Alan Watkins: Labour's gift for picking the wrong leader

With many promising politicians to choose from, the best one is passed over – and that was 1976. But history repeats itself...
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In the course of his somewhat degrading interview last week, Gordon Brown made several false claims. One of them was that he did not stand against Tony Blair in order to avoid the "bitterness" of the unnecessary contest in the party.

Perhaps it is not entirely Mr Brown's fault. It has become part of accepted wisdom that Mr Blair was elected unopposed as leader after the death of John Smith. Respected writers quote it as an established truth in their published work and go happily uncontradicted.

In fact, the Labour Party held a perfectly respectable election for leader on 21 July 1994. The candidates were Mr Blair, John Prescott and Margaret Beckett. Mr Blair was first, Mr Prescott second and mrs Beckett third. Mr Blair won an absolute majority in all three sections of the electoral college, but none of the candidates was humiliated. The contest was short and reasonably good-tempered, as these things go.

If Mr Brown had stood, there might have been only two candidates, Mr Blair and Mr Brown, rather than the three who originally stood. It might have been four or more. Mr Blair would probably have won in any case.

Labour has a long history of conducting elections without bringing about lasting harm: bad temper, certainly, bitterness, perhaps, but having elections was supposed to be what the party was about. When Anthony Eden was supplanted by Harold Macmillan in 1957, the Parliamentary Labour Party submitted a formal statement – to whom the statement was directed was not clear – of what the party would do in equivalent circumstances.

The Queen had been forced to choose Mr Macmillan as Prime Minister, just as she had been forced to choose Alec Douglas-Home in 1963. In 1957, the party decided there would have to be an election among Labour MPs to choose the prime minister, if similar circumstances arose.

In 1976, Harold Wilson unexpectedly resigned. People still write that his resignation was "mysterious". The course of events has been explained fully by Joe Haines, by Lady Falkender, and, piecing several accounts together, by myself. The point was: Harold was off. What to do? The party behaved with the utmost composure, under the admirable chairmanship of Cledwyn Hughes.

What was surprising was not the competence of the Labour Party, as it was then constituted, but the way the country accepted that it was having a prime minister foisted on its back. True, other recent prime ministers had been imposed too – Home, Macmillan, even Winston Churchill in 1940. They were somehow different; all Tories.

In 1976, the Labour Party chose James Callaghan as Prime Minister. In 1990, the Conservatives chose John Major. There has been no one chosen since in the same way. Maybe the era of Westminster democracy is at an end.

Mr Brown in 2007 is a false precedent, for the first person who refused to sign his nomination papers on that occasion would have been taken off to be shot, as used to happen in the old Soviet Republic. Mr Brown has a long history of avoiding elections when he himself is involved. He avoided one in 1994, in 2007, and on the several occasions when his colleagues have refused to challenge him. Mr Brown looks likely to go down in history as the only Labour politician never to fight an election when

his own position was in question.

Later on, we can have a look at the candidates who may want to succeed Mr Brown. But first of all we should remember the politicians who tried to follow Wilson.

Top of the poll, in the first ballot, was Michael Foot. He was popular, he had helped Wilson with his trade union legislation and he was the best speaker in the House of Commons. Mr Callaghan was the runner-up. He had been Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, without serving with any marked distinction in any of those supposedly great offices of state. But he was a substantial figure in the party and, in a small way of business, the country as well.

In third place was Roy Jenkins. For some reason, his figures were disappointing, both to his followers and to himself. But the anti-European tide was flowing strongly, and the party had never taken him to their hearts. Still less had they accepted the party's leading – indeed, only – theoretician, Anthony Crosland. He loved the party, but came bottom of the poll. One above him was Denis Healey, who suffered from being too similar to Callaghan.

Above both, in fourth position, was Tony Benn, in the course of ascending to the position he was to attain in Labour politics in the early 1980s. Crosland and I once had a trivial (his word) discussion about the best all-round politician of that time. He awarded marks for: speaking in the House, on television, or at meetings; writing books or articles; running a department; and so forth. Crosland marked himself somewhere in the middle, but Tony Benn easily came top. He remains Labour's Lost Leader.

The people I have listed were all members of Wilson's cabinet of 1974-1976. If they were all so good – as I thought at the time, and, up to a point, still think – why was the government of which they were all members so bad? Why did they go scuttling off to the IMF only months later? No doubt there are sensible answers to these questions.

I forgot to mention that, in the end, it was Mr Callaghan who was actually chosen. As Prime Minister, he was fully equal to the part in its ceremonial aspects; more so that Mr Brown is. But what of Mr Brown's successors?

In periods of opposition, the Labour Party tends to move to the left after a period of Labour in power, marked by cries of treachery and betrayal. This happened in 1951, when the followers of Aneurin Bevan fought the party leaders. It happened in 1970, when Wilson was despised but was, surprisingly, returned to office four years later. And it happened in 1979, when the reaction to Margaret Thatcher caused Labour to go mad for several years.

It was the combined influence of two of the candidates of 1976 – Benn, with his changes to the party, and Jenkins, with his formation of the SDP, that split the opposition to the Tories – that put Labour out of office for three elections.

Harriet Harman and Jon Cruddas, seem to be rivals about who is to be the leader of the left. I write "seem to" because they have become overtaken by the most exquisite politeness. "After you, John." "No, after you..." I think it is simply "Harriet", but my colleagues in the sketch-writing trade have taken to inventing all kinds of fancy abbreviated names for her.

Ed Balls is now in the course of transforming himself into a man of the left. Alan Johnson still retains his workers' credentials, although he has fallen back lately. So has David Miliband, who used to possess a different selling-point.

It should not be forgotten that, when Mr Brown goes, it will be Ms Harman who is leader of the party while the preliminaries are completed, And, until the election takes place, it will not be as acting leader but as leader. People should remember that.