By Scott Cresswell
Since 1906, Labour has had 19-elected/permanent leaders. Six of those went on to become Prime Minister. Remarkably for a political party that started at the dawn of the 20th Century, it first experienced power during the First World War, before it formed its first government in 1924, and won a landslide victory in 1945. It’s the only truly successful ‘new’ party in British politics. Like all parties, there have been successes, and there have been failures. Some leaders are, naturally, more successful than others. How do they rank?
The judging of Labour’s leaders here will be somewhat based on personal preferences, but I aim to be objective. It’s too early to judge Sir Keir Starmer properly, but I’ll include Labour’s four ‘acting’ leaders, which the party has had, but only briefly.
22 – George Brown: January to February 1963 (acting)
George Brown became leader after the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell, and, although temporary, he was the worst face that Labour could ever have conjured. In the 1963 leadership contest, Anthony Crosland described the race between Harold Wilson and Brown as “a choice between a crook and a drunk”. It’s safe to say that Labour thankfully didn’t pick the boozer.
21 – Michael Foot: November 1980 to October 1983
If this list ranked every leader on their kindness, then Michael Foot would easily win first place. Instead, however, Foot led Labour to one of its worst election defeats. His lacking leadership and the SDP breakaway group were a significant factor in Margaret Thatcher holding power for nearly 12 years and the Tories for almost two decades. It must be said that Foot tried desperately to unite Labour (which seemed more possible for him than his deputy, Denis Healey), but his efforts explosively failed.
20 – George Lansbury: October 1932 to October 1935
After Labour’s substantial defeat in 1931, the party moved sharply leftwards. Lansbury, although likeable, was a weak leader who rarely commanded much support within his party. He was the first elected Labour leader not to contest an election: Attlee took over just weeks before the 1935 election. Like MacDonald in 1914, Lansbury’s strong pacifism during Nazi rule in Germany was deeply unpopular and unrealistic. He never had hope.
19 – Jeremy Corbyn: September 2015 to April 2020
After nine years in opposition, with a party divided, Corbyn led Labour to its worst election result since the days of Lansbury. Corbyn is one of the few on this list who never really wanted to be a leader. Like a zoo animal, he was taken out of his environment and placed into the strange world of mainstream politics. It must be said that Corbyn enthused members in a way unseen since Blair. However, he continued to fish in what proved to be a small pond. It’s a common misconception that Corbyn won in 2017. He may have achieved 40% of the vote (which has been rare for Labour since 1974) and dramatically increased the party’s vote share, but so did Theresa May’s Conservatives (they won 42.4%, also a notable increase). The destruction of UKIP hugely rewarded both parties. The swing from Conservative to Labour was only 2%, no higher than the swing to Kinnock in 1992. However, this proved to all be irrelevant because Corbyn’s lack of authority during his purposely divisive era, his failure to deal with anti-Semitism, and an utterly head-in-the-sky attitude to economics and Brexit resulted in Labour’s worst defeat since 1935. Sure, he gave hope, but he never truly desired the office of Prime Minister.
18 – George Barnes: February 1910 to February 1911
George Barnes is one of Labour’s most obscure leaders. He only led the party for a year, but his period as captain of the ship led to Labour’s first decrease in its vote share (Labour won 42 seats in December 1910, an increase of just two). Although a founding member of the party, his time as leader was uneventful, and several years later, after Labour ceased operations within David Lloyd George’s coalition government, Barnes resented his party and formed the National Democratic and Labour Party exuding more nationalism than patriotism.
17 – William Adamson: October 1917 to February 1921
Like Barnes, William Adamson is another forgotten figure from Labour’s past. Yet, electorally, Adamson must rank highly. Although Labour only had 57 seats in the 1918 khaki election, the party hugely increased its vote and effectively became the main opposition thanks to a divided Liberal Party. This, however, is more likely to have been caused by the massive expansion of the voting franchise, which allowed much of the working class to vote rather than Adamson’s lacklustre leadership.
16 – Ed Miliband: September 2010 to May 2015
Ed Miliband was a rather unlucky leader, and his luck ran out the second he won the leadership. He undoubtedly had a right to stand against his brother, David Miliband, in the wake of Labour’s 2010 defeat, but an image quickly formed that the party had elected the wrong brother. It’s sad to say that the same may well have occurred if David won. Regardless, Miliband’s problems were not about policy (much of which has been adapted and reused by Theresa May and Boris Johnson in their Conservative governments). It was more about the “weird” image that many thought he had. While his failure to defend New Labour’s record in government arguably led to Corbyn, and he was unable to stop the SNP surge in Scotland, he did promote policies that appear to be far more mainstream in light of the pandemic than they were back in the early 2010s.
