Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour’s best leader?

Who are Labour’s most successful leaders? The question is purely subjective, wrought with personal prejudices and riddled with rhetoric. There is, truly, no one right answer. It depends ultimately, as Luke Akehurst rightly observes, on which measure you lay weight to. Luke chose electoral success, which is naturally the benchmark for any leader. On this, the Labour party has some true greats. The obvious candidate is one Tony Blair who took the party of serial opposition to a thrice-winning electoral movement that consigned the Conservatives to their longest period of opposition since the Corn Law reforms in the 1840s. Harold Wilson of course won four out of the five general elections he contested, though his fortunes swang between a crushing 96 majority to majority of just three. Nobody, rightly, tries to make a case for James Callaghan, Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock as candidates for the pantheon and some of the devotion to the late John Smith derives, no doubt, from a desperate endeavour to find a leader of note that wasn’t Blair. But what of an oft-forgotten Labour leader whose sole general election campaign consigned Labour to a third straight defeat, and a 100-seat Conservative majority?

In Nick Thomas-Symonds’ authoritative account from Labour’s pioneers right up until Gordon Brown’s doomed three years he, perhaps unsurprisingly for an author of his life, chose Clement Attlee as Labour’s most successful leader. Many do, and for many reasons. He swept to power in 1945, the first majoritarian Labour government. In the immediate aftermath of this crushing victory, Labour might have established a new electoral dominance in British politics, but within five years the chance had been duly squandered. By 1948, the government had lost its capacity for creative thinking having implemented its manifesto. Attlee’s failure to reignite his governing élan intellectually bankrupted the party for a decade to come and dogged the party with the ‘what next?’ question. But there was someone who slipped in almost unnoticed in the 1945 landslide as the member for Leeds South. By 1950 he was chancellor, and by 1955 party leader. His surname would coin the phrase synonymous with the postwar consensus and he in many respects laid the foundations for a Labour recovery at the end of the 20th century.

Hugh Gaitskell attempted to redefine the party’s socialist goals in detail that no other Labour leader would until Blair’s election to the leadership in 1994. At the forefront of his leadership was his revisionist zeal: a desire to haul the party of persistent small ‘c’ conservatism to reformulate socialist principles and adopt a new programme that was relevant to the rapidly and radically changing social and economic circumstances.

The traditional association with socialism and the public ownership of the means of production, embodied in the original Clause IV of the party constitution, was both obsolete and inadequate even in Gaitskell’s time. His battle over Clause IV represented the culmination of the revisionist attempt not just to demote the role of public ownership in Labour party policy and ideology – but also to demythologise it as the dominant idea. The original Clause IV text was written in 1892. Only the Labour party would deify a text so old and on which successive party leaders had no intention of implementing.

It is tempting to view Gaitskell as just another 20th century Labour leader who joined the substantial number who never became prime minister. Throughout the last century, seven Labour leaders in all never reached the highest office. He could thus become a partial footnote in political history, rather than a chapter. But in spite of Gaitskell’s weak electoral record he had the determination to prevent the Labour party, after its third successive defeat, from retiring resentfully into electoral insignificance, and the resilience, against appalling short term Bevanite pressure, from caving in and retreating from a substantial examination of the contentious issue of public ownership.

His revisionism was a commitment to the future of the Labour party as an independent entity. He advocated, in his attempt to remove Clause IV, the modernisation of the Labour party. His legacy, and thereby success, is of an alternative model to the one’s examined by Akehurst and Symonds. But he was the original Labour moderniser and, like many visionaries, was decades ahead of his time.


David Talbot is a political consultant, tweets @_davetalbot and writes the weekly The Week Ahead column on Progress


Photo: Adrian Kenyon

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

David Talbot

is a political consultant. He tweets @_davetalbot


  • and hey you PR dudes,black and white is SO in ! ha…….” Grey Labour ” ? nah red ‘ll do me ! Sometimes I wish the social democrats would come back ,why did they leave again ? I still love Shirley obviously. And why
    couldn’t the Greens come along too ,what’s the problem there again ? they can’t be that soppy ,can they ?
    so that’s green yellow(?) and red ,ermmmm, “Ochre Labour” well I quite like that being an old Hippy,but no no sorry ….Punk rules and it does overrule the old hippy in me too ….. right normal business resumed.

  • The intellectual powerhouse behind Gaitskell was Tony Crosland . Also Socialist Commentary and the Socialist Union played a huge part in revisionism of the 50’s. The main figure behind both was Rita Hinden. I remember going to the rather sedate Socialist Commentary tea meetings at 70’s conferences.

  • The Socialist Vanguard group were mostly German, who escaped to Britain in the 30’s, Socialist Commentary was published from the early 40’s until the late 70’s, and Rita Hinden was editor for much of that time. It was the mouthpiece of the social democratic right in the Labour party, regular contributors were Roy Jenkins, Tony Crosland and Denis Healey. There was some talk of CIA funding, but this was always rigourously denied.

