History / Politics

Labour leadership elections: Part 2

As the Labour Party enjoys its annual leadership election, we take a look back at the post-war history of the competition. The first installment covered the 1950s and ’60s; now we move on to the 1970s and ’80s, as the electorate expands beyond Westminster.


Having been elected Labour leader in 1963, Harold Wilson went unchallenged for thirteen years, fighting five general elections and winning four of them (even if only one yielded a decent majority). But although there was no formal challenge to his leadership, there were whispering campaigns against him.

‘May I say, for the benefit of those who have been carried away by the gossip of the last few days, that I know what’s going on,’ he said in a 1969 speech. ‘I’m going on.’ It was one of his better quips, but after he lost the 1970 election, the whispering began again, reaching a peak in 1971 when Roy Jenkins led a Labour rebellion to support Britain’s entry into the European Community. Jenkins was then deputy leader and there was talk of him resigning to fight Wilson.

It didn’t happen, and Wilson was allowed to leave at a time of his choosing, suddenly announcing his retirement – as leader and as prime minister – in March 1976.

This was a new situation. Labour had never changed leader while in government, and no prime minister of any party had ever been chosen by a ballot of MPs. It was also, as it turned out, a leadership election unparalleled in terms of the quality of the six-man shortlist. Reading from Left to Right, there was Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Anthony Crosland, James Callaghan, Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins.

Benn was the energy secretary, a technocrat reborn as a socialist who believed that Westminster politics was not enough and that what was needed was the ‘joint government of the country by the Labour Party and the trade unions’. Had the rank-and-file membership of the party been entitled to vote, he might have stood an outside chance, but at this point the leadership was still in the gift of the MPs alone, and he was destined for defeat.

Foot was the standard-bearer of the old Left. He had much in common with Benn: low-church family, fathers who were Liberal MPs, private education, and a sentimental love of the working class and the trade unions. But Foot was a believer in the parliamentary road to socialism in a way that Benn never really was. He was also the biographer, and disciple, of Aneurin Bevan. A backbencher for many years, he had finally become employment secretary in 1974. He was the wildly romantic heart of socialism.

Callaghan, on the other hand, was the guts of Labour. As we’ve seen, he had previously contested the leadership against Wilson in 1963, and since then he’d been chancellor of the exchequer, home secretary and – now – foreign secretary. His c.v. lacked just one of the great offices of state. He hadn’t been notably brilliant in any of those roles but he was seen as a solid, reassuring kind of figure, and a poll for ITN showed that 45 per cent of voters and 49 per cent of Labour voters favoured him for the succession.

The other three – Crosland, Healey and Jenkins – had for many years been, in the title of Giles Radice’s excellent triple-biography, friends and rivals. They represented the reforming social democratic wing of the party in various forms: Crosland the thinker, Healy the communicator, Jenkins the administrator. And they had graduted to major government jobs, as environment secretary, chancellor and home secretary respectively.

All six were credible choices, though the party that emerged – and that would shortly run into a major economic crisis – would have been very different, depending on who was selected.

In the first ballot it became clear that this was a straight fight between Foot, who got 90 votes, and Callaghan on 84. Crosland came last (with 17) and was knocked out, while third-placed Jenkins was sufficiently embarrassed by his poor showing (56) that he withdrew from the race. So too did fourth-placed Tony Benn (37), who pledged his support for Foot. Healey, however, always had the stomach for a fight and, despite a hopeless fifth-place showing with just 30 votes, he stayed in.

Healey’s presence ensured that neither of the front-runners could secure a majority on the second ballot. Callaghan overtook Foot (141-133) but could still only manage 45.2 per cent. And so Healey (38) was eliminated for the final ballot. To no one’s surprise, virtually all his votes went over to Callaghan, who won with the support of 176 MPs, some 56.2 per cent of the total.

The new leader entered Downing Street with a message that drew on his naval past to paint himself as captain of the ship of state: ‘The seas will be stormy,’ he said. ‘I can’t guarantee you won’t get seasick. But I can guarantee that, with combined effort, we will get you to port.’