15 – Herbert Morrison: December 1955 (acting)
For seven days, Herbert Morrison held the post he had always wanted. He despised Clement Attlee for beating him for the leadership twenty years prior, but his time at the helm was proved to be short-lived. He was a distant third in the 1955 leadership contest primarily fought between Hugh Gaitskell and Nye Bevan. Morrison was the wrong man at the wrong time.
14 – Arthur Henderson: January 1908 to February 1910, August 1914 to October 1917, August to October 1931
In any history of the Labour Party, the name “Henderson” should never be absent. Although a dud of a leader, Henderson was the first Labour cabinet minister in 1914 as he represented the youthful party in the coalitions of Asquith and Lloyd-George. Although leader thrice, he is best remembered for leading Labour into the 1931 election; Labour lost 235 of its 287 MPs, while the Conservatives won a thumping 470 seats. It would be unfair to blame Henderson for this, as he became a victim of events when Ramsay MacDonald was expelled for forming a National Government in the wake of the Wall Street Crash. Henderson was more unlucky than blameable, but he was a suitable choice to just about keep Labour together during the rockiest period in its history.
13 – Margaret Beckett: May to July 1994 (acting)
Although elected Deputy leader in 1992 in the aftermath of a general election defeat, Margaret Beckett led Labour in the months following John Smith’s tragic death. Although never an elected leader, she led the party to a substantial victory in the 1994 European Parliament election. However, she (and John Prescott) stood no chance when Tony Blair announced his candidacy to be Labour leader.
12 – Harriet Harman: May to September 2010, May to September 2015
Unlike Beckett, the last acting leader on the list never stood in a leadership contest, and that’s a great shame. Next to Barbara Castle, Harriet Harman ranks highly as a figure who could have become Labour’s first female Prime Minister. After two election defeats, she proved a safe and respectable pair of hands and worked effectively with Gordon Brown. Events might have turned out differently if she had become Labour leader in 2010.
11 – Hugh Gaitskell: December 1955 to January 1963
It would not be unjustified to title Hugh Gaitskell as Labour’s right-wing Corbyn. Among his supporting Gaitskellite faction, he was a lovable leader who influenced, some twenty years later, the creation of the SDP. The left, however, hated him. Under most of Gaitskell’s leadership, Labour was trapped in a civil war between Gaitskellites and Bevanites (although the two leaders got on reasonably well, their supporters didn’t). He led Labour into a moderate beating in 1959, but he began to contemplate some modernisation. Gaitskell was the Blairite of his time, envisioning a Labour Party devoid of a solid commitment to mass nationalisation with more focus on social justice. Unlike Blair, however, he failed. Although never indeed in control of his party, he was one of the great thinkers of modern social democracy, and by the time of his shocking and upsetting death, it looked as if Number 10 was in his grasp.
10 – John Smith: July 1992 to May 1994
When John Smith became leader after Labour suffered four general election defeats, it was clear that the party needed further change. Apart from rightly introducing One Member One Vote (to the left’s anger), Smith led Labour stiffly with a “one more heave” mentality. The party had to use the unpopularity of John Major’s Tories to their advantage, and under Smith’s leadership, evidence of success was limited. That said, I firmly believe that if Smith’s untimely and heartbreaking death never occurred, then he would have led Labour to a landslide victory in 1997 and a successful period of government. It was a loss to both politics and the world.
9 – Gordon Brown: June 2007 to May 2010, PRIME MINISTER: June 2007 to May 2010
Some may be horrified to find Gordon Brown ranking the lowest of Labour’s six Prime Ministers. If I were to rank Labour Chancellors, then Brown would certainly be the king. However, aside from a strikingly great start after Tony Blair’s departure, his indecision over a 2007 election cost him dearly. His indecisiveness, mixed with his growing aloof character, became the image of his time as prime minister and leader. It’s ironic that the Great Recession of 2008, a startling situation unseen by nearly all in living memory, effectively destroyed any chance of Labour winning the 2010 election. Gordon Brown dealt with the crisis brilliantly, but the damage had been done. That said, it must not be forgotten that the Conservatives didn’t outright win in the election, but it’s undoubtedly true to point out that Labour, indeed, were the losers.
