Sunday, 18 February 2018

Labour Leaders

I mainly regurgitated a whole lot of facts that I already knew here. I don't know why post-war British politics interests me so much - I can certainly think of other more interesting things to think about!


Ramsay McDonald: 1922-1931

McDonald, in the eyes of many Labour supporters, is Judas incarnate. In the midst of economic turmoil, he left the Labour Party to form a National Government. He did this largely with Conversative MPs, winning a total of 470 seats. The Labour Party became a depleted force and it was left on the brink of extinction. The National Government was a notoriously ineffective entity – it presided over mass unemployment and a depressed economy – and McDonald lashed out at the Labour Party during this period.
McDonald was crucial in helping the Labour transition from a protest movement to a party of government. McDonald’s politics were a synthesis of liberalism and socialism. He transcended class divisions and he helped the Labour Party reach a broader electorate.
Unemployment, inequality and poverty were reaching boiling point in the 1920s. Nothing was being done on issues like housing and health care. The Liberal party weren’t going the full hog – they introduced limited means-tested benefits in the 1910s. Several parties surfaced at this period and the Labour Party emerged triumphant. Helped by the universal vote, they sneaked in as the second largest party. The Labour Party emerged as a minority government in 1924 – despite amassing a smaller share of MPs – but this fell apart in a matter of months.
Subsequently, Winston Churchill was a dreadful chancellor under Stanley Baldwin. He decided to return to the gold standard and lowered interest rates. This artificially overvalued the pound, the cost of production fell and investment stalled. Unemployment and poverty soared.
McDonald and the Labour Party sneaked in as a minority government again in 1929. Unlike the Conservatives, who were protectionist and nationalist, McDonald advocated free trade and low tariffs, as they kept prices low for workers.
However, the Great Depression struck in the United States and made its way to Europe. This threw a spanner in the works for the minority Labour Government. McDonald and his chancellor Philip Snowden turned to advice to the City of London and ignored the radical ideas of John Maynard Keynes. They devalued the pound in 1930. MacDonald and Snoweden were forced to make drastic cuts, which their socialist MPs were vehemently against. The King George V – in quite like the last royal intervention in British politics – urged him to form a National Government. As the crisis reached breaking point, McDonald threw the towel in, deserted the Labour Party, formed the National Government and called a general election in 1931. The ailing Labour Party were wiped out and were left with a meagre 52 MPs.
George Lansbury: 1931-1935

Labour were all but wiped out after the 1931 general election. Several heavyweights such as Herbert Morrison had lost their seats whilst others like Snowden joined the National Government and Oswald Mosley became a fervent fascist.
George Lansbury, a firebrand leftist, was selected as their leader. Labour MPs like Clement Attlee and Stafford Cripps entered their most left-wing period during this phase. Attlee – to his later embarrassment – envisioned the idea of commissars commanding local councils. Stafford Cripps during this period was maturing from communism, but he still wanted all left-wing groups from all over Europe – socialists, labourites and communists – to form an alliance. He also wanted Britain to appease the USSR.
The small group of MPs were a very organised unit. Lansbury had a lot of energy, toured the entire country and gave speeches endlessly. However, he was prone to emotional and platitudinous rhetoric which embarrassed most of his MPs. He was prone to making overblown speeches that were very light on detail and policy.
Most worryingly, Lansbury was a staunch pacifist. He met up with Hitler and Mussolini and wanted to secure peace across Europe. This was a disturbing position to adopt with European and British values jeopardised by the rising tide of fascism. Lansbury fell ill in late 1934 and Clement Attlee filled in as temporary leader. Lansbury was dropped before the 1935 general election.
He died in 1937. In an ironic postscript, his house was bombed to smithereens during the war.
Clement Attlee: 1935-1955

