Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour’s most successful leaders

As a Labour history buff and an enthusiast for election stats I thought I’d devote this week’s column to the vexed question of who our most successful leaders have been.

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

Here are just some of the ways of measuring it.

Labour’s top 10 election results by seats:

Blair         1997    418
Blair         2001    413
Attlee      1945    393
Wilson    1966    364
Blair        2005    355
Wilson    1974    319 (Oct)
Wilson    1964    317
Attlee     1950    315
Wilson    1974    301 (Feb)
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. 2005, greeted with much gloom at the time, is our fifth best result ever. 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 per cent
Attlee           1951        48.8 per cent
Wilson         1966        48 per cent
Attlee          1955        46.4 per cent
Attlee          1950        46.1 per cent
Wilson        1964        44.1 per cent
Gaitskell    1959        43.8 per cent
Blair            1997        43.2 per cent
Wilson        1970        43.1 per cent
Blair            2001        40.7 per cent

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. 2005, however, is nowhere to be seen.

How each leader grew or shrank the PLP (Inheritance/Legacy/Change):

Clem Attlee                     46                      277            +231
Ramsay MacDonald    142                    287            +145
JR Clynes                         57                    142              +85
Tony Blair                        271                  355             +84
Neil Kinnock                   209                  271             +62
Harold Wilson                258                  319              +61
Keir Hardie                     0                       29                +29
Will Adamson                42                     57               +15
Arthur Henderson      29                     40                +11
(1910)
George Barnes              40                     42                +2
Hugh Gaitskell              277                   258             -19
Jim Callaghan               319                   269             -50
Michael Foot                269                   209              -60
Gordon Brown             355                   258              -91
Arthur Henderson     287                  46                 -241
(1931)

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.

How each leader grew or shrank Labour’s vote share (Inheritance/Legacy/Change):

Clem Attlee                     29.4 per cent        46.4 per cent     +17 per cent
Will Adamson                 7.1 per cent          21.5 per cent     +14.4 per cent
JR Clynes                         21.5 per cent         29.7 per cent    +8.2 per cent
Ramsay MacDonald     29.7 per cent        37.1 per cent    +7.4 per cent
Neil Kinnock                   27.6 per cent        34.4 per cent    +6.8 per cent
Keir Hardie                      0                                4.8 per cent       +4.8 per cent
Arthur Henderson       4.8 per cent           7.6 per cent      +2.8 per cent
(1910)
Tony Blair                        34.4 per cent        35.2 per cent    +0.8 per cent
George Barnes                7.6 per cent          7.1 per cent       -0.5 per cent
Jim Callaghan                 39.2 per cent        36.9 per cent    -2.3 per cent
Hugh Gaitskell                46.4 per cent        43.8 per cent    -2.6 per cent
Harold Wilson                 43.8 per cent        39.2 per cent    -4.6 per cent
Gordon Brown                35.2 per cent        29 per cent         -6.2 per cent
Arthur Henderson        37.1 per cent        29.4 per cent    -7.7 per cent
(1931)
Michael Foot                   36.9 per cent        27.6 per cent    -9.3 per cent

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 gets up there into the top five. Wilson and Blair underperform on this measure as their final wins were on vote shares not much different from the defeats of their immediate predecessors.

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?

I look forward to readers’ views in the comments on this and the other issues raised by the tables.

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Luke Akehurst is a constituency representative on Labour’s NEC, a councillor in Hackney, writes regularly for Progress here, and blogs here

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Photo: Dominic Campbell

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Luke Akehurst

is director of We Believe in Israel and a former member of Labour's National Executive Committee

22 comments

  • One other way of analysing performance: the share of the potential electorate. You praise Blair’s achieveent in winning 413 seats in 2001, but the numbers not voting at all exceeded the number voting for the government.

  • I think the 2010 vote share being compared to 1983 is a false comparison, because of the massive amount of tactical voting that the Lib Dems managed to achieve in the shires and suburbs of England. In those 100+ seats where Labour is third, the Lib Dems have done amazingly well over the past twenty years in getting Labour voters and even Labour members to vote Lib Dem on the basis that “Labour can’t win here.” There are even Lib Dem councillors who will admit in quiet moments that in other parts of the country, they would be Labour. I think Labour lost half a million, perhaps even a million general election votes in the unwinnables between 1990 and 2010. That also explains the disparity between vote share and seats in historic comparisons.

  • What about the only measure that really counts: years of leading the Labour Party in government? No need to argue about the quality of the stats then, although I think you should use Great Britain vote share (no Labour candidates in Northern Ireland) and 1997 is conventionally given as 419 Labour seats, including the Speaker.

  • What on earth were you smoking when you wrote this? There’s only one metric that matters: who, when the votes were counted, got to govern. You should have shelved this article when it returned ‘William Adamson’, a man who about five people have ever heard of, above our two longest-serving Prime Ministers. Madness.

  • Shouldn’t you judge “success” by what they did, or achieved, not by the number of years in office?

