A brief history of Labour Party leadership

Sunday 26 September 2010 00:00

James Keir Hardie

17 January 1906 – 22 January 1908

The father of the Labour party, Keir Hardie had the sort of true working class roots that the Miliboys and their New Labour forebears could only dream of. Born in Lanarkshire, he was the son of a servant, Mary Keir and a carpenter David Hardie. He never went to school and began work as a messenger boy when he was seven years old; by 11 he was working in a coal mine. He rose through the Scottish unions before forming the Independent Labour Party that he was elected to lead in 1899. After becoming MP for Merthyr Tydfil in 1900 (then one of only two Labour MPs in parliament) he became leader of the party in the House of Commons six years later. An advocate for the subjects others chose to ignore, he championed women's suffrage, free schooling, the anti-apartheid movement and Indian self-rule.

Arthur Henderson

22 February 1908 – 14 February 1910, 5 August 1914 – 24 October 1917, 1 September 1931 – 25 October 1932

With three (albeit brief) stretches as leader, Henderson wins the prize for persistence. Unfortunately his repeated attempts never resulted in leading the country, though he was the first Labour cabinet minister, serving as President of the Board of Education under Herbert Henry Asquith’s coalition government. He was also a member of the War Cabinet during the First World War. Henderson spent his later career trying to prevent the arrival of the Second World War, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1934 for his work chairing the Geneva Disarmament Conference. The son of a Glaswegian textile worker, he grew up in Newcastle, where he worked in a locomotive factory from the age of 12 and later became involved in the unions.

George Nicoll Barnes

14 February 1910 – 6 February 1911

He ran the party for one of its less remarkable years, but Barnes went on to be a stalwart of David Lloyd George’s government, first as Minister of Pensions and then as Minister without Portfolio. He was later expelled from the party after refusing to resign when Labour left Lloyd George’s coalition in 1918. Born in Lochee, Dundee, where his father managed a jute mill that Barnes began working at when he was just 11. He later settled in Middlesex.

James Ramsay MacDonald

6 February 1911 – 5 August 1914, 21 November 1922 – 1 September 1931, Prime Minister 1924; 1928 - 1935

After leading the party for three years, Macdonald resigned due to his opposition to the First World War. It was nearly a decade before he took up the reigns again, this time bringing Labour to their first victory and becoming Britain’s first ever Labour Prime Minister in 1924. His reign did not last long; within a year ‘red scares’ whipped up by the press and opposition parties put power back in the hands of the Conservatives. The defeat was disappointing but he proved Labour were credible for government and in 1929 he was once again Prime Minister. His luck did not improve though – the party presided over worldwide economic recession, causing cuts in public expenditure and a split in the cabinet. By August 1931 he offered his resignation, but was told by King George V to make a coalition National Government with help from the Conservatives and Liberals. He limped on as Prime Minister, but not as leader of Labour, who had been decimated in the ballot box making him wildly unpopular. His health was so besieged by the angry criticism of his pacifist dealings with Hitler and betrayal of the Labour party that he resigned in 1935 and died just two years later.

William Adamson

24 October 1917 - 14 February 1921

Seen as a mediocre leader by his peers, Adamson watched over the party at a time when some of its biggest players lost their parliamentary seats. He came to prominence in the party after rising through the ranks of the National Union of Miners, which he joined after leaving school at 11 to follow his father into the Fife coalmines.

John Robert Clynes

14 February 1921 – 21 November 1922

The son of an Irish gravedigger, Clynes was brought up in Lancashire where he began work in the cotton mills aged just ten. With his small wages he bought a dictionary and evening lessons, teaching himself to write and contributing to socialist newspapers. He led the party for just a year, before being replaced by Macdonald. Fellow Labour MP, David Kirkwood, said: “Nature had dealt unevenly with them. She had endowed MacDonald with a magnificent presence, a full resonant voice, and a splendid dignity. Clynes was small, unassuming, of uneven features, and voice without colour.”