The appointment of Attlee was only meant to be temporary, a stop-gap measure before someone abler came along. He stayed on as Labour leader for twenty years. There is no doubt for many people that he is the best leader that Labour ever had and some argue that he is Britain’s greatest peace-time prime minister. Selfless, modest, curt and somewhat taciturn, Churchill claimed that ‘he is a modest man with much to be modest about.’
Labour recovered well in the 1935 election, gaining 154 seats. Attlee provided stern opposition to Stanley Baldwin and later to Neville Chamberlain. He denounced and opposed Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement.
Once Britain went to war, Labour formed part of a coalition government and Attlee became deputy prime minister. He was fiercely loyal to Winston Churchill and always trusted his judgement.
The consensus was changing during the war. The state played a much greater role in controlling the economy. The Beveridge Report sold 600,000 copies during this period. Beveridge called for a universal welfare state, full employment and the elimination of poverty.
Hitler, of course, was defeated and Churchill was a hero. In quite largely the biggest electoral upset in British history – and the biggest swing – Labour won a landslide with a majority of 156 MPs.
Labour’s manifesto was ambitious, promising nationalisation of key industries and a universal welfare state. Britian had been left bankrupt by the war and everyone urged Attlee to make cuts, but Attlee stuck to his guns.
Britain were no doubt boosted by the Marshall Plan as well as a large loan. There were many grumbles in Washington about the idea of funding socialism in Britain.
Attlee introduced national insurance and a whole spate of generous welfare benefits. These were designed to ‘take the shame out of need.’ There was a concerted effort not to return to the depression and the rampant unemployment of the 1920s and 30s.
Labour built thousands of council houses during this period, ensuring that the post-war generation had somewhere to live.
Labour delivered on their promise of full employment and production increased. Britain decided to increase exports and limit imports. The latter was done so that they could afford to enact their ambitious spending aims. All goods were rationed for a long time and post-war austerity lasted longer than other countries in Europe.
Labour initially aimed to create a ‘planned economy,’ which was really a reaction against the economic ruin bequeathed by the previous laissez-faire system. They initially aimed to plan all aspects of the economy, but they found it inordinately difficult to compromise this with democratic principles. This idea was largely shelved after 1947, though some planning was introduced.
Quite possibly the most lasting legacy of this government was the NHS. Hospitals were nationalised and all health care was made free at the point of use. This was delegated to the left-wing firebrand Anuerin Bevan, who was unenviably also tasked with the ministry of housing. ‘No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means,’ he claimed. Britain’s health care quickly became the envy of the world.
The Attlee administration also nationalised all utilities – electricity, gas, water, telephones, buses, trains – as well as the coal and steel industries and the bank of England. 20% of the economy was nationalised. Indeed, part of the ‘post-war consensus’ that emerged accepted a generous welfare state and a ‘mixed economy’ as part of a new social contract. Although the NHS was created in an imaginative way, the new nationalised industries were anything but. They were ran in the same way and the previous owners formed part of boards. Nationalisation was not the panacea that many people in the Labour Party were hoping it to be.
The Attlee government also gave workers’ unheralded rights. A spate of regulations were introduced and trade unions were given the right to strike whenever they wanted to, which created problems by the 1970s. ‘Collective bargaining’ was introduced and trade unions enjoyed greater power than before. Government, unions and business merged to form a large single entity. This has been called ‘corporatism.’
With Ervin Bevin as foreign secretary, Labour adopted a staunchly anti-communist position. They formed part of NATO and created a nuclear deterrent. They sided with the United States in the cold war against the Soviet Union.
Attlee also effectively ended the empire by granting independence to India and all other the other colonies. A ‘commonwealth’ was created and all the former colonies kept close ties with the United Kingdom. Although as a youth Attlee was a Conservative who was proud of empire, he came to see poverty as an aberration and he also regretted the way in which Britain had imposed its will on so much of the third world. India became a major preoccupation and he regarded independence as paramount.
The government redistributed wealth, but there were grumbles that they were not creating wealth, that there was not enough competition and that there too many monopolies in several industries. The middle and upper classes were heavily taxed and they were alienating several people who voted for them in the 1945 election. The notoriously austere chancellor Stafford Cripps was forced to devalue the pound after the dollar fell in value, which the British economy relied on.
Attlee called on the country to keep making ‘sacrifices’
and the public kept being told that they would have to wait for rations to be lifted. After going through the second world war, such rhetoric grated a bit.
Labour increased their share of the vote to a historic thirteen million votes in 1950, but they were only returned with a majority of five MPs. Most of the Labour Party grandees were exhausted after fighting in a world war and delivering on the promises of an ambitious manifesto. Cripps resigned in ill health and died in 1952, Enrnest Bevin died in 1951, Morrison died in the late 50s and Hugh Dalton died in the early 60s.
The UK joined the Korean war in 1950. Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell made cuts to the NHS to fund armament, which infuriated Bevan. Gaitskell made cuts to dental care, drug prescriptions and glasses, which had all been free. This infuriated Bevan, since the principle of the NHS was that all its services should be free at the point of use. Bevan resigned and this created a split between the leftist Bevanites and the right-wing Gaitskellites.
The Conservatives had opposed all of Labour’s reforms to begin with, however they accepted they post-war consensus in a document called ‘One Nation’ in 1950. They were now rejuvenated and Churchill was once more full of energy.
Attlee lost patience with his slim majority and called another election in 1951 to increase it. Labour amassed nearly fourteen million votes, which until 1992 was the most votes ever obtained by a political party and to this day remains the largest share of the popular vote ever achieved by Labour. They still won the popular vote, but due to the idiosyncrasies of the first-past-the-post system the Conservatives were returned to power with a majority of 17 MPs.
Most people
assumed that the new Churchill administration would only be temporary. Few people suspected that Labour would be out of power for thirteen years. The Conservatives told voters that they would benefit from the Attlee settlement, but that they would also enjoy more freedoms. They lifted price controls, increased imports and most rations were lifted by 1953.
Attlee stayed on after 1951, partly because he didn’t want Herbert Morrison to take over. The Conservatives increased their majority in 1955 and he resigned.
Hugh Gaitskell: 1955-1963