  • Feels typically New Labour to make success equate directly and only to electoral statistics. Surely, that’s only one dimension and the other has to be positive impact on the lives of people – not only but not least the most vulnerable and exploited. That might be Attlee by a political mile though statisticians might want to find a formula which allows for the starting point each time on the basis that Attlee was working with an economy and a population on their financial knees and so had plenty of space for improvement. Perhaps later leaders had less room for headway in an improved economy?

  • I think these statistical comparisons can only take us so far. (Blair was very obviously successful but the party’s percentage of the vote is less impressive under him.)

    It is not very fashionable to rank Harold Wilson but, despite criticism on the left at the time, he knew exactly what he was doing to keep the UK out of Vietnam. He left us the Open University (John Major left us the National Lottery!) and – no mean feat in those times – he kept the Labour party together.

    Perhaps Gordon Brown’s reputation is experiencing a “Wilson” phase now, yet history will surely judge his leadership of the country in facing the economic crisis as critical to our ability to pull through. Brown can vbe considered to achieved more on domestic social policy – look at children’s services – as Chancellor than he did as PM.

    But achievement in office must surely out here. Blair and Attlee, more than Wilson and certainly more than Brown, have solid achievements with which to be proud. But if one considers the situation of the aftermath of war and having only six years in power and what was achieved in that time – how easy it would have been to have delayed the NHS and other reforms when so much was needed to revive the country – the accolade must surely go to Attlee.

  • The figures requested by the last commentator Alwyn are as follows to the best of my information immediately to hand. They are incomplete and approximate, and I have arranged them as follows: historically, and by each line the turnout followed by the `labour share of the electorate’ generates the Labour success in attracting electors to vote for us. In due course they may be completed and re-arranged in terms of electoral success. I have started to attempt this by rightwards extension (barely proportionate) of the best results….

    What a ‘potential electorate’ is I do not know.
    Perhaps it is a worthy attempt to reinforce the defence of the universal right to vote currently under attack b y the Coalition reforms posing as a defence of the rights of tenants (especially those in multi-occupancy) to self-register (a long overdue reform which we failed to address, let alone achieve). The attack of course started with Thatcher’s poll-tax.
    Comrades will note the drastic decline from the high of 1951. The previous hedging apologetics about the Lib-Dems fails to address the root issue – why were the LibDems allowed to make such claims with impunity? So too with Mr Akehurst’s point about 2005. The unprovoked UK attack on Iraq, based on a pack of lies, is popular with HIM at least… THAT is an EXCUSE?? or a ‘justification’?A least in 2005 we just did a bit better than in 1983 (by 1.676 percentage points)… In the much-vaunted 1997 we did a bit (3.7 %age points) better than in 1979…

    Perhaps the disastrous attack on Libya and the yet more disastrous planned attacks on Syria and Iraq will enable our leader and our other front-bench spokespersons to imitate Gaitskell in 1956 and crush the Tory policy of imperial aggression…. or, after our heroes parade in triumph through conquered Damascus and Teheran (a la 1910, 1941 and 1953) will Jim Murphy advocate a war against the blood-stained and murderous regime in China? a popular one at least, especially amongst a certain faction….

    1945: 73 x 49.7 = 36.281
    1950: 84 x 46.1 = 38.724
    1951: 83 X 48.8 = 40.504
    1955 77 x 46.4 = 35.728
    1959 79 x 43.9 = 34.681
    1964 77 x 44.1 = 33.957
    1966 76 x 48.0 = 36.48
    1970 72 x 43.1 = 30.96
    1974f 79 x
    1974o 72
    1979 76 x 36.9 = 28.044
    1983 73 x 27.6 = 20.148
    1987 75 x 34.4 = 25.8
    1992 78
    1997 72 x 43.2 = 31.104
    2001 60 x 40.7 = 24.42
    2005 62 x 35.2 = 21.824
    2010 65 x 29 = 18.85

  • Unfortunately the in-house editor destroyed my careful scaling on a left-right scale the depiction of the electorate-based success of our campaigns back to 1945. Further to the appalling philistinism of ‘StephenKBush” ( As Chairman Mao put it “no investigation of the subject ( Labour party history in this case) no right to speak – why should he care about our founders – including Sylvia Pankhurst, Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison or Bessie Braddock…..?)I am now more determined than ever to help Luke in his search for a thorough statistical basis for the history of our election campaigns…

  • If it was all about numbers and power and jobs for the boys (yes, still mostly boys), I’m sure there would be some point to this number crunching. To those of us who remember when the Labour Party had a moral purpose (yes, I know, what a scream, it really did), it’s a fatuous exercise. Clement Atlee led the most successful, ie epoch-making, Labour government in history. End of story. (Sadly, it pretty much was.)

