The standards by which party leaders are judged are often extremely high. In his groundbreaking biography of the American president, Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox, James McGregor Burns asked whether leaders can ‘bring about lasting change not by intervening sporadically and casually in the stream of events but … by altering … the channels in which the stream of events take place.’ Yet to use one universal standard would be unfair. For a start, Labour leaders should be distinguished into three categories: there are the early leaders, who led the party prior to it becoming the official opposition in 1922, those leaders who were only leaders of the opposition, and those Labour leaders who have become prime minister: only six to date.
Of the pre-1922 leaders the three that stand out are Keir Hardie, Arthur Henderson and Ramsay MacDonald. Henderson and MacDonald obviously straddle the categories in any event. Hardie, with his ‘cloth cap’, defined the party’s formation. Henderson was the Labour party’s first ever cabinet minister. Paradoxically, one of Henderson’s greatest achievements was after he left the leadership for the second time on 24 October 1917: he worked to build up Labour party branches across the United Kingdom capable of selecting and supporting candidates. In the 1918 general election Labour was able to run 388 candidates as opposed to only the 56 that they had had run in the previous general election of December 1910.
MacDonald’s contribution to Labour party history has been totally obscured by his betrayal of August 1931. MacDonald – as the most recognisable Labour politician throughout the 1920s and as the party’s first prime minister – was responsible for showing that Labour was fit to govern. While the first Labour government may have been short-lived, it was a final nail in the coffin of the Liberal party, which was reduced to 40 seats in the subsequent general election on 29 October 1924 and has not recovered since. Tragically, his joining of the National Government in 1931 decimated the parliamentary party he had done much to build up. No wonder it so difficult to forgive him.
This is not to denigrate the achievements of John Robert Clynes, William Adamson and George Barnes: each were fine socialists in their own right with their own contribution to the growth of the Labour party. However it is the stature of Hardie, MacDonald and Henderson that stands out. Indeed, after the general election of 1922, in which Labour leapt from 57 seats to 142, Clynes, who led Labour during the campaign, was replaced immediately after the election by MacDonald.
As regards the second category, the leaders of the opposition who did not become prime minister, context is all. Henderson returned reluctantly to the leadership in 1931 after MacDonald’s defection. George Lansbury, who became leader in 1932, was never likely to be prime minister with the parliamentary party having been decimated in the general election of 1931. His task was simply to keep the activities of opposition going: he, Clement Attlee and Stafford Cripps virtually shared the duties of leader of the opposition. Yet at the same time leaders of the opposition can be seen as building the foundations for later election victories by major internal party reform, as in the case of Neil Kinnock. Memorably, he courageously routed the Militant Tendency at the 1985 party conference in Bournemouth, and moved the party towards the centre ground. Michael Foot held the party together in very difficult circumstances from 1980-83. Two Labour leaders were cheated of the chance of becoming prime minister by death: Hugh Gaitskell in January 1963 and John Smith in May 1994. That both were expected to win the following general elections is an indication of their success as leaders of the opposition.
Yet the title of Labour’s most successful leader must surely go to one of the six prime ministers. That there have been so few Labour prime ministers is because the Labour party has only achieved double-figure majorities in five of the 18 postwar elections. Tony Blair is unquestionably Labour’s greatest election winner. Harold Wilson did lead Labour to be in the largest party at four elections: 1964, 1966 and both elections of 1974. However, of the five general elections after which Labour had proper working majorities in double figures, three of these (1997, 2001 and 2005) were under Blair, leaving just 1945 (Attlee) and 1966 (Wilson).
From an historical perspective it is still too early to judge Blair’s overall contribution, but he presided over a period of growth and low inflation and invested in reform of public services. He succeeded where many great politicians had failed before him in Northern Ireland. His government also produced the widest swath of constitutional reform since the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and achieved one of Labour’s aims since its foundation: the national minimum wage. Harold Wilson’s government undertook groundbreaking social reforms, tackled inequality with its measures on benefit provision, and founded the Open University in 1968.
The current view of Callaghan’s time as prime minister is often obscured by the ‘Winter of Discontent’, but even with a minority government Callaghan was still able to pass significant reforms, including the Education Act of 1976 requiring local authorities to submit proposals for comprehensive schools. There is also Labour’s most recent prime minister Gordon Brown. One of the most significant tests is not only the ability to deliver on promises but responding to challenges which arise while in office. Brown’s major claim to success is his action in recapitalising the banks during the credit crisis of 2008, in which he led the world. The Appeal of Conscience Foundation awarded Brown ‘World Statesman of the Year’ in September 2009. Brown’s actions then may well come to be seen as far more significant in history than the way in which they were treated during the general election of 2010.
Yet in the 20th century history of the Labour party, its great constructive achievements are those of Clement Attlee’s government. The welfare state including the National Health Service, the nationalisations, independence for India and the Atlanticism of his government’s foreign policy were all central pillars of British politics for many years after his government left office. His government’s great legacy was the so-called ‘postwar consensus’ which defined British politics for over three decades. The number of votes Attlee achieved in the general election of 25 October 1951, 13,948,605, has never been bettered before or since. Labour lost due to vagaries of the electoral system. Having more votes than the Conservatives, Labour lost due to the tiny Liberal party being unable to run more than 109 candidates, allowing Conservatives to win marginal seats in the absence of a Liberal challenger.
For those reasons, Labour’s most successful leader is Clement Attlee. And, to judge by the high standard of MacGregor Burns, it was undeniably his government above all others that really did alter the channels in which the stream of events took place.
Nick Thomas-Symonds is the author of Attlee: A Life in Politics published by IB Tauris (2010)
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