A centrist and scold of the party’s left, Gaitskell was a fiery and confrontational figure. The term ‘Butskellism’ was coined during this period, which amalgamated the name of Butler, the conservative chancellor with the then shadow chancellor Gaitskell. At a time of ‘consensus politics,’ people found very little difference between the politics of either figures.
Gaitskell constantly ran into confrontations with the Bevanites. Although Bevan was pro-defence, his acolytes advocated unilateral disarmament. In a notable conference, Gaitskell confronted them and averred that he would ‘fight and fight and fight to save the party we love.’
Gaitskell was also a statist nationalist. When the Conservative government attempted to join the European Economic Community, otherwise known as the Common Market, he opposed it. He claimed ‘that it
is the end of the nation state – the end of a thousand years of history.’ Indeed, this was an argument that did chime with the Labour left, who did not want to pool sovereignty to a group of bureaucrats in Brussels.
The Conservatives were devastated by the invasion of Suez, when Britain invaded Egypt after they nationalised the Suez canal. Britain’s international reputation dipped and the disgraced Antony Eden was replaced by Harold Macmillan.
This was, really, the high point of consensus. The model left by Stafford Cripps slotted into place and British industry boomed. The welfare state had mollified poverty. Macmillan continued a policy of full employment, building several factories in poor towns. The government was spending more than the level of production, which angered people like Enoch Powell and these policies caused mild inflation by creating higher levels of supply. British people also became consumers, which angered leftists like Bevan. Macmillan claimed that ‘you have never had it so good.’
This was the context of the general election in 1959. Labour were enjoying leads in the polls. However, Gaitskell was pressed as to whether he would raise taxes, which he denied, and this sat uncomfortably with Labour’s ambitious spending plans. A heat wave led to high consumption and the Conservatives exploited this in their propaganda. As such, the Conservatives increased their majority to 101 seats.
However, the Conservatives were beset by a series of scandals in the early 1960s. The ‘Profumo Scandal’ tarnished their lofty reputation for moral puritanism. Macmillan sacked most of his cabinet ministers in what was called ‘the night of the long knives,’ which only created a sense of party disunity. Economic problems had started to increase. What was called ‘stagflation’ - stagnation and inflation – started during this period. Finally, Harold Macmillan’s attempt to join Europe had been vetoed by Charles DeGaulle.
It seemed more and more likely that Gaitskell would become prime minister. However, he suffered a stroke and died in January 1963.
Harold Wilson: 1963-1976