  • Mmmm. Let’s see: Hugh Gaitskill: managed to split the Labour cabinet with his 1951 budget which introduced eyes and teeth charges, so undermining the principle of a free health service that had only been established three years before. Most economists agree that the charges were entirely unnecessary, particularly if the government hadn’t been spending so much on building up a nuclear weapons capability.

    As a result of this split, he helped ensure that a divided party lost in 1951 and 1955, before he went on to become leader. Then, despite Suez, he managed to lose 19 seats to the Tories in 1959 to give them an over all majority of 101.

    Whilst his death in 1963 was undoubatably tragic, it was almost certainly (unlike John Smith’s early death) to Labour’s electoral advantage as it put Harold Wilson in the leadership. Wilson was able to exploit the Profumo affair to Labour’s advantage in a way that Gaitskill could never had done – read Ben Pimlott’s biography of Wilson for details. If Gaitskill had still been around, it is doubtful that the Profumo affair would have blown up in the way it did, MacMillan would not have retired and the Tories would in all likelihood won a fourth election in a row in 1964.

    He is very far from being the greatest leader – he spent far too much time fighting within his own party and too little attacking the real enemy.

  • Given that any criteria is subjective annd has historical context,accepting the problems of any consensus or neutrality in definition of success, 1. blair 2. gaitskell.3.wilson.4 attlee. the rest were more or less failures.
    There is no right answer of course but examining the elements of failure or success and apply to today ,conclusions?.

  • In fact, Gaitskell was sound on the dangers that would result from our joining the Common Market. And Kiwi should appreciate that in the light of the damage that the Common Market did to trade between NZ and the UK

  • David Talbot has forgotten, or perhaps meanmindedly resents, the party-wide grief of May 1994 at John Smith’s untimely death; indeed a brief look at Wikipedia would remind him of the grief of the entire political class and wide swathes of the people. His creation of the Commission on Social Justice was a masterly re-crafting, indeed re-creation, of the centre ground, not glib triangulation. One Member One Vote launched the cultural re-creation of our party, extending Partnership in Power into our hearts and minds. Btw, the old Clause IV never contained the phrase ‘public ownership’. Although DT’s praise of Gaitskell is apropos, I would not purchase his consultancy services….

  • Not at all, Thomas. Smith was only leader for less than two years and, as I pointedly said at the start of my article, this discussion is purely subjective. People will disagree with my analysis, and so they should – it’s good to have healthy party debate.

  • ha ! yup TC its … ” PO-LITICAL-CONSULTANCY GETCHERPO-LITICAL CONSULTANCY ERE CERRMON !” ( not twobags ferra pound though) (“its good to talk”….. yerrrrrk ….” patronising moi “)

  • Gaitskell was massively ahead in the Polls when he died and wilson had Agood lead during his time in opposition ,yet He only won with a majoirty of 3, and wilson said had Rab butler took over or Mcmillan stayed on he would have lost, Mcmillan resigned becuase of a Cancer scare not Profumo, or worse the Blunt, Philby case, and Wilosn stood back and let Profumpo unravel teh tories as Gaitskell would , But Profumo had very little effect on the Tories losing in ’64 As for the 51 election which was unecesary, Not only did laobur get the most votes it ever got at that elelction It got more than the tories, But the Toires pushed the idea of ending rationing to increase their own vote, they portrayed labour haivng also been in power with them during the war as tired ,An idea that wasn’t far from the truth, Yes bevan and then wilson resinged over the 51 budget, ,But A ,Attleee was going to sack bevan anyway ,haivng wanted to get rid of him for years, ,B Wilson new the Govnerment was finished and he knoew it would be A political move to resign and be back in A few years, yes the left got upset at the NHS charges ,but they woere looking for An excuse to make it dificult for the right of laoubr, and All that happened was labour swun gto the left and was split in the early 50’s ,it took Gaitskell, Backed by Attlee to come in and sort out teh left of the party in the late 50’s with people like Wilson,crossman and Foot and others trying to oust him, But gasitkell brought Bevan os Shadow foreign sec, adn united the party, on his death it left wilson ,with a united party, (well for acouple of years)Maybe Attlee should have resigned after the 51 election, he was deemed old by 51 and the party was in a state,and that was away of arguments that resulted in a third loss, and when Gaitskell lost in 59 he got 500,000 more votes than When Wlison won in 64,and it was the tories falling apart that help wilson win in 64. We can also debate till the cows come howe that he wouldn’t have let militant or the loony Left infultrate the party, Have the closed shop and result in us beign out of power for a generation after 1979

Sign up to our daily roundup email