8 – John Robert Clynes: February 1921 to November 1922
John Robert Clynes may be one of Labour’s more forgotten leaders, but there is an intriguing story behind the man who led Labour to its true breakthrough in 1922 (Labour won close to 30% of the vote and 142 seats). Although more of a trade unionist than the party leader, it’s reasonably safe to say that if Clynes had made it to the 1923 election, he would have become the first Labour Prime Minister instead of Ramsay MacDonald. However, his rather unlucky and lazy campaign in the 1922 Labour leadership election proved never to get the premiership. He died in abject poverty.
7 – Ramsay MacDonald: February 1911 to August 1914, November 1922 to August 1931, PRIME MINISTER: January to November 1924, June 1929 to June 1935
At one point or another, a Labour politician is usually accused of betrayal by a vocal sect. It’s widespread. Ramsay MacDonald, however, isn’t your average betrayer. He is the great betrayer to many on all sides of the Labour Party. Long before the days that it became clear that Labour could be a serious contender for government MacDonald had seemingly ended his career thanks to his unpopular stance as a pacifist during the First World War. However, upon regaining the leadership in 1922, he became Labour’s first Prime Minister due to Stanley Baldwin’s failure in the 1923 election. His first stint as Prime Minister was short and unstable: a minority supported by the Liberal Party. However, he could have easily been the only socialist Prime Minister were it not for proving that Labour could be a trusted government party. MacDonald was deeply unlucky during his second term, but his decision to form a National Government in 1931 was a step too far for many. MacDonald put country before party, and he was expelled. Although he remained Prime Minister until 1935, it was without Labour support, and Britain struggled terribly due to the depression. MacDonald’s record is far from spotless, but he was Labour’s first Prime Minister and, if things had gone differently, then he could have been the last.
6 – Neil Kinnock: October 1983 to July 1992
Except for Keir Hardie, Neil Kinnock was the best Labour leader who never became Prime Minister. When he took over the leadership in October 1983, he inherited a party close (in its vote share) to the third force in British politics. The gap between Labour and the SDP-Liberal Alliance was just 2.2%. After the 1992 election, the gap between Labour and the Liberal Democrats was 16.6%. Electorally, Neil Kinnock saved the Labour Party when 1983 could have just been the start of the end for British socialism. He encountered huge problems leading a divided and furious Labour Party, not to mention the popularity of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives, but the fact that he was even considered to be the next likely Prime Minister is a considerable achievement. I also believe that he would have been, were it not for the Tories stroke of genius throwing out a tired Thatcher and replacing her with the dull, yet likeable John Major. Blair profited much from Kinnock’s hard work.
5 – James Callaghan: April 1976 to November 1980, PRIME MINISTER: April 1976 to May 1979
Out of all Labour leaders and nearly all Prime Ministers, James Callaghan was undoubtedly the most qualified to govern Britain. He had served as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, and Foreign Secretary, all with varying degrees of success, but Sunny Jim was a very popular and able figure. However, he became the victim of events as the world economy suffered and the trade unions exuded far too much power. Within a year of taking up the office, the slim majority that Harold Wilson had been elected on in October 1974 virtually vanished. His government appeared to be constantly in danger of collapse, and it almost did after the Winter of Discontent (1978-9). It’s a myth that Callaghan and his government were far-left communists that caused Margaret Thatcher and neoliberalism.
On the contrary, Callaghan’s government began some economic alterations that Milton Friedman was proud to condone. Callaghan was also the last true enabler of cabinet government, meaning that decisions were taken with unity. However, it would be incorrect to call him a great Prime Minister, and his staying on after defeat in 1979 wasn’t ideal.
4 – Keir Hardie: February 1906 to January 1908 (founder of Labour Representation Committee in 1900)
Keir Hardie was the first Labour MP and one of the most influential figures in British political history. Before 1900, the differences between the Conservative and Liberal parties weren’t significant. The working classes had been ignored. Keir Hardie was a Christian socialist, no revolutionary Marxist. Nevertheless, he led Labour to gains in the 1906 election (winning 29 seats from just two) by campaigning on Home Rule, work for the unemployed, suitable housing, and social justice. These were the issues that desperately needed attention, and the Labour Party is forever indebted to its founding hero for building a platform that would go into government and, to this day, fulfil the pledges of James Keir Hardie.