Wilson had only earned a reputation for duplicity by 1955. He had joined Bevan by resigning from Attlee’s cabinet during the Korean war, however he chose to join Gaitskell’s shadow cabinet in 1955. Although ostensibly a member of the party’s left, he earned a reputation for being unprincipled during his period as prime minister.
Wilson certainly proved to be a formidable parliamentary performer. In 1963, he promised to deliver a ‘technological revolution’. He claimed: ‘In all our plans for the future, we are re-defining and we are re-stating our Socialism in terms of the scientific revolution. But that revolution cannot become a reality unless we are prepared to make far-reaching changes in economic and social attitudes which permeate our whole system of society. The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry.’ He came from a working-class background and had gone on to get a first from Oxford and, indeed, become prime minister. He represented a new meritocracy and this was a threat to fusty upper-class Tories like Harold Macmillan and Sir Doug-Alec Hume. He also cultivated a ‘man of the people’ image by smoking pipes – many people did indeed smoke pipes back then – and professing his love for HP sauce and fish and chips.
Wilson also created greater party unity than Gaitskell. His idealistic rhetoric excited the party’s left and he also consoled the right-wing by promising to be realistic about the economy.
Wilson won ‘by a whisker’ in 1964, achieving a slender majority of four MPs. The Conservative government had left a balance of payment deficit of [] and Britain was importing too much and exporting too little.
Indeed, Wilson was beset with one economic problem or another during his premiership. He set up the ambitious Department of Economic Affairs to put more emphasis on planning, but this department was scrapped very quickly. The aim of the department was to modernise a stagnant private sector through scientific and technocratic planning. The planned economy assumed as part of its program that a twenty-five percent increase in output would occur within five years. The Labour Party did not take into consideration what would happen to wages and unions if this did not occur.
Wilson called another election in 1966 to increase his majority. The Conservatives were struggling to find direction under their new leader Edward Heath and the gamble paid off – Labour were returned with a majority of 96 MPs.
The Wilson government had claimed that it would never devalue the currency. Wilson claimed that he didn’t want Labour to be ‘the party of devaluation,’ having devalued the pound in 1930 and 1949. However, the inevitable could not be staved off and the government was forced to devalue in 1967. Chancellor James Callaghan resigned. Wilson’s personality ratings never recovered after he appeared on television claiming that ‘the pound on your pocket’ would be worth just as much as before.
Wilson’s ‘technological revolution’ never really took off. They invested heavily in technology that people did not really need, such as the Concord. British industry did not modernise and stagnation continued.
‘Town planning’ was also a prevalent idea during this period. ‘Progress’ was a fashionable idea, but the modern council buildings that they built during this period aged terribly and no-one wanted to live in them. The few remaining buildings during this period look like monstrosities. Most of them have been destroyed.
However, the government did live up to its meritocratic credentials. Led by intellectual guru Anthony Crosland, the government abolished eleven-plus exams, closed grammar schools and increased comprehensive education. ‘If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll close every fucking grammar school in England. And Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales,’ Crosland asserted. The Wilson years were first and foremost about increasing equality of opportunity and ending the culture of deference.
Wilson also created the Open University in 1969, which was his idea. He wanted to give other people from his working-class background the opportunity to study at university. The institution continues to this day.
The Labour government abolished capital punishment in early 1965. Roy Jenkins was shortly after appointed as Home Secretary. His eighteen-month stint was wildly successful and he has gone down as the most liberal home secretary in history. He had pining for the job for years and he had a clear agenda. During his period as home secretary, Jenkins – with the assistance of other Labour, Liberal and Conservative MPs – enacted a whole spate of radical reforms. He legalised homosexuality, legalised abortion, relaxed divorce laws, relaxed censorship and legalised the pill. He also legislated racial laws which specified that racial minorities should not be denied employment or housing. Jenkins also increased immigration from the commonwealth countries, aiming to create a diverse multi-cultural society that recognised and appreciated each other’s differences. This spurred Enoch Powell to make his highly controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in Birmingham. Jenkins was insistent that the empire had come to an end and that it was now time for Britain to reach out to the countries that it had colonised. Although Wilson was not a social liberal, he gave Jenkins complete freedom to pursue his agenda. Jenkins was lampooned by Conservatives for unleashing a decadent and amoral society, but Jenkins insisted that ‘the permissive society is the civilised society’ and that individuals should be allowed to do what they want with their private lives. This is why this particular Labour government is associated with ‘Swinging London.’
Wilson introduced statutory income and price controls to control inflation in 1966. This would continue to be a political hot potato well into the end of the 1970s. This infuriated their trade union base, who frequently organised strikes in protest against frozen wages. Barbara Castle’s proposed union reform, ‘In Place of Strife,’ was eventually quashed by then home secretary James Callaghan, who had come from a union background.
Following devaluation, James Callaghan switched roles with Roy Jenkins. Jenkins had the unenviable task of healing Britain’s sick economy. Devaluation was done primarily to increase exports and they did indeed increase, as British goods were cheaper to buy thanks to the lower value of the pound. This did mean that inflation continued to rise – approaching 10% - as it became more expensive to import goods. Jenkins also made numerous cuts to welfare and defence and increased taxes. Eventually, by
1970 the balance of payments deficit was overturned from the £400 million bequeathed by the Conservatives to a record surplus of £550 million. Jenkins’ spending cuts and tax increases also meant that he had achieved a budget surplus, which had also been high when the Conservatives left office.
The Conservatives had been well ahead in the polls after the devaluation of the pound. However, the economic recovery meant that Labour had recovered in the polls as well.
By 1970, it was a given that Labour would win the next election. Buoyed by poll figures, Wilson called an election for June 1970 (which coincided with the World Cup). The Conservatives surprisingly won with a majority of 3[] MPs.
Wilson clung on as leader of the party. However, the party swiftly tilted to the left. Although Wilson did try to join Europe and it had been official Labour policy to join, Wilson changed tack by opposing membership of the Common Market once the majority of his MPs revolted. Roy Jenkins – the only British politician to have ever been president of the European Commission – resigned as deputy leader of the party. Once Heath managed to get Britain to join the Common Market in 1973, Wilson promised to hold a referendum in 1975. Once the referendum was held, 70% of the public voted to remain, which was the outcome that Wilson wanted.
Heath promised to end consensus politics once he had been elected. However, unemployment rose to one million in 1971. Having lived through the 1930s, this spooked him. Having scrapped them upon assuming his premiership, he reinstated price and income controls in 1972.
His attempt at union reform, The Industrial Relations Act, incurred their wrath.
British industry continued to struggle and Heath bailed out ailing British companies like British Leylands and Ferranti. The Conservatives even nationalised Rolls Royce. Heath recklessly pushed for growth and he created an artificial boom for a few months – 18% growth – which led to a bust. The government printed money to finance these ventures, which worsened inflation.
However, it was the oil shock in 1973 that irreparably damaged the Heath government. There was an oil embargo after Arab countries refused to sell oil to the west following the Israeli-Palestine war, which led to inflated prices in all western countries.
Coal had been getting more expensive to mine, but the oil shock made it even more expensive. Heath decided to ration the use of coal, which led to mass union strikes. Heath limited the use of gas and electricity, which meant that all television ended by ten pm and several black-outs occurred.
Strikes continued, which meant that several working hours were lost and this harmed productivity. Heath decided to call an election in February in 1974, seeking a mandate to confront the unions. He framed it with the question ‘Who Governs Britain?’ Surprisingly, it resulted in a hung parliament. Labour emerged as the largest party, despite getting a slightly smaller share of the popular vote.
Wilson had gone into the campaign promising to get the miners back to work. As such, Labour were on the side of the unions, which meant that it now had a much more left-wing program. Heath tried to form a coalition with the Liberals, but this fell through. Wilson led a minority Labour government for a few months before calling another general election for October 1974. Although inflation remained extremely high, Wilson claimed that Labour had solved the miners’ dispute. Labour managed to gain a tiny majority of three MPs.
Wilson settled the miners’ dispute by raising their wages, which accelerated inflation. This meant that inflation rose from 18% under Heath in 1974 to an historic 30% in 1975.
Wilson also assuaged the left of the party by appointing leftists Tony Benn as Industry Secretary, Michael Foot as Employment Secretary and Peter Shore as Trade Secretary. Benn scared industry by tentatively proposing mass nationalisation and planning. He wanted to create a ‘siege economy’ by raising tariffs and erecting other types of import controls. Peter Shore was also thinking on these lines. Parts of British Leylands were also nationalised, but these protectionist measures only managed to depress British industry even more. Michael Foot as Employment Secretary was keen to please trade unions as much as he could. All three ministers were soon removed from these posts.
Chancellor Dennis Healey increased income taxes to historic highs. The top rates were now 83% and, in some cases, 98%. Such taxes were meant to confiscate ‘unearned incomes.’ These revenues were pumped into the NHS and other social services. However, this also created a flight of capital, as several high earners left the country.
Despite their precarious majority, Labour still pushed several reforms through in this period: Social Pensions Act, Health and Safety Act, Employment Protection Act, Sexual Discrimination Act, Child Benefit Act, Homeless Persons Act and many others.
Wilson resigned in April 1976. By this point, he was completely beleaguered. He had not achieved many of his lofty promises and the country was in serious economic turmoil. He looked older than his years. Against the odds, he still achieved party unity and several worthy social reforms. He would soon develop Alzheimer’s.
James Callaghan: 1976-1980