Express 6-4-1976


In the aftermath of the 1979 defeat of James Callaghan’s Labour government, the clamour for structural change in the party could no longer be ignored. One of the key demands on the Left’s list was that the leader should no longer be chosen solely by the MPs, but should be elected by the whole movement.

That proposal was rejected by the 1979 conference, but no one believed that was the end of the matter. ‘We’ll come back next year and put it right,’ noted Tony Benn, the man with whom the calls for change were most closely associated, and indeed in 1980 the idea of an electoral college to represent all sections of the movement was agreed in principle. In principle alone, however, for no settlement could be reached on how a new system would work. It was decided instead that a special conference would be held in January 1981 to come up with a formula.

Before that could happen, Callaghan promptly announced his resignation as leader. The intention was clear: he wanted to pre-empt the new system and get a new leader installed under the old rules. And everyone knew that his chosen successor was Denis Healey. Everyone also knew that Healey was the popular choice with Labour voters. At a time when the economy was struggling, unemployment was spiralling horribly upwards, and Margaret Thatcher was a deeply unpopular prime minister, Healey was one of the few politicians in the country who commanded both affection and respect.

The Left was furious. The election was so blatantly against the spirit of the conference decision that many felt it lacked legitimacy. Benn concluded that in all conscience he couldn’t stand (and wasn’t going to win if he did), but there remained the need for a Left candidate, so Michael Foot was persuaded to put his name forward again. Despite his strong showing last time, Foot really had no great desire to have another go –  he was 67 years old now, and anyway he never really had any great ambition or aptitude for leadership.

Peter Shore also volunteered his services. A cabinet minister in the Labour governments in both the 1960s and ’70s – most recently as environment secretary – he was what would come to be known as soft-left: an interventionist in economics, a fervent anti-European, an erstwhile supporter of unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Completing the line-up was John Silkin, son of Lewis Silkin, one of the unsung heroes of Clement Attlee’s government. He had been agriculture minister, but Silkin was by far the least experienced of the candidates; he was also virtually unknown to the electorate.

Guardian 11-11-1980The first round of voting saw Healey take a lead over Foot by 112 votes to 83, with the also-rans Silkin on 38 and Shore on 32. Both the later dropped out, to leave a second ballot to decide the future of the party. And, narrowly, Foot came through to beat Healey 139-129. He became the first person to have been expelled from the Parliamentary Labour Party and then to go on to become leader.

It was an act of stupidity and cowardice on the part of the Labour MPs. Many felt that it was the safe option, to appease the Left. If they went for Healey, it was believed, then Benn would challenge him the following year, once the new system was up and running, and a protracted and damaging campaign would ensue.

But that happened anyway: it was just that Benn fought Healey for the deputy leadership instead of the leadership. And Benn was defeated in that contest. Had the leader’s job been at stake, he would have failed there as well, and a corner would have been turned. Healey would have led the party into the 1983 election and he would probably have won, with the result that the Tory government ushered in by Thatcher would have lasted for four years rather than eighteen.

Further, if Healey had been chosen as leader, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers – the so-called Gang of Three – would not have led the split from Labour that created the SDP. The threat of a third party, which came so close to overtaking Labour in 1983, would never have materialized.

Labour history is full of missed opportunities and great leader-that-never-were. But 1980 was the most catastrophic mistake of them all. The party still hasn’t recovered.

Mirror 11-11-1980


The new system for choosing the leader was an electoral college, which allocated 40 per cent of the votes to the trade unions, with 30 per cent each reserved for the MPs and for the party membership. It was adopted in January 1981, but first used to select a leader in the wake of the disastrous general election defeat in 1983.

Even before Michael Foot could announce his resignation, he had it announced for him by Clive Jenkins, leader of the ASTMS union. Jenkins also told the media that his union would be supporting Neil Kinnock for the leadership, and other union leaders followed suit, so that the race was as good as won before the starting-pistol had been fired. ‘Prominent trade union leaders had decided who would get the job in advance of the election being declared,’ Eric Heffer later explained.

Heffer was himself a candidate as the standard-bearer of the Left. The obvious choice would have been Tony Benn, but Benn wasn’t available – so poor had Labour’s performance been in the election that he had lost his seat, and he was out of the Commons. So Heffer was drafted in to represent the Left.