3 – Harold Wilson: February 1963 to April 1976, PRIME MINISTER: October 1964 to June 1970, March 1974 to April 1976
With the Tories in crisis during the last year of Harold Macmillan’s government, Labour desperately needed a modern and charismatic leader to lead Britain in the sixties. Until devaluation in 1967, Harold Wilson was most probably the most popular figure in British politics. Although he won in 1964 with a majority of four, he won a landslide victory two years. Wilson was fortunate with the Tory leaders. He went up against the now unpopular Macmillan, Victorian-like Alec Douglas-Home, the untelegenic Edward Heath, and a novice Margaret Thatcher proving to be easy targets. Although Wilson lost to Heath in 1970, he practically dominated the Tory leader as he won three out of four elections against his decade-long rival. Wilson’s first time as Prime Minister during the sixties was a great time of modernisation and, along with Roy Jenkins, Wilson decriminalised homosexuality, scrapped the death penalty, and (with Liberal support) changed abortion laws. His second office period is far less glamorous as the once-youth leader grew old, tired, and world-weary. Perhaps it was a mistake for Wilson to stay on after Labour’s defeat in 1970, but his second administration had some electoral achievements, including two election wins and a referendum victory. Wilson was an excellent Prime Minister who radically changed the country when it most needed it, but his government’s failure to pass Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife law did unimaginable damage to Labour in the decades that followed.
2 – Tony Blair: July 1994 to June 2007, PRIME MINISTER: May 1997 to June 2007
You may have noticed that the Conservative Party has a brilliant track record of self-publicity. They use history to their advantage, picking out figures like Churchill and Thatcher as British heroes. If Labour were ever to do the same (which they certainly should), Tony Blair would never be forgotten. Like Harold Wilson in 1963, Tony Blair in 1994 became Labour leader after the sudden death of his predecessor and when Tory governments were dreadfully unpopular and immoral. Blair was even luckier when it came to Conservative leaders, as John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan-Smith, Michael Howard, and even David Cameron were no match for him. Tony Blair re-energised Labour as the party willing to face the future. He won Labour its best-ever result in 1997, winning 418 seats, and throughout much of his time in power, his progressive administrations did more for the working classes than any other government since the days of Attlee. The minimum wage and Sure Start did immense good for those ignored for 18 years of Thatcherite Conservatism. NHS speeding increased dramatically. Worldwide achievements like the Good Friday Agreement and even London winning the selection to host the 2012 Olympics was a moment that proved the potential of the United Kingdom. The only main problem, of course, is Iraq. Whether you agree or disagree with the decision to invade in 2003, it undeniably destroyed much of Blair’s credibility, and it played a factor in the election of Jeremy Corbyn as a leader in 2015. Nevertheless, Blair’s Labour government carried out most of Keir Hardie’s campaign proposals a century ago. New Labour was no different from Labour, except that it won and won and won again.
1 – Clement Attlee: October 1935 to December 1955, PRIME MINISTER: July 1945 to October 1951
“Few thought he was even a starter. There were many who thought themselves smarter. But he ended PM, CH, and OM, an Earl and a Knight of the Garter”. These were the words Clement Attlee used to describe himself after his twenty-long years leading Labour. Attlee became the leader at a time of crisis for Labour. George Lansbury was forced to step down, and this unassuming, uninspiring, and upper-class figure known as Clem Attlee emerged as the face of British socialism. When Attlee became Labour leader, he took over a party that had 52 seats. Ten years later, in the post-war Labour landslide, he was commanding a number close to 400. His government held the first-ever Labour majority, and it delivered to a generation that was hugely betrayed in the aftermath of the First World War when Lloyd George’s “a fit country for heroes” failed to spawn. The 1945-51 Labour government ranks as one of the best governments in British history, creating a National Health Service for all, and it is an achievement that proved to be even more crucial in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Attlee’s nationalisation policies were significant at the time to get people not just back on their feet but to a New Jerusalem far distant from the grim thirties. The establishment of the welfare state and the vast expansion of the Liberal Reforms of 1905-1914 aided every soul across the land. In the 1945 general election, Winston Churchill was cheered as the man who won the war, but Clement Attlee retained the peace. His modest character enabled him to be a fair but strong Prime Minister and, without a doubt, the greatest in history. The problem was that, by 1951, he and his government were dog-tired. Labour had served in government for eleven years in both war and peace. Nevertheless, when Attlee finally retired as leader in 1955 (after an election which he really shouldn’t have fought), he had aided in creating a consensus that would continue until Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979. Unlike Blair, Attlee is a hero that Labour is comfortable with praising, and we should all be eternally grateful for his changing of the very structure of Britain.