The leadership election that followed boasted some heavyweight names: James Callaghan, Dennis Healey, Roy Jenkins, Michael Foot, Tony Benn and Tony Crosland. Callaghan, a self-made working class boy who never gone to university, came on top. He was the only politician to have ever held the three biggest ministerial positions – chancellor, home secretary and foreign secretary. He was on the right of the party and had close links to the trade unions. It was said that, whilst his political judgement might not be sound, that he would be the most suitable leader to deal with the unions. The opposite turned out to be the case.
Callaghan lost his majority a month after assuming office. This meant that Labour had to form an informal alliance with the Liberals, called the ‘Lab-Lib pact.’
The ongoing economic problems soon reached boiling point. The pound had been trailing the dollar by 18%. A speculative attack on the currency meant that the pound almost collapsed. Dennis Healey met the IMF and agreed terms for a loan. Healey agreed a £3.9 million loan in exchange for £2 billion in cuts to social services.
Additionally, Healey cut interest rates and started to tightly control the supply of money, which was really the start of ‘monetarism.’ Healey started to open up Britain to world markets and the economy gradually started to heal at this point. Although the Thatcher government has been seen as the end of consensus, others have identified this as the moment in which Kenyesianism had run out of steam.
Callaghan addressed a Labour conference, claiming that ‘I tell you, in all candour that option [to spend our way out of a recession] no longer exists. And in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion… by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step…’ This was not wholly accurate, as inflation had been modest when Labour and Conservative governments spent heavily throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s. Inflation started to soar after the devaluation of the pound and its impact would not have been so great had Wilson and Callaghan not postponed it. Healey also acknowledged that Keynesianism had come to an end and he believed that the Labour Party’s guru had underestimated how disruptive trade unions and finance are to statist governments that like to spend. Unions disrupt industry by striking when inflation goes up whilst finance attack currencies when they are weak.
The economy started to heal over the next two years and inflation had gone just below double digits by 1978. Labour had a lead in the polls, but Callaghan wanted to give the economy another year to heal before fighting a general election.
Callaghan formed a pact with the unions in 1978 whereby they agreed to wage restraint to curb restricted government spending and also to ease inflation. As such, strict wage controls were imposed on all public sector workers. However, trade unions – who had been radicalised by Marxist entryists throughout the 1970s – called strikes, which have been called the ‘Winter of Discontent.’ Many hours of work were lost, dead bodies were left in the streets, patients were not treated and rubbish was left uncollected. Callaghan came back from a holiday and appeared to dismiss the concerns of the press as ‘parochial.’ Many of the tabloids had in the past supported Labour, but publications like The Sun lurched to the Conservatives when they were bought by Rupert Murdoch. They lashed out at the government, with the Sun declaring ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ Margaret Thatcher issued a motion of no confidence as leader of the opposition, which she won by a single vote. The Conservatives won the 1979 election by a landslide.
Once more, Labour lurched to the left in opposition – this time even more radically. Tony Benn thought that he should seize the opportunity and sought to implement his radical economic plan. The constituency Labour parties had been infiltrated by Trotskyites. Benn sought to ‘democratise’ the party by devolving more power to Labour members. He wanted to give members the right to deselect MPs and he saw members of parliament as being delegates, not representatives. This made a mockery of parliamentary democracy. Benn stirred up radical activists by claiming that the Labour Party had betrayed its socialist principles in government.
The Trotskyite entryists were knowns as ‘Militants’ and were highly organised. Callaghan resigned a month before constitutional reforms were due to be introduced, which was a way to get back at Benn. The next leader would be elected by the members of parliament, not the party members or the trade unions.
Michael Foot: 1980-1983

Dennis Healey seemed to destined to take over as party leader. He was a forceful character, so he was bound to confront the Miltants, the left and Margaret Thatcher effectively. However, Michael Foot entered the race later on and won. He was seen as a ‘unity candidate’ who would be able to bridge the divides in the party. Although he was well on the left of the party, he was an affable man and many people thought that he would appease the right as well as the left more than Healey. This assessment turned out to be dramatically wrong.
Foot had been a totemic figure in the left, penning a manifesto called Keep Left! In the 1940s in which he argued that Labour should commit itself to unilateral disarmament and appeasement to the Soviet Union. He was a highly learned man of letters, who wrote an influential book about Jonathan Swift in the 1950s. A colourful eccentric, he was a passionate and eloquent orator who was perhaps more suited to the backbenchers rather than the frontbenchers. He did, however, prove his administrative acumen as Employment Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister in the 1970s.
The party soon committed itself to a program that included unilateral disarmament, leaving the European Community and mass nationalisation. Meanwhile, Roy Jenkins came back from his stint as leader of the European Commission and was aghast by the state of the Labour Party. He formed a new centrist party called the SDP alongside David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers. Whilst they soared in the opinion polls for a year, they ultimately split the vote and cemented Thatcher’s grip on power.
The Militant tendency continued to permeate the party, who continued to receive Tony Benn’s support. Foot seemed weak and unable to control the problem. Labour seemed eons away from power.
Thatcher’s first term was far from successful and she was very unpopular. Her harsh monetarist policies meant that 20% of British manufacturing had been destroyed, unemployment went up to an unprecedented three million – 12% of the total workforce – there were high levels of poverty and low-tax policies meant that public services were chronically underfunded throughout the 1980s.
However, the invasion of the Falkland islands led to a surge in patriotism and the Conservatives shot up in the polls. Labour’s manifesto pledges also seemed wholly ill-suited to the problems of the 1980s. Their obsession with a state-run economy seemed painfully ill-suited to Britain’s economic recovery in the 1980s. Their pledge to reinstate trade union power seemed ominous to voters a few years after the winter of discontent. Their pledge to completely jettison the nuclear deterrent seemed nonsensical as the cold war continued.
The Labour Party manifesto for the 1983 election was dubbed ‘the longest suicide note in history’ by Gerald Kaufman. Labour were soon slaughtered by the Conservatives, returned with [] seats. It was Labour’s worst electoral defeat since 1931. Foot was soon forced to resign.
Neil Kinnock: 1983-1992

