh Gaitskell 46.4% 43.8% -2.6%
Harold Wilson 43.8% 39.2% -4.6%
Gordon Brown 35.2% 29% -6.2%
Arthur Henderson (1931) 37.1% 29.4% -7.7%
Michael 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 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 and Corbyn above Blair…

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 with which we can compare 2005, it remains our most recent winning result. We are now in the odd situation that this year’s result was 1.2 million votes higher than our win in 2005 but delivered 152 fewer seats. This odd fact shows that under first-past-the-post 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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