Lessons from the past for the losing Miliband

Defeated leadership candidates either take it on the chin – or to heart. Ben Chu offers a guide for today's runner-up
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Indy Politics

John Prescott (defeated by Tony Blair in 1994)

The former merchant navy steward and trade union official came trailing in well behind Tony Blair in the leadership election held after the death of John Smith.

But Prescott was never a serious candidate. The only viable challenger to Blair would have been Gordon Brown, who decided not to run. Prescott was elected deputy leader and in 1997 was given a vast department that embraced transport, the environment, local government and housing. He punched a protester who threw an egg at him in the 2001 general election, had an affair with his secretary, and was photographed playing croquet at Dorneywood in 2006, compromising his man of the people image.

What might have been if Prescott had prevailed in 1994? If anyone was capable of snatching Labour defeat from the jaws of victory in 1997, it was surely him.

William Whitelaw (defeated by Margaret Thatcher in 1975)

Tory grandee and former Northern Ireland minister, Whitelaw had been loyal to Edward Heath and only stood in the 1975 leadership ballot after Margaret Thatcher unexpectedly beat Heath in the first round. He was crushed by Thatcher in the second round. Whitelaw went on to serve her as loyally as he had served her predecessor. Thatcher was so grateful for his support, both as Home Secretary and then as leader in the Lords, that she remarked: "Every Prime Minister needs a Willie". What if Whitelaw had won in 1975? It is possible that there would have been no Thatcherite revolution, although some sort of confrontation with the trade unions was probably inevitable. It has also been suggested that the Thatcher government became more extreme after he left her side in 1987 (after suffering a stroke).

Aneurin Bevan (defeated by Hugh Gaitskell in 1955)

The son of a Welsh miner who went down the pits himself aged 13 and rose up through the South Wales Miners' Federation. Bevan was Clement Attlee's Health Secretary in 1945, and the driving political force behind the establishment of the National Health Service. He resigned from the Government in 1951 over the introduction of prescription charges, which he felt breached the principle of health services being free at the point of use. Bevan was defeated by Hugh Gaitskell, the former Labour Chancellor in the leadership election that followed Attlee's resignation. After this defeat, Bevan went into internal opposition as leader of what became known as the "Bevanite left". If Bevan had become leader there might have been less "Butskellism" - the left-right economic consensus for managing the economy, named after the Conservative Chancellor Rab Butler and the centrist Gaitskell. He rejected unilateral nuclear disarmament at the 1957 Labour Party conference, saying that giving up nuclear weapons "would send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference chamber".

Denis Healey (defeated by Michael Foot in 1980)

An erudite Labour right-winger and former Chancellor, Healey was the favoured candidate of outgoing Labour leader, James Callaghan. But Labour MPs instead lurched left and elected Michael Foot by a narrow margin. Healey became deputy leader and successfully saw off a challenge for that position from the hardline left-winger Tony Benn in 1981. But Healey was marginalised and eventually stood down as deputy leader following the 1983 election defeat. Healey is often spoken of as one of the best leaders Labour never had. If he had won the leadership in 1980 there might have been no "suicide note" Labour election manifesto in 1983. But such were the left-right divisions in the Labour party during that era, that even Healey might have been unable to prevent a crisis.

George Brown (defeated by Harold Wilson in 1963)

A former trade union organiser and popular figure on the right of the party, Brown stood for a continuation of centrist economic policies after the death of Hugh Gaitskell in 1963. But he was beaten by Harold Wilson, who put Brown in charge of the new Department for Economic Affairs, intended to be a counterweight to the mighty Treasury, after Labour won the 1964 general election. Wilson's background was on the left of the party, but Labour did not take a left turn under his leadership. Wilson's great achievement was keeping his divided party together. Brown – or anyone else for that matter – would have found that an impossible job. And Brown's alcoholism and erratic behaviour would probably have made his reign much shorter than that of the man who beat him.

Enoch Powell (defeated by Ted Heath in 1964)

Brilliant scholar-politician from the Midlands. The former classics professor came a distant third in the 1964 leadership election. And he went on to have an extraordinary influence on public life.

He was appointed shadow defence secretary, but was sacked in 1968 when he delivered his anti-immigration "rivers of blood" speech. Powell"s visceral opposition to the Common Market at a time when his party was in favour of the European Economic Community also created tensions.

He left in 1974, advising voters to support anti-European Labour candidates in the general election. Powell's admirers claim his Euroscepticism was ahead of its time. They also point to his early advocacy of monetarism to present him as a proto-Thatcherite.

Michael Heseltine (defeated by John Major in 1990)

Heseltine resigned from Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet in 1986, and his leadership challenge in 1990 prompted her fall. But Heseltine was ultimately defeated by John Major in the second round of the vote. A flamboyant entrepreneur and stirring speaker, Heseltine might have won more support in the country than Major. But he would probably not have not avoided the 1992 European Exchange Rate Mechanism debacle, which destroyed the Tory reputation for economic competence. And Tory splits on Europe would have been just as damaging with this pro-European in charge.

Kenneth Clarke (defeated by William Hague in 1997)

Experienced and personable, Clarke is another dogged pro-European Tory. To make himself more acceptable to the eurosceptic Tory right, he teamed up with John Redwood in the 1997 Conservative leadership election, but to no avail. Conservative MPs chose William Hague (who was endorsed by Margaret Thatcher) and veered off to the right. Clarke's popular appeal and pragmatism might have spared the Tories 13 years of opposition, but it is likely that the party would still have been split over Europe. Clarke aimed twice more for the Tory leadership: in 2001, when he was defeated by the right-wing Iain Duncan Smith, and in 2005, when he lost out to David Cameron. He is now Justice Secretary in the Coalition and has challenged the traditional Conservative policy of locking up ever more criminals.