Blair’s Triumph: The 1994 Labour Leadership Contest

Below is a thread on the 1994 Labour Leadership Contest.


Looking back through the archives it is remarkable how the divide between the Bennites (then Corbyn, Abbott, Milne) and the Blairites was as clear and as similar then as it is today.

The left viewed Blair with deep suspicion and claimed the country was more left-wing than the leadership would credit it. Blair and the modernisers urged the party to occupy the centre-ground. 

In the 26 years that have passed the only thing that appears to have changed is which tribe is in the ascendency…


The 1994 Labour Leadership Contest


The contest began with a party reeling from the sudden death of John Smith and ended with the election of Tony Blair as Labour sought to finally end fifteen years of Conservative rule.

John Smith had developed a poll lead over the Conservatives that put Labour on course for victory. There had remained doubts however over his ‘one more heave’ approach.

In the weeks before his death, Ivor Crewe was one pollster who claimed that Labour’s position was not as strong – arguing that he needed ‘Harold Wilson’s legendary white heat if he is to sweep to power’


Just five days before Smith’s death, the pollsters ‘injected realism’ into the polls. Reducing Labour’s lead over the Tories to just ten points. The bookmakers made Labour 8/11 favourites to win the next election.


Upon Smith’s death there was a national mourning – as Phillip Gould has argued that his death had a ‘profound effect’ which meant people ‘felt differently about the Labour Party’ as a result.

Labour historian Ben Pimlott urged people not draw conclusions with the death of Hugh Gaitskell in 1963.

‘It would be absurd to assume that the same sequel – a labour victory – must logically follow’

The Blood Brothers

The contest was pitched as a battle between the ‘Blood Brothers’ of the Labour Party with most expecting Brown to stand aside immediately.

The bookmakers priced it up as follows:

Blair 4/11

Prescott 7/2

Brown 9/2

Cook 16/1

Cunningham 20/1

Beckett 25/1


In what was seen as blow to Brown’s chances, Neil Kinnock was reported to have backed Blair.

‘Neil’s loyalty was split between Gordon and Tony. But he has to vote for the one most likely to put us in power. That means Tony.’

In the Evening Standard Sarah Baxter was the first to argue that Blair must be the leader:

‘He is streets ahead of the other candidates’ because he asked ‘awkward questions and ruffled feathers’. She declared him ‘the Labour politician the Tories fear the most’.

On the 16thMay, four days after Smith’s death, backbenchers called on the party not to elect Tony Blair.

Diane Abbott argued:

‘I think Tony’s lack of experience rules him out. He has never done anything except be a backbench MP and has never had an economic portfolio’

Abbott urged Labour to elect its first female leader:

‘The most modernising thing the Labour Party could do is elect a woman leader’

In a poll conducted in the week of Smith’s funeral of the public, Blair had the public backing on 30%, John Prescott on 17%, with 13% for Gordon Brown, 12% for Margaret Beckett and 8% for Robin Cook.

Both Blair and Brown made speeches setting out their stall:

Blair argued:

‘We have lost our purpose as a country…we have lost our identity. The growth of social division, inequality and the disintegration of the family and community have torn us apart’

‘It is time to rebuild. The task is urgent and the choice is clear: to manage our decline or reverse it. And the time to start is now’

Challenged on the minimum wage and the social chapter, Blair argued:

‘Trying to compete by poor working conditions will not work. We need a high wage, high skill, high technology economy’

His rival, Gordon Brown, set out his ‘Fairness Agenda’ to party members in Luton urging the party to adopt the Social Chapter and to begin a ‘war on poverty’.

He urged for a ‘modern welfare state of work for all who want it, opportunity for all who need it, security for all who are denied it’

Brown urged the party to unify with power in sight:

‘No personal ambition, no selfish endeavour, no sectional interest, no factional dispute, no cynical manoeuvring for position should stand in the way of the great public endeavour in which we carry the hopes of millions’

Eventually the pair came to an agreement at Granita which i have written about in more detail here 

Brown announced he would not stand:

‘Looking at the situation in 1994, nothing was to be gained by me standing against my friend Tony Blair.’

‘I believe that if Tony Blair accepts nomination on June 9 he will lead us to election victory. I believe he can help us win in areas where we have never won before’

The Daily Mirror praised his ‘selfless act of principle’:

‘Brown will be a key player in the new Shadow Cabinet and in the next Labour government. He deserves no less. Greater loyalty hath no politician than to lay down his ambitions for his party’

John Prescott then emerged as the main challenger to Blair. In a call to members he promised to ‘take Labour back to 1945’

‘It was that government that promised full employment and social justice and delivered what it promised . Now in 1994 the cry is just the same – jobs and social justice’

Prezza then took aim at the Tories:

‘They are liars, cheats and lepers…..Major has taken us back to basics all right. Back to 1930s basics’

The New Statesman was concerned that the ‘leader-writers’ had already decided that Tony Blair was going to win.