Although he was young and had never held a ministerial post, Neil Kinnock was chosen as the new Labour leader. Kinnock had been a firebrand leftist in the 1970s, but many MPs thought that he had the oratorical skills and the charisma to be leader.
Kinnock soon defied the Militant tendency. He lashed out at them in a conference in 1985, claiming that their promises were ‘irrelevant to the real needs of voters.’ Militant and other communist organisations were judged to have breached the constitution of the Labour Party and parliamentary democracy. Thousands of Labour Party members were expelled.
Thatcher won another landslide in 1987 during an economic boom, but Kinnock staged a spirited campaign and won more seats. By the late 1980s, Labour were gradually returning to the centre. By 1989, they had dropped its most unpopular policies – unilateral disarmament and they became firmly committed to Europe.
Thatcher continued to implement unpopular policies, such as the privatisation of utilities. However, this reached boiling point with her ‘poll tax,’ where everyone was forced to pay the same high rate of council tax. She was forced to resign in late 1990.
Kinnock now urged the party to drop its commitment to nationalisation. He wanted the Labour Party to accept the market economy, but to instead focus on more equality and fairness within that system.
Labour now had a lead in the polls. By the time of the 1992 general election, however, several tabloids ridiculed Kinnock’s awkward persona. They claimed that Labour’s plans would lead to ‘a bombshell of taxes.’ Kinnock remained confident and Labour led an unusually Americanised event at a stadium in Sheffield. Kinnock awkwardly yelled ‘we’re all right! we’re all right!,’ which appeared arrogant and overconfident. A day before the election, The Sun published a headline that asked ‘If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights?’ John Major eventually won the election with a majority of twenty-four MPs. The Sun published a headline that asserted ‘It’s The Sun wot won it.’
Although Kinnock might not have won a general election, he won more seats and vanquished the Militant tendency. He had made an unelectable train wreck electable.
John Smith: 1992-1994

Kinnock was often pilloried by the media – he was often regarded as bumbling, incoherent and incompetent. Smith, who held a cabinet position under Callaghan, was more respected by the media. Although he was staunchly on the party’s right, he somewhat ironically came to embody ‘Old Labour.’
Britain fell out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism after the 1992 General Election and the Conservatives had also presided over a recession, so they were no longer trusted with economic management. They were also tearing themselves apart over Europe – the internecine battles within Major’s party meant that they looked weak, scattered and incompetent. Labour was now staunchly European and its own bloody internal battles seemed to be a thing of the past. As such, it was almost a certainty that John Smith would become prime minister.
Some of Smith’s policy initiatives were later implemented by Tony Blair, such as devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the minimum wage.
John Smith had already suffered one heart attack and he was to suffer another one in early 1994, which killed him. This triggered a leadership election and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who had already been plotting for a while, seized the moment.
Tony Blair: 1994-2007

Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson conceived New Labour. The idea was that Labour should embrace globalisation, which had created so much wealth and opportunities across the third world. However, they thought that the state should be also play a part in correcting market failure. Labour would embrace economics that ostensibly worked without dropping their commitment to social reform. Brown had first conceived the idea and had a detailed plan, so he wanted to become leader. However, Blair was considered more charismatic and prime ministerial, so it was agreed that he should be leader. The agreement would be that he would stand down after his second term, so that Brown could take over.
In a way that was reminiscent of the early 1960s, Blair, like Wilson, played up to his image of modernity, youth, novelty and popularity. The Conservatives again seemed old and fusty. Blair’s talk of ‘aspiration’ meant that Labour ate into the Conservative vote in the south of England, as well the upper middle-classes. There was very much a ‘spirit’ surrounding Labour at the time (although most of this, really, was ‘spin’), as there was in 1945. Most newspapers – from tabloids like The Sun to intellectual broadsheets like The Guardian – endorsed Labour. Labour won an unprecedented majority – a total of 420 seats. The majority was so large that several Labour MPs had to sit on the opposition benches.
One of the first measures that was introduced was Bank of England independence, which meant that the setting of interest rates would be devolved to the Bank of England as well as the printing of money. Brown argued that this would depoliticise these decisions and that the economy would benefit from it. In the past, Labour governments had inflated the economy by raising interest rates and printing money whereas the Conservatives had depressed it by doing the opposite. The British economy had been too ‘boom and bust.’ Now, the Bank of England would take these apolitical decisions in accordance with how the economic climate fared. The result was that the British economy enjoyed its longest economic boom in history as well as its lowest rate of inflation.
More controversially, Brown deregulated the banks from the oversight of the British central bank. This was certainly following the trend at the time – the more financial deregulation the merrier – but it would subsequently prove disastrous. Brown later said that he regretted doing it.
More radically, Brown imposed a ‘windfall tax’ on excessive profits earned by shareholders of privatised utility companies. He used these revenues to fund a ‘New Deal’ so as to help thousands of people from welfare payments to work. Unemployment, as such, was very low during this period.
Blair’s greatest achievement was perhaps the Good Friday Agreement. Of course, IRA terrorism had been a major problem since the 1970s. Blair read several documents carefully and co-ordinated talks between Northern Irish republican separatists and the unionists.
Foreign Secretary Robin Cooke promised to have an ‘ethical’ foreign policy which, in light of later events, proved ominous. However, Britain initially conducted successful interventions in Bosnia and Sierra Leon. This success clouded his own judgement and Blair would later become victim of his own hubris.
Labour also devolved constitutional powers to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. They would all now have their own parliaments and their own elected representatives.
Labour also finally introduced a minimum wage. This would finally protect workers from being exploited or underpaid in this regard. Union laws remained extremely strict, but Labour did protect workers through this legislation.
Brown also started a ‘Sure Start’ scheme that provided young children with financial assistance and to help them make the most of their opportunities. He later implemented tax credits whereby tax payers could apply to receive tax exemptions if they were struggling financially. Such measures reduced poverty considerably. As such, there was some redistribution of wealth in this regard, as lower income workers earned more and higher income workers paid more.
The 2001 General Election was basically a repeat of the 1997 landslide. The Conservatives had lurched to the right and were firmly anti-Europe and pro-austerity.
‘Tax and spend’ had been a phrase that had been derogatorily applied to Labour. After the experience of the 1992 election, Labour became extremely weary at the prospect of raising income taxes if it cost them a general election. As such, income tax was not raised. However, Brown pursued a ‘stealth tax’ and he raised considerable revenues. Eventually, he raised National Insurance in 2003. They also involved private companies to raise more funds for public services As such, Labour spent record amounts on hospitals, schools, the civil service and prisons. [] billion pounds was spent on the NHS in 2008.
There major tussles between Blair and Brown during this period. Blair wanted a more marketised NHS and several private contractors were introduced, which Brown was firmly against. Blair wanted Britain to join the Euro, which Brown thought would be imprudent (he was subsequently vindicated). Blair continued to push for more privatisation and deregulation in the economy whereas Brown was more cautions, claiming that regulations should be enforced when they needed to be enforced and that there was no need to deregulate for the sake of it. These issues made people question if there was anything remotely Labour about Tony Blair.
However, things would become toxic after 9/11. George Bush and his neo-conservative friends waged war on Afghanistan and declared a ‘war on terror.’ Blair was keen to preserve the special relationship with the USA, something that previous Labour governments had been considered weak on. For instance, Wilson decided not to send British troops to Vietnam.
British troops were sent to Afghanistan. However, several neo-con crackpots arbitrarily decided that somehow there was a connection between 9/11 and Iraq. Robin Cooke resigned in a dignified way as Foreign Secretary and was replaced with Jack Straw. Blair and the neo-cons speciously claimed that the country harboured weapons of mass destruction. Spin doctor Alistair Campbell produced a ‘dodgy dossier’ supporting these allegation. The US subsequently invaded Iraq. The invasion soon unleashed a sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Sunni Muslims who had supported Sadaam Hussein were removed from power and replaced with Shia Muslims. The bloody sectarian conflict continued for years. No evidence of weapons of mass destruction were found. The US and the UK started to loftily talk about nation building, a completely flawed idea. Iraq became a failed state. Because the US and the UK concentrated on Iraq, they diverted their attention from Afghanistan and foreign policy in that region became extremely confused.
Tony Blair still decided to stay on, as he was selfishly concerned about his legacy and did not want to bow out at this period in time. He had become increasingly autocratic and he used his unhealthy majority to justify this. Cabinet meetings were more presidential and there was little collective decision making, which had been the hallmark in previous Labour governments. Cabinet meetings concentrated more on ‘spin’ and targeting the media.
Labour won the 2005 General Election with a reduced majority of 66 seats, but they did so with the lowest share of the popular vote ever obtained by a party with a majority. Several Labour voters had defected to the Liberal Democrats, who had opposed the Iraq war. It was an unprecedented result, however, as Labour had never won a third term before.
Blair eventually resigned in 2007 and Brown finally took over. Although New Labour boasted some considerable achievements – they did a lot more for the poor and the disenfranchised than left-wingers would like to admit (I, for instance, benefited from Early Intervention support, which has subsequently been scrapped, and NHS treatment which had much more funds) – his legacy has been tarnished by Iraq. He has become a villain and a war criminal. His reputation has – justifiably – deteriorated year by year.
Gordon Brown: 2007-2010