George Lansbury

25 October 1932 – 8 October 1935

East Ender Lansbury started in politics as a Liberal, but left the party over their unwillingness to campaign for a shorter working week. As Labour MP for Bow and Bromley from 1910, he campaigned vociferously for women’s suffrage, so much so he stood down and fought a by-election on the issue in 1912 and lost his seat. He was later sent to Pentonville prison for speaking in favour of suffragettes who engaged in illegal activities. He left politics for a decade to concentrate on journalism, establishing and editing the Daily Herald. He returned as a Labour MP in 1921 and was one of just 46 Labour MPs to keep their seat after the collapse of Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour cabinet in 1931. He soon became leader of the opposition, dedicating his time to trying to prevent the onset of the Second World War. He died a disillusioned man in 1940.

Clement Attlee

8 October 1935 – 14 December 1955, Prime Minister 26 July 1945 – 26 October 1951

After becoming the first person to hold the post of deputy Prime Minister under Winston Churchill’s coalition government, Attlee then brought Labour to a landslide victory after the end of the war in 1945. Arguably the first successful Labour Prime Minister, he was the first to survive a full Parliamentary term and the first to command a Labour majority in Parliament. Under his guidance the government put in place a radical series of measures to bring greater equality to society, including the nationalisation of major industries and public services and the creation of the National Health Service. His government also oversaw the decolonisation of much of the British Empire, including India, Pakistan, Burma, Sri Lanka and Jordan. Unlike previous Labour leaders, Attlee’s roots were distinctly middle class – he was born in Putney to a solicitor father, and was educated at private school and Oxford.

Hugh Gaitskell

14 December 1955 – 18 January 1963

Like Attlee, Gaitskell went to private school and Oxford, rather than rising up through the unions. He became MP for Leeds South in Labour’s landslide victory in 1945, soon entering the cabinet, first as Minister of Fuel and Power in 1947 and later as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1950. When Attlee retired as leader, Gaitskell beat the left-wing Aneurin Bevan, causing a split in the party of the left and right. His time as leader was one of the weakest for Labour as the Conservatives presided over an economically prosperous Britain. After losing the 1959 election, he blamed the left and was one of the first to argue for the removal of Labour’s contentious Clause IV, which committed them to nationalised industry. He continued to lead the party until his death from a sudden flare up of lupus.

Harold Wilson

Leader: February 14, 1963 to April 5, 1976, Prime Minister October 16, 1964 – June 19, 1970; March 4, 1974 – April 5, 1976

Won a record four general elections for Labour. Elected leader as the candidate of the left, Wilson benefited from the collapse of the Tory government typified by the Profumo affair. Within 18 months he was in Number 10, but with a Commons majority of just four seats. His government struggled on until a second election in March 1966, winning by a healthier margin of 96. The following year Wilson was forced into devaluation. Other achievements live on, including founding the Open University, liberalising laws governing homosexuality and ending capital punishment. After losing the 1970 general election to Ted Health’s Tories, Wilson stayed on as leader and returned to power in 1974 heading a minority government. A second election in October gave Labour a majority of four, just as Britain was to be buffeted by an international recession. In March 1976, Wilson suddenly quit, claiming to have lost interest in politics. The onset of Alzheimer’s disease meant he rarely appeared in public after 1985 and died in 1995.

James Callaghan

Leader: April 5, 1976 to 3 November 1980, Prime Minister April 5, 1976 to May 4, 1979

Sunny Jim took over from Wilson after his surprise decision to quit Number 10, and was soon plunged into one of the most turbulent periods Labour has faced in power. After a sterling crisis, the former Foreign Secretary was forced to go cap in hand to the IMF, and amid growing demands for cuts and pay restraint – sound familiar? – Labour conference demanded more spending. Labour’s Commons majority evaporated in 1977, leading to the pact with the Liberals which later failed. Waves of strike action during the Winter of Discontent brought the country to its knees, creating the scenes of rubbish in the streets and the dead unburied which haunted Labour for almost two decades. When the government lost a confidence vote, Callaghan was forced to call a general election and was roundly beaten by Margaret Thatcher. He clung on as leader for 18 months, leaving the Commons in 1987 before becoming a life peer. He died in 2005, on the day before his 93rd birthday.

