Labour’s leaders sustained more by loyalty than support

June 11, 2009

Mark Wickham-JonesMark Wickham-Jones is an expert on the history of Labour over the last twenty-five years. His particular area of interest is the evolution of the party’s policy commitments since 1983, the changes to its organisational structure and the nature of its electoral outlook. The opinions expressed are his own.-

Labour’s failure to get rid of Gordon Brown is indicative of one of the taboos governing the politics of the party. This week’s decision to stick with Brown does not reflect the preferences of Labour MPs, most of whom clearly regard the prime minister as a massive electoral liability.

Far from it, the outcome is indicative of the extent to which choices within the Labour Party are determined by traditions, norms, and established practices, ones that are made regardless of what might be desirable in the prevailing circumstances.

Throughout its hundred year history, Labour has demonstrated an overwhelming loyalty to whoever has held the post of party leader, no matter how unpopular the incumbent might be either among members or voters. Such unswerving devotion is an indication of how Labour is governed by informal traditions as opposed to the formal procedures laid out in its complex rulebook.

It represents an example of what the late Henry Drucker termed Labour’s ethos: the idea that Labour politics have been dominated by established practices rather than by more rational calculations or efficient decisions.

The Conservatives, by contrast, have been far more ruthless in their attitude to the leader. Incumbents, no longer serving the best interests of the party, have been unceremoniously ejected from the post. In the Labour party, the notion that a sitting leader might actually be removed against his or her will, has been utterly taboo.

Only in the 1920s did Labour appoint a leader in the sense the term is conventionally used. Even then, the post still included the title of chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party as well as leader and only in the late 1970s did the party formally have a leader at all.

If Margaret Beckett’s brief interregnum following John Smith’s death is included, Gordon Brown is Labour’s thirteenth leader. Only once – George Lansbury in 1935 – has a sitting Labour leader stood down abruptly under pressure to go. Like Gordon Brown, Lansbury had initially been elected to the job without a contest, succeeding Arthur Henderson when the latter lost his parliamentary seat in the debacle of the 1931 general election and was unable to find a constituency thereafter.

The sole member of the Cabinet to survive that eletoral rout, Lansbury found himself in the post by default. A veteran left-winger and profound pacifist, he was spectacularly ill-suited to the post of leading a political party competing for office and making the necessary compromises. His removal was result of the machinations neither of the leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party nor of its backbench members.

Indeed, Labour MPs tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to stay when he finally went following a withering assault by Ernest Bevin, then leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union at the party’s 1935 conference.

Labour has been remarkably indulgent of its leaders’ failures. Clement Attlee lost seats at three general elections in a row before finally retiring. Hugh Gaitskell in 1959 and Neil Kinnock in 1987 suffered landslide defeats at the polls. Both continued in office. To be sure, both were challenged subsequently. But until the 1980s, the Labour rulebook made such challenges easy to organise: the leader was re-elected annually and any contender needed few nominations.

Neither of the challenges to Gaitskell (in 1960 and 1961) nor that to Kinnock (in 1988) came close to unseating the leader. Indeed, the incumbent won crushing victories as many of those participating took the opportunity to demonstrate their overpowering and quite likely unthinking support for the existing leadership. Such occasions were much more about raising policy issues and stirring up debate than serious attempts to force a change at the top.

The most obvious example of the loyalty and deference that Labour tradition demands be extended to the leader is Michael Foot, incumbent in the post for nearly three years between 1980 and 1983. Like Lansbury, a veteran of left-wing causes including unilateralism, few saw Foot as a potential prime minister. Elected during the civil war that had engulfed Labour, he attempted to hold the party together with limited success as his authority steadily diminished.

As the party suffered disastrous by-election results, Foot’s opinion poll rating fell steadily such that a mere 15 per cent of voters thought he was doing a good job. Yet, extraordinarily the party took no steps to replace him with a more credible figure though there was some public debate about the possibility. At around the same time, the Australian Labour party replaced its leader with Bob Hawke, reaping immediate electoral success. The British party could not contemplate such a move.

Tony Blair, too, benefited from the respect that Labour offers to its leaders as of right. As his premiership continued and as the euphoria of the 1997 general election landslide wore off so his ratings fell while his policy initiatives at home and abroad generated massive discontent within the party.

Despite such clear dissatisfaction within Labour concerning his leadership at critical junctures after 2001, no significant plots to unseat him ever materialised. Far from it, those who desperately wanted to remove him from the party leadership, including his greatest rival, Gordon Brown, found themselves inhibited by the informal practices of the party. So constrained, in fact that no one proved able to wield the fatal blow.

Consider by contrast the Conservative party: Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher were successively removed as leader following challenges (something that has never happened in Labour). In 1995 John Major faced a contest that was not easily brushed aside. More recently the tenure of the party leadership has proved a short-lived affair for William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard.

Brown’s survival in the extraordinary circumstances of the last week does not signify a genuine degree of support amongst MPs: it represents the importance of tradition within the Labour party. To be sure since 1994 New Labour has recast the party in dramatic terms with regard to programmatic commitments and ideological outlook. In terms of changing the norms that determine behaviour towards the party leadership, it appears to have had no impact