The majority of the Labour party were happy when Brown took over because he wasn’t Tony Blair. It was considered inevitable that Brown would take over and it is all the more ironic that he did, as several ‘inevitable’ prime ministers, like Roy Jenkins and Dennis Healey, never reached those lofty heights. He had been the longest-serving chancellor in history, had presided over the longest boom in British economic history and he had a lot political clout. Brown initially wanted to put partisan interests aside and to rule ‘the nation’ and appointed people from the world of finance in his cabinet. He also invited Margaret Thatcher to 10 Downing Street – again, in an attempt to appear non-partisan and non-doctrinaire. Brown’s plan was to be a ‘national’ leader for a two or three years and to later implement an ambitious program of spending and stimulus in the economy.
Labour were well ahead in the polls at the time and many people assumed that Brown would call one to seek a mandate. He was caught planning one, which was the most partisan thing that he could do, so he decided against as it did not bode well with his talk of leading in the national interest.
However, financial crisis soon struck. Like 1929, it originated from Wall Street and made its way to the rest of the world. The lax regulation had meant that a ‘shadow banking’ system emerged, in which bankers invested in irresponsible ways. National Rock defaulted and Brown had no choice apart from nationalising it.
Brown co-ordinated with the Bank of England to bail out the banks, which would have otherwise defaulted (which is what the Conservatives wanted to happen). People’s savings were secure, but it meant that Brown had ratcheted up a deficit of []. Brown joined other world leaders to save the international banks and a stimulus package lift the global economy, as well printing currency to stave off depression. Paul Krugman claimed in a column that he had ‘saved the world.’
Brown wanted the British economy to grow for a few years and to later enforce spending cuts to bring the deficit down. However, David Cameron and George Osbourne claimed that the deficit had been the result of wasteful government spending (which was untrue). They claimed that Brown had been an irresponsible (which is ironic, as for years he was seen as having been prudent). The spin largely worked and David Cameron continued to score points against Brown at PMQs. By 2009, the Conservatives had a large lead in the polls.
Brown was also been ridiculed for his awkwardness and he was wholly unpopular by this point. His confrontational style meant that many figures had left his cabinet, which meant that he had to bring back his arch enemy Peter Mandelson. Talks of a coup had surfaced by 2007, but this died down because he proved to be the most qualified and accomplished politician able to rescue the world banks.
2010 surprisingly resulted in a hung parliament, with the Conservatives as the largest party. Brown tried to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, trying to convince Nick Clegg that 15 million people had voted for pro-growth progressive policies whereas only 10 million people voted for Tory austerity. However, Clegg noted that a Lab-Lib coalition would have only resulted in a majority of eleven MPs and he eventually decided to form one with Cameron.
Gordon Brown’s legacy was not good when he resigned as leader but, unlike Blair’s, it will improve. He saved the financial banks and the Tories’ toxic brand of austerity and anti-EU mania has subsequently proved disastrous and unpopular. He also spearheaded some of Labour’s proudest achievements as chancellor.
Ed Miliband: 2010-2015

David Miliband seemed destined to become leader of the Labour Party. He won the most votes from members of parliament, but in an ironic and tragic twist his more left-leaning brother threw his hat in the ring and won the leadership election, largely with trade union support.
Ed Miliband struggled to find direction as party leader. He changed tack every year and often spoke in abstruse and academic terms. He wanted to distance himself from New Labour, but he seemed to think that this meant that he did not have to defend their record in government. Cameron, Osbourne and Clegg hyperbolically and spuriously bashed their record, but Milliband never went out his way to say that Labour did not overspend.
The party started to lose its working-class base in the north, which defected to Ukip. Most urgently, it was losing its base in Scotland, which was defecting en masse to the Scottish Nationalist Party.
Labour had a lead in the polls throughout Miliband’s reign, but this was largely by default. Cameron had made billions of cuts and the economy was by and large stagnant.
By 2015, Labour had a ‘shopping list’ of policies, but no real narrative. As such, its pitch was incoherent. They wanted to freeze energy prices, control immigration and impose a mansion tax, but none of these things had a framing narrative or a philosophy about its vision for the country. Its more interventionist streak – like the price freeze – also jarred with Conservative spin about Labour’s economic mismanagement.
Another hung parliament seemed likely. The Conservatives exploited this by saying that this would mean that Labour would be controlled by the SNP, who wanted to break up the union and jettison Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Their campaign largely worked and they were returned with a majority of twelve MPs. Miliband resigned.
Jeremy Corbyn: 2015 -

Many people claimed that one major thing that could be salvaged about Miliband’s period as leader was that, unlike 1951, 1970 and 1979, Labour had not imploded and retreated into left-right sectarian battles. He had by and large achieved party unity. However, that fell to pieces when Jeremy Corbyn became leader.
Miliband introduced ‘one member, one vote,’ as several of his Blairite MPs were recalcitrant when the trade unions elected him. However, there was wide-scale entryism when Jeremy Corbyn was elected and he was elected with a whopping majority. (I had been toying with the idea of joining the Labour Party for a year, as I was intrigued with its history. I eventually did, but I never did anything about it and let it expire, as the whole Momentum/social movement thing put me off.)
Jeremy Corbyn had been a Bennite in the 1980s and had supported many trendy leftist causes, such as opposing NATO, Trident and the EU. He had shared platforms with Hamas. Many people thought that this was the road to electoral oblivion for the Labour Party. He was easily its most left-wing leader in its history.
Corbyn proved to be an incompetent leader of the opposition and there was constant in-fighting. By the time of the EU referendum, Corbyn campaigned half-heartedly and Brexit one. He had a long history of Euroscepticism and many people assumed that he was secretly happy about the outcome. When his own MPs launched a coup and another leadership election, they also cited the fact that he never put any time or effort into policy either.
Corbyn won another leadership campaign against another weak candidate. Corbyn and McDonnell spuriously cited that they were respecting ‘democracy,’ notwithstanding that Labour has always been a parliamentary party. Nine million people had voted for a Labour MP whereas only 600,000 members had voted in the leadership election.
The Conservatives were enjoying huge leads in the polls. By 2017, its new leader Theresa May called another General Election to seek a comfortable mandate for her Brexit negotiations. The Conservatives subsequently led a terrible campaign whereas Corbyn and Labour led a spirited campaign and manifesto. Young people also voted in record numbers. The nature of Brexit meant that Britain had returned to two-party politics, even though remaining in the European Union was not Labour’s official policy. It resulted in a hung parliament, with the Conservatives as the largest party.
Many people claim that Corbyn is a prime minister in waiting, but he is still a sloppy opposition leader. He has cemented his grip on power, but his party remains hopelessly divided over Europe and the economy.