As the Labour Party stages yet another leadership election, we take a look back at the post-war history of the competition. Previous episodes have covered the battlefields of the 1950s and ’60s and of the 1970s and ’80s, when the soul of the party seemed to be at stake. Now read on.
These days it’s expected that if you lose a general election as the leader of a major party, you ought to resign. It used to be perfectly normal, though, to be given another chance: Harold Wilson came back from his 1970 defeat, and Edward Heath lost a total of three general elections before being forced out. The last leader to get a second crack of the whip was Neil Kinnock, who stayed on after his loss in 1987; not even he, however, could survive a second failure, and when John Major won an unexpected victory in 1992, Kinnock stepped down.
As with his own elevation in 1983, his successor was already decided before the contest officially began. The major trade unions announced that they were supporting the shadow chancellor, John Smith, and that was pretty much that. One other candidate was on the ballot paper – the soft-left shadow environment secretary Bryan Gould – but no one gave him a chance of winning; the only issue seemed to be how large Smith’s victory would turn out to be.
Smith, it was believed, would be a steady hand at the tiller. He was seen as a right winger, but one who was steeped in Labour tradition; when asked in the 1980s why he didn’t leave to join the SDP, he replied simply: ‘I am comfortable with the unions.’ He was also one of the last survivors of a Labour government, having spent six months as trade secretary in James Callaghan’s cabinet. Competence and security – that was his USP. Even if, as a Europhile, he had been a vociferous supporter of British membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, an experiment that was shortly to come to such an ignominious ending.
His rival had no such baggage. Gould was a much sounder economist than Smith, and had always been suspicious of European adventures and of under-regulated banks. He was sharp enough to find a new direction forward for progressive politics, and smooth enough to win over the southern voters that Labour needed if it were ever to win again. Nonetheless, the party went for the easy option.
A couple of changes had been made to the procedure since the last contest. In the first, the European Parliament was now recognized, with MEPs joining the MPs in their section of the electoral college. Smith won 77.1 per cent of that grouping, together with 96.3 per cent of the union vote and a massive 98 per cent of the constituencies, giving him victory by a margin of more than ten to one.
A few months later, Gould was voted off Labour’s National Executive Committee, and then voluntarily left the shadow cabinet. In 1993 he accepted the offer of a job back in his native New Zealand as the vice-chancellor of Waikato University, and in early 1994 he departed from the House of Commons forever.
In retrospect, though, the most interesting figures in the 1992 election were two non-candidates, representing antithetical wings of the party.
A young modernizing group was starting to get restless, keen to stake its claim to determining Labour’s future. Most restless of all was Tony Blair, who tried to persuade his colleague Gordon Brown to declare for the leadership; he wouldn’t win, of course, but he could test the waters, and stake a claim for next time. After all, both James Callaghan and Michael Foot had been unsuccessful candidates before becoming leader. But Brown, having been offered the shadow chancellorship by Smith, decided not to stand. ‘He chickened out,’ concluded Blair derisively, and his thoughts began to turn to his own future chances.
From the other side of the party, the hard Left also wanted to participate, even though it too knew it couldn’t win. The choice of champion was obvious; in 1989, Tony Benn had written in his diary: ‘There is no doubt that Ken will be the left candidate against Neil if we lose the next election.’ And indeed Ken Livingstone was nominated. Unfortunately he wasn’t nominated by enough people.
And this was the second of the changes made to the electoral procedure. It had been the case that to get on the ballot paper, a candidate needed to be nominated by 5 per cent of serving MPs. But in the wake of Tony Benn’s challenge in 1988, the rules had been changed so that now 25 per cent were required. Since Benn had only managed to get 17.1 per cent of the PLP to vote for him, this was considered to be a high enough hurdle to keep the Left from forcing further frivolous contests, as it had in 1960-61.
To be a candidate in 1992, Livingstone needed therefore the support of 55 MPs; he got the backing of just thirteen. After four successive general election defeats, and a vicious civil war in the party, there were hardly any left-wing MPs remaining in Parliament.
John Smith’s sudden death from a heart attack in May 1994, after less than two years as leader, transformed the Labour Party. For the first time in well over a decade, the party was in a commanding lead in the opinion polls and victory at the next election seemed if not quite inevitable, then pretty damn close to it.
The long-standing expectation had been that Gordon Brown would be the voice of his generation. ‘Until the 1992 election,’ said Neil Kinnock, ‘my assumption had been that if we had formed the government in 1992 my successor would be Gordon, and if we lost the election then John Smith’s successor would be Gordon.’ Had Brown stood in 1992, he would undoubtedly have been the victor this time. But he hadn’t, and his lack of political courage was one of the factors that persuaded Peter Mandelson – the power-broker of the modernizers – to abandon his cause and to take up instead that of Tony Blair.
Blair was younger, more telegenic, less Scottish than his friend and (now) rival. Above all – to use a sporting cliche – he wanted it more. Between them, Blair and Brown agreed that Blair would stand this time; what else was agreed in their much chronicled dinner at the Granita restaurant in Islington remains a matter of some dispute.