Michael Foot

Leader: 3 November 1980 to 2 October 1983

Within weeks of taking over as leader – beating Denis Healey - Foot was presented with a major political crisis with the breakaway of the ‘Gang of Four’ Labour MPs to create the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Despite impressing during the Falklands War, crisis and criticism was never far away. The lifelong Plymouth Argyle fan was never allowed to forget his choice of a duffel coat – dubbed a Donkey Jacket – for the wreath laying at the Cenotaph. And when the country went to the polls in 1983, his election manifesto – branded the longest suicide note in history – sent Labour to its worst post-war defeat, losing more than a fifth of its seats. Foot died on March 3 this year, aged 96.

Neil Kinnock

Leader: October 2, 1983 to July 18, 1992

While later seen as a figure of ridicule, and lampooned by Spitting Image and the tabloid press, Kinnock set in motion the modernisation programme and move away from the hard left which would eventually see Labour returned to power under Tony Blair. He dropped the socialist red flag for a red rose but was dogged by a struggle against the Militant wing of the party. He stayed on after losing the 1987 election to a resurgent Tory party, and saw off a leadership challenge for left-wing stalwart Tony Benn. In the 1992 election, Labour were ahead of the polls when Kinnock fronted the infamous Sheffield rally declaring “we’re alright!” – It was later seen as a turning point in suggesting he was taking victory for granted and The Sun’s polling day front page declared: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.” The Tories won a narrow 21 seat majority. Kinnock stood aside as leader later that summer, and went on to become an EU Commissioner before joining the House of Lords in 2005.

John Smith

Leader: July 18, 1992 to May 12, 1994

Despite having his shadow budget – including a hike in income tax – blamed for Labour’s surprise defeat to John Major in 1992, Smith was seen as the most likely next leader – and Prime Minister. The sterling crisis and Britain’s exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism became a gift to Smith, lambasting Major as “the devalued Prime Minister of a devalued Government”. His witty attacks on the Tories – claiming the chaos was more like Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em than Yes Minister – made him a popular figure, while he reformed his party including ending the trade union block vote at his party’s conferences in favour of the one member one vote system. He also committed his party to creating a Scottish Parliament, something he did not live to see. He died on May 12, 1994 from a heart attack.

Tony Blair

Leader: July 21, 1994 to June 24, 2007, Prime Minister May 2, 1997 to June 24, 2007

Acting leader Margaret Beckett was defeated in the leadership contest, in which Gordon Brown agreed to stand aside to give Blair a free run. In the three years before the general election he completed the transformation into New Labour, best symbolised by the rewriting of the party’s Clause 4. A charismatic foil to Major’s grey politics, Blair exploited the Tories’ demise. Three election victories followed, a first for the Labour party, though the Iraq war eventually overshadowed everything, including notable successes in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and investment in public services. Branded a war criminal by some and the greatest leader Labour ever had by others, since leaving office – and Parliament – Blair has enjoyed a jet-set lifestyle beyond even Prime Ministers, as a Middle East envoy, business advisor and memoirist.

Gordon Brown

Leader: June 24, 2007 to May 11, 2010, Prime Minister June 24, 2007 to May 11, 2010

The Iron Chancellor ran a leadership campaign despite being the only candidate. After hankering after the job for more than a decade, he enjoyed a Brown Bounce in polls, buoyed by strong responses to events including the terrorists targeting Glasgow and London, severe flooding and foot and mouth. But the decision not to call a snap election in the autumn led to claims he had “bottled” it, and never recovered. Vince Cable noted his transformation from “Stalin to Mr Bean”. The abolition of the 10p tax rate highlighted his stubbornness and alienated core support. The global economic crisis and later recession came to dominate his premiership, first bolstering his reputation but subsequently held back by a refusal to accept the need for spending cuts. However, the Tory opinion poll lead of 20 points in the months before the election was whittled down to barely seven, and a hung parliament. In the days after the election he announced he would quit as Labour leader in the hope of rescuing a deal between his party and Labour, before leaving Number 10 for the last time the next day to a collective “ahh” from the press pack and the nation, hand-in-hand with his young sons.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in