  • Another attempt, this time slightly (but only slightly) more to scale and only 1945 and after… more to come… btw, John Rentoul’s index – years of leading us in government works only against a fixed scale such as fixed term elections…
    1945: 73 x 49.7 = _______________________________________________36.281
    1950: 84 x 46.1 = __________________________________________________38.724
    1951: 83 X 48.8 = ___________________________________________________40.504
    1955 77 x 46.4 = _____________________________________________35.728
    1959 79 x 43.9 = ___________________________________________34.681
    1964 77 x 44.1 = __________________________________________33.957
    1966 76 x 48.0 = _______________________________________________36.48
    1970 72 x 43.1 = ______________________________________30.96
    1974f 79 x
    1974o 72
    1979 76 x 36.9 = ___________________________________28.044
    1983 73 x 27.6 = _____________20.148
    1987 75 x 34.4 = __________________________25.8
    1992 78
    1997 72 x 43.2 = _____________________________________31.104
    2001 60 x 40.7 = _________________________24.42
    2005 62 x 35.2 = _______________21.824
    2010 65 x 29 = __________18.85

  • Good article, Luke but I’d like to pick holes in the Attlee “ahievement” widely taken for granted in the Labour party.

    Btw, Tony Blair is hardly cold in his political grave. (Way things are going he might have to warm up soon.) It is WAY too early to think you/we know or even understand his legacy.

    I realise the Labour party is full of Blair haters. That is YOUR party’s problem. But since I belong to no party perhaps I see things in a more detached way.

    I put together a post on how many leaders/PMs Labour has ever had. It actually only EVER had 4 ‘leaders-in-wating’ who were elected to become PM. And only 6 PMs altogether including Callaghan & Brown. That’s in 100 years!!

    http://keeptonyblairforpm.wordpress.com/2010/10/02/why-ed-ms-pm-ambitions-are-all-but-impossible-part-2-it-took-33-years-to-find-a-blair/

    What you fail to point out or perhaps even to notice is that Blair almost single-handedly took Labour into the position where it became for the first time in decades the “natural party of government”.

    For almost 70% of Labour’s existence – 100 years – the Tories were in office.

    Tony Blair was 10 years old when the leader before him was first elected – Wilson in 1964.

    So, forget “18 wilderness years” – it took Labour 33 years to find a Blair. A winner.

    THAT is what history will recall in 2 or 3 dozen years when people say “remember the Labour party? Remember Tony Blair in 1997 – as ‘a new dawn’ broke?”

  • Really? I was under the impression it was far from common. Even in February 1974 when Labour formed a minority government, it still got more votes than there were abstentions.

  • I see this argument as a false comparison. Though I suppose it shows a certain dissatisfaction/disinterest in politics. Perhaps nothing more. Most people don’t ever think about politics, except at elections times. We addicts forget that.

    I think we can only count what is actually countable. We should not give equal weight to the disinterested who couldn’t be bothered to turn out to put a cross on a piece of paper.

    In 1974 most people still appreciated democracy – almost 80% turnout. They don’t appreciate it any more. More fool them.

    After 1992 (almost 78% turnout) more and more have been abstaining. Though turnout actually rose in both 2005 (61%) and 2010 (65%).

    Personally I think voting should be compulsory – a requirement of citizensip.

  • The only success the Labour party achieved since 1974, was to pick a number one spinner to lead the party out of the doldrums. A university trained barrister liar in fact, one capable of fooling the public in general with the aid of the Murdoch press.

    What chance the Labour party now, that Labour’s traditional working class voters have been betrayed by Labour’s policy of British jobs for Labour’s immigrants have thrown them on the scrap heap?

  • Blair did nothing as Labour Leader? Memories are short – Minimum wage, highest EVER level of employment, devolution, civil partnerships, rights to paid holiday, doubling spending on health and education, settling Northern Ireland conflict, etc etc…

  • I feel A point over Looked, was How badly the Tories were Doing When Labour came to Power every time, Take ’45 We’d had Appeasers ,Peace in Our time and Stanley Baldwin nearly disarming us, then After 5 Years OF Attlee, Rab Butler came up With Pink Socialsim and accepted Labours Policies, Similar, Ted Heath would Out Tories who had Slogans Like “Vote Labour IF you want A black man as You Neighbour.”, Now Because Wilson caught Heath off his Guard in 66′ and Alec Douglas Home Didn’t know how to run the economy, And then Heath Went to the country with “Who run’s Britain” and the Public said “Not you”, Wilson Had A lucky run, Yes Blair Had A tory party out of Ideas And tired, And Hague wawsn’t fit to rule in 2001, But the Tories in 2001 Didn’t simply Accept Labours Polices on The Minimum Wage ,Getting Rid OF Section 28, Independence for the Bank OF england, and It took them year to Accept they were wrong On Fox Hunting, Aparteid ,Selling Council Homes dirt cheap.

  • A good bit of fun. John Rentoul’s suggestion of using years leading Labour in government is interesting. I think Attlee beats Blair (1940-51 v. 1997-2007) using this measure assuming one does not have to be PM under Rentoul’s suggestion. Attlee, of course, has the [dis]advantage of being unable to contest general elections between 1935 and ’45.

    Perhaps a good measure of success, although very qualitative, is to recognise the extent to which each leader changed Britain in a progressive direction. Attlee scores high here, obviously, but I would put in a bid for high marks for Wilson (comprehensive schools and Roy Jenkins’ reforms as Home Secretary). Blair is more difficult. Either he scores badly on the grounds of carrying on regressive reforms started under Thatcher, or it’s just a bit too soon to make a clear judgement.

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