The Left Response

Tribune called for the contest to be about ‘policies not personality’ and argued that ‘there is a good deal of unease in the party at the way in which sections of the Tory press seem intent on deciding who should lead Labour’

Seamus Milne was critical that ‘the media has already selected Labour’s new leader Berlusconi-style’.

On the left Ken Livingstone was desperate to get himself on the ballot. Livingstone held the support of the 26 members of the Campaign Group but needed eight more nominations


Livingstone warned: ‘If Tony Blair can’t stand up to a proper leadership battle, the Tories will tear him apart at the next election’

He claimed Blair would be:

‘The most extreme right-wing leader the party has ever had. He more than anyone else represents a desire to turn the Labour Party into something more like the American Democratic Party’

In a letter to Tony Blair in the Morning Star Livingstone argued ‘those who seek to govern must be prepared to go beyond sound bites and photo opportunities’

Jeremy Corbyn was equally unimpressed with his Islington colleague:

‘If we cut welfare, increase private pensions and health insurance there will be enormous conflict. Anybody who becomes Labour leader must recognise where Labour’s roots are’

After hearing Blair speak at a Fabian gathering, Corbyn claimed

‘I was quite depressed by it. He wasn’t addressing the very failures of the last two elections, the lack of radical policies and promises to improve health and housing welfare and full employment’

Corbyn criticised Blair’s rhetoric:

‘It was essentially a managerial speech which will fail to excite people with a radical agenda’


Tony Benn agreed with Corbyn’s analysis. He argued that ‘charm and smiles just aren’t enough’ and that the party was ‘being offered a choice of candidates but little choice of politics’

Benn argued:

‘elections are not won by leaders, for history has taught us time and time again that electoral victories comes when policies are relevant and are presented with courage and conviction’.

Dismissive of Blair, Benn argued:

‘The greatest danger facing the party will come if it continues to rely on the unpopularity of the Conservative Government to carry it in to office’

Dennis Skinner was critical of the candidates on offer: ‘’There isn’t a gnat’s whisker between them’

Tariq Ali dismissed the media clamour for Blair:

‘If the electorate consisted of policeman and members of the Garrick Club, then Blair would be home and dry. The same papers and columnists that drown him with immoderate praise will turn on him come the general election’

‘Imagining that elections can be won by behaving as if one were a Tory Home Secretary certainly impresses a layer of the electorate in Essex, but as a strategy for winning power it is deeply unconvincing’

Ali argued that Blair was out of touch, warning Labour that ‘at such a time it would be foolish to elect a leader more in tune with the dreadful eighties’

The argument that the country had shifted leftwards, but ‘the modernisers’ were stuck in the past remained a prominent on the left.

Seamus Milne, writing in Tribune concluded that Blair and Brown were stuck in an ‘eighties time warp’

‘Well after most of the people in Britain realised the free-market cult of the Thatcher years was a disastrous fraud, the new-Labour establishment is still trying to prove its market-friendly credentials’

He also questioned whether Blair could return Labour to power and keep it there:

‘Labour will only return to office and stay there if it has credible policies to overcome the legacy of de-industrialisation’

Milne asserted that ‘Labour Party members do not share Tony Blair’s politics’

Blair did hold some support on the left. Chris Mullin admitted he would be the only member of the Campaign Group to back Tony Blair:

‘Blair has already demonstrated that he can win votes from behind enemy lines and that seems to me to be an essential prerequisite for a party that has not won more than 35% of the vote in 15 years’

Mullin was accused of treachery on the pages of Tribune after he argued:

‘After four election defeats we cannot afford the luxury of even a little gamble…There is a tradition in the Labour Party of talking big and acting small. It is time it was the other way round.

Martin Jaques, editor of Marxist Today, also gave Blair his full backing:

‘He has the potential to transform Britain’s political landscape…The desire for change has been in the air for several years now…’

‘Blair could turn out to be one of those rare politicians, who like Margaret Thatcher and Harold Wilson succeed in defining a new zeitgeist, in ushering in a new political era’

‘Blair will be the first leader of either of our two major parties who is an authentic creature of the 1960s and its aftermath, of the era of weak ideology and postmodernism’

Bryan Gould argued that Blair was ‘a gamble’ and ‘too young and inexperienced; to ditch the ‘safety first’ approach that Smith had opted for.

