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
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
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
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
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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