History / Politics

Labour leadership elections: Part 1

A post-war history of the Labour Party told through its leadership elections…


This was the first leadership election in twenty years, the first since Clement Attlee had taken over from George Lansbury. There had been special circumstances since then, of course – the war, the landslide victory of 1945 – but now Attlee was 73 years old and had just lost a second successive general election; it was time to move on.

In that previous leadership contest, back in 1935, Herbert Morrison had come second to Attlee, and had served as deputy leader ever since. He’d also been deputy prime minister, home secretary (in the wartime coalition) and – briefly – foreign secretary. For a long time he’d been the heir apparent. Too long, indeed, and his candidature in 1955 was optimistic to say the least.

Apart from anything else, Morrison was fighting for support on the right of the party with Hugh Gaitskell. Eighteen years younger than Morrison, and yet still a former chancellor of the exchequer, Gaitskell represented a new reformist tendency in the party.

The least senior candidate – in terms of office held – was the one who’s best remembered. Aneurin Bevan was credited with establishing the NHS, and had fought against the party leadership from the Left. In 1951 he had resigned from the government in protest at the introduction of prescription charges for dentistry and spectacles. (In part, this was to help fund British involvement in the Korean War.)

The electorate at this stage consisted solely of Labour MPs and the result was a resounding win for Gaitskell, securing 58.8 per cent of the votes on the only ballot that was necessary. He became the first leader of a major party to have been born in the twentieth century.Mirror-15-12-1955


Theoretically the Labour leader was subject to annual re-election, but in normal times this was merely a formality – no one challenged the incumbent and the procedure wasn’t even reported. These, however, were not normal times. Labour had lost the 1959 general election – the third in a row – and Gaitskell had responded by trying to modernize the party.

‘The changing character of labour, full employment, new housing and the new way of living based on the telly, the fridge, the car and the glossy magazines – all these have had their effects on our political strength,’ he had argued. ‘We have to show we are a modern, mid-twentieth century party, looking to the future not to the past.’

In particular he had tried to rewrite Clause IV of the party’s constitution, the one that promised ‘the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. But he had come up against strong opposition from the unions and from a membership that was moving to the left.

Gaitskell had lost that battle, and in October 1960 he lost again, this time at conference, which adopted an official policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, much against his wishes. Later that month the annual leadership contest came up, and the Left decided to field a candidate.

The man who stepped forward was Harold Wilson. The youngest cabinet member of the century when he was appointed in 1947, he had resigned with Bevan in 1951 and, though he’d backed Gaitskell in 1955, he was still seen as being at least sympathetic to the Left. He’d also made an impressive shadow chancellor in the last five years and, it was hoped, would reach out to the Right as well.

Wilson, however, knew this wasn’t enough and only stood to establish himself as a serious candidate for the future. ‘He cannot win the leadership,’ said the Daily Mirror, ‘and cannot expect more than about sixty or seventy votes’. In the event, he did rather better than that, securing the support of 81 MPs, fewer than half the number who voted for Gaitskell. Everyone knew he’d be back.


For the second year in a row, Gaitskell was challenged from the Left, as the dispute over nuclear weapons continued to split the party. ‘The Left wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party,’ noted the Guardian, ‘is determined to keep alive the division between the left and what they regard as the right.’

Mirror-30-10-1961If Wilson had stood no chance in 1960, then the new candidate was definitely without hope. Tony Greenwood had been elected to Parliament in 1946 but had never served in government. He was best known for being the son of Arthur Greenwood, formerly the party’s deputy leader and a member of the War Cabinet during the coalition of 1940-45.

Arthur had stood against Attlee in 1935. He got 33 votes (24.4 per cent) and was knocked out in the first ballot. His son performed about the same: 59 MPs voted for him (25.6 per cent). Gaitskell, meanwhile, saw his share of the vote rise again: in three leadership contests it had increased from 58.8 to 67.2 to 74.3 per cent.

At the same time, the Left put up candidates for the deputy leadership and the chief whip, with a similar lack of success.


The sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell at the age of 56 in January 1963 – murdered by the KGB, if the conspiracy theorists are to be believed (they’re not) – opened the way for a serious leadership election.

The deputy leader was George Brown, an MP since 1945 and minister of works in the last month of the Attlee government. He was a former official of the Transport & General Workers Union, where he’d been the protege of Ernest Bevin (he’d unsuccessfully attempted a plot to have Bevin replace Attlee back in 1947), and he now stood for the leadership, representing that tradition of the trade union Right. He put himself forward as the continuity candidate, pledged to follow the path set by Gaitskell.

Competing on the same ground was James Callaghan, another ex-trade union official and Gaitskell loyalist. Also elected to Parliament in 1945, he had been a transport minister under Attlee (giving the nation zebra crossings and cats’ eyes); now the shadow chancellor, he had the advantage over Brown of being sober pretty much all of the time. Slightly surprisingly, at least in retrospect, he was the oldest candidate.

The youngest – completing the trio of the class of 1945 – was the most experienced, both in terms of government and leadership contests. When Harold Wilson had stood in 1960, he hadn’t been expecting a second shot at the title quite so soon, but he was now the front-runner. There was little in recent times to suggest that he remained any kind of Bevanite, but in the absence of any other credible candidate, he was expected to get the Left’s votes anyway, while his wit and his parliamentary performances made him the most plausible challenger to Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan. He put himself forward as the unity candidate, who could bring both wings of the party back together.

In the first ballot, no candidate got a majority, though Wilson was just a whisker away, on 47.1 per cent. Callaghan came last, with the support of 41 MPs, and dropped out of the race. In a second ballot, Wilson won comfortably with 58.3 per cent to Brown’s 41.7 per cent.

After four leadership contests in eight years, a period of relative stability was to follow.



Part 2: 1976-1988 – Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock & Benn

Part 3: 1992-2008 – Smith, Blair & Brown

Part 4: 2010-2016 – Miliband, Corbyn & Smith

4 thoughts on “Labour leadership elections: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Labour leadership elections: part 2 | Lion & Unicorn

  2. Pingback: Labour leadership elections: Part 3 | Lion & Unicorn

  3. Pingback: Labour leadership elections: Part 4 | Lion & Unicorn

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