There were other candidates. Robin Cook considered standing but he found an obstacle in his way: ‘apparently I am too ugly to be the next Labour leader.’ He also had the flaw, shared by Roy Jenkins and Bryan Gould before him, of refusing to hide his intellectual light under any kind of bushel. ‘He was probably the most brilliant parliamentarian of our times,’ observed John Prescott; ‘but he was well aware of it.’
Prescott himself – a traditional figure from the trade union Right – did enter the race, though he didn’t expect to win. What he was really after was the deputy leadership, in the election to which he was also standing. In fact, this was his third attempt on the post, having lost out to the incumbent, Roy Hattersley, in 1988, and then to Margaret Beckett in 1992.
Beckett was the third and final candidate. A former Bennite, who had transformed into a party loyalist, she had served as acting leader following Smith’s death, and now – just 76 years after women got the vote – became the first woman ever to stand for the Labour leadership.
Under Smith, the electoral college had been reformed. The same three sections still existed, but were now split into equal ratios of a third each, reducing the influence of the trade unions a little. In addition one member-one vote had been introduced, giving members – rather than officials – a greater say in the constituencies and the unions.
On this occasion, it probably mattered little. It was all done and dusted on the first round of counting. Blair won comfortably in all three sections (52.3 per cent in the unions, 58.2 per cent in the constituencies and 60.5 per among MPs), emerging with a total of 57 per cent, against Prescott’s 24.1 per cent and Beckett’s 18.9 per cent.
A plausible young man who was acclaimed in some quarters as Britain’s answer to Bill Clinton, Blair became the first Labour leader since 1976 to represent an English constituency. Meanwhile, Prescott finally got to be deputy leader, a job once described by Denis Healey (quoting an American vice-president) as being not worth ‘a pitcherfull of warm spit’.
The modernizing wing of the Labour Party that emerged in the 1980s was temperamentally and chronically disloyal. In the run-up to the 1992 general election, Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson had tried to persuade John Smith to stage a coup against Neil Kinnock. Then, when Smith was installed as leader, they had started a whispering campaign designed to undermine him.
Evidently, a taste for plotting and briefing had been acquired, for Blair’s government was riven by petty personal rivalries: there were grudges and quarrels between Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, between Campbell and Clare Short, between John Prescott and Harriet Harman, and between Prescott and David Blunkett.
And then there was Gordon Brown, who hated Mandelson, was distrusted by Prescott, Blunkett and Jack Straw, and shared an enmity with Robin Cook that went back to the 1970s: ‘one of the most bitter feuds in British politics,’ according to the Guardian.
Bitterest of all was the resentment felt by Brown towards Blair, particularly after the second Labour general election victory in 2001. Having allowed Blair a free run at the leadership, Brown now seemed to feel that somehow he’d been cheated of his rightful job and that it was time for the prime minister to stand aside.
For years the poison ate away at the Labour government. Most of the responsibility lay with the chancellor of the exchequer, though Blair’s past record of disloyalty hardly gave him any claim on the moral high ground. Brown was not, however, bold enough to stake an actual claim on the leadership, preferring to snipe from cover, while encouraging his henchmen to brief against their elected leader.
Finally, in September 2006, Tom Watson – then a defence minister – led what became known as the Curry House Coup, resigning from the government and calling for Blair to step down as prime minister. Others followed his lead, and Blair, wearied by the relentless attacks, announced that he would resign the following year. He nominated Brown as his successor, saying that his nemesis ‘would make an excellent Prime Minister’.
As the 2007 leadership election approached, the ruthless power exercised by Brown became ever more evident. There was talk of another candidate coming forward, with David Miliband’s name being mentioned most often, but in the event no one had the nerve to risk their future career by angering the inevitable victor.
The only alternative that did present itself was on the Left, where John McDonnell and Michael Meacher agreed that whoever had the greatest number of supporters in the parliamentary party would try to get on the ballot paper. McDonnell came out top of that contest, but – despite the threshold having been reduced from 25 to 20 per cent of the PLP – he failed to secure enough nominations to be a candidate, though he did improve on Ken Livingstone’s showing in 1992, as he garnered the support of 29 MPs.
And so, when nominations closed on 17 May 2007, Brown was the one and only candidate. Rather than simply declare him the winner, however – as the Conservative Party did with Theresa May this year – Labour decided to go through the facade of a campaign, complete with hustings and a special conference of 24 June, at which he was formally elected. (To be fair, the conference also saw the results announced of the deputy leadership election, which was won by Harriet Harman, followed – in order – by Alan Johnson, Jon Cruddas, Hilary Benn, Peter Hain and Hazel Blears.)
For the first time since Alec Douglas-Home in 1963, a prime minister had been appointed without having been elected to the post by their own party, let alone by the nation. In such circumstances, there were inevitable calls for an early general election, and plans were put in place to go to the country that autumn. But Brown’s lack of political courage was again apparent, and he rejected the option. It was apparent even then that it was a mistake.
Part 1: 1955-1963 – Gaitskell & Wilson
Part 2: 1976-1988 – Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock & Benn
Part 4: 2010-2016 – Miliband, Corbyn & Smith