Gould warned that Labour’s poll lead would soon fade ‘if the Tories get their act together’

The contest would be fought between Blair, Prescott and Beckett.

In an early TV interview, Alastair Campbell asked Tony Blair if he was ‘tough enough to cope with the media onslaught’.

Blair replied that ‘it comes with the territory and I am entirely prepared for it and indeed expect it’.

Blair set out his stall and called for straight talking, honest politics;

‘I believe that straight politics is effective politics. The public don’t want to hear the Labour Party making a whole stack of promises which would clearly be dependent on circumstances’

‘Our greatest challenge is to overcome the poverty of aspiration that has dogged the country. We are losing faith in ourselves as a nation’

John Prescott launched his campaign at the miners picnic in Ashington.

‘We still need the coal and the steel and the ships but now they are imported, keeping workers abroad in jobs while workers at home are forced on to benefits, forced into debts and even forced into crime’

‘The north-south divide had been shattered and Britain has been united by the misery of mass unemployment’.

Prescott called on a return to full employment

‘I have a moral crusade about fighting for the unemployed. They need a champion’

‘Not since the war has there been such an urgent need to rebuild communities and provide decent homes, at decent rents in which families can live together in dignity’

Margaret Beckett had done a good job as leader in the wake of John Smith’s death and in the euro elections which followed.

Beckett compared herself to Mrs Thatcher:

‘I reckon If she can grow from how she performed as leader of the opposition to the stature she commanded as prime minister so can I’

Beckett called for honest politics:

‘We need to show people that we are honest politicians. We need to tell the truth and be seen to telling the truth, even if this is hard’

‘We have to challenge the myths that the Tories have built up. And we must challenge those myths in our movement’

There became a push for a Blair/Prescott ‘Dream Ticket’ – the so called head and heart of the Labour movement.

Barbara Switzer, the assistant General Secretary of the GWU accused Labour of sexism in pushing for a Prescott/Blair ‘Dream Ticket’:

‘We are not entirely surprised at such predictable stereotyping by the media, but its sticks in our throats to see some of our colleagues cannot get their heads around the concept of discrimination’

Prime Minister John Major dismissed the Blair threat:

‘It makes no difference if it is Tony Blair, Robin Cook, Margaret Beckett or Old King Cole. Labour have forgotten the disciplines of government and forgotten what it is like to deal with issues seriously’

Major called for strong opposition: ‘I hope they will rediscover those qualities whoever their leader may be’

Towards the end of June, Blair set out his election statement in ‘Change and Renewal.

It began with an analysis that:

‘At four successive elections the British people have refused to grant us their trust…they have sent us back to the exile of opposition. They have tried to tell us something. They have told us not to retreat or to retire; they have told us to rethink and review’

Blair’s critique of Thatcherism was:

‘They saw all forms of social co-operation as wrong, fit not for reform but from demolition. The result was to tear apart the social fabric and encourage a narrow view of self-interest’

‘We have become a society that dangerously undervalues the notion of responsibility to one another. We all undermine it by tolerating a situation where millions are left without a proper stake in society’

‘Education is at the heart of our project for economic renewal. The more we put in, the more we shall get back as skill, achievement, opportunity and community’


Blair claimed he would be ‘like Thatcher’ in simplifying the party’s message:

‘Look at Thatcher. In 1979 she didn’t put out 2000-page documents. What she said was what she believed in and that’s what I will do.

Blair argued that Labour needed to simplify its policy agenda

‘People don’t want masses of figures. They don’t expect you to write a whole ramp of detailed policies. They want to know the character, identity and mission of the journey’


‘You start with the vision and the policies come afterwards. You get your compass first, work out the destination, then set out on your journey’

The Sun was not impressed and urged Blair to ‘get his facts right’

The Sun newspaper obtained a copy of Blair’s old school report. In 1975 his school report stated that Blair

‘Needs to be tougher in thinking through his ideas’

The media gave Blair the nickname Bambi


As the contest drew to a close, the Daily Mirror threw their support behind Blair

‘This is the hour…this is the man’

‘They say he lacks courage. Yet he broke Labour’s closed shop policy. He was a driving force for one member, one vote in the party and took on and beat the Conservatives in their heartland issue of crime’

Blair won comfortably in all three sections of the contest (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 %

John Prescott’s won 24.1 % and Beckett won 18.9%

Blair’s acceptance speech:

‘I shall not rest until, once again, the destinies of our people and our Party are joined together again, in victory at the next General Election. Labour in its rightful place – in government again’

‘We are ready to serve. And together we will change the course of our history, take the shattered remnants of our country and build a new and confident Britain for a new and changing world’


Read the full transcipt of the speech here 






























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