He’d been an industry minister for a year back in 1974-75, but it hadn’t really suited him; a former Stalinist and trade unionist, he was one of nature’s awkward squad of disgruntled backbenchers. Even so, his electoral record was so distinguished that it deserves recording: he took the Liverpool Walton constituency in 1964, after fourteen years of Tory occupancy, and increased his majority by over 20,000 votes between then and his final victory in 1987.

Peter Shore, having proved quite impressive as the shadow chancellor, came back for a second stab, though with even less hope this time than last.

And then there was Roy Hattersley, formerly the prices secretary. A follower of Hugh Gaitskell and protegee of Roy Jenkins, he represented the old social democratic tradition that had once been expected to inherit the party.

Not now, though; the wish now was for someone from the Left who wasn’t too extreme and who looked fresh enough not to be tainted by the past. And Kinnock was the choice. He may have had no ministerial experience, but he was far and away the best platform speaker of the day, capable of moving a crowd in a way only rivalled by Benn himself, and he had a youthful energy so conspicuously lacking in Foot’s term of office.

Kinnock won without breaking sweat. He got a clear majority in the trade union and constituency sections of the electoral college, and came top among MPs as well. He got a total of 72.3 per cent of the weighted votes, with Hattersley on 19.3 per cent, Heffer on 6.3 and Shore on 3.1. Hattersley also stood in the election to become deputy leader, and won with almost as convincing a result. Together, Kinnock and he were described (by some, at least) as the Dream Team.

A new generation had arrived. The previous four Labour leaders had been born within seven years of each other, from Gaitskell in 1906 to Foot in 1913. But Kinnock was 30 years younger than that, born in 1942. In one regard, however, he continued established practice: he was the third leader in a row to represent a Welsh constituency.

Mirror 3-10-1983.jpg


The point of the electoral college was to shift the balance of power in the party away from MPs and towards the extra-parliamentary labour movement. And the assumption was that this would give the Left a boost. The first trial of the system seemed to confirm this. In the final reckoning of the deputy leadership in 1981, Denis Healey had out-polled Tony Benn by 2 to 1 among MPs and by a smaller but still convincing margin among trade unions; but the constituency parties had come out nearly 5 to 1 in favour of Benn.

The election of Neil Kinnock, however, demonstrated an unintended consequence. As the first man to be elected by the entire movement, he had an authority denied to recent incumbents. So although the softening of his early radicalism led to charges from the Left that he was selling out just as previous leaders had (in some quarters he was nicknamed ‘Ramsay MacKinnock’, in reference to the arch-traitor Ramsay MacDonald), it was also clear that he was taking the majority of the party with him.

The evidence came in 1988. Kinnock had led the party to a third successive general election defeat the previous year, and had responded by jettisoning yet more of the baggage left over from the militant days of the early 1980s. So the Left decided to revert to the tactics used against Hugh Gaitskell in 1960 and 1961, when they had challenged an incumbent leader, not in the expectation of victory but in the hope of dragging the agenda in their direction.

This time Tony Benn was available, having returned to Parliament in a 1984 by-election. And so, in 1988, he mounted his second and final assault on the leadership, some twelve years on from his last attempt at the peak. But things had changed dramatically in the intervening period. In 1976 he had been the coming man; now 63 years old, he looked like – and was – in decline.

And his influence was also waning. When fighting for the deputy leadership in 1981, he received 81.1 per cent of the constituency vote; in 1988 he registered just 19.6 per cent, so eroded was his power base. He did no better among MPs, and was decisively crushed in the trade union section, where Kinnock outpolled him by more than 100 to 1. The final result saw Kinnock on 88.6 per cent to Benn’s 11.4 per cent.

The Left had expected defeat, but not on this scale. Its influence in the party seemed to have come to an end, and Kinnock claimed – perfectly correctly – that this was an endorsement of his strategy to bring Labour further towards the centre.

Guardian 3-10-1988.jpg


Part 1: 1955-1963 – Gaitskell & Wilson

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

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

3 thoughts on “Labour leadership elections: Part 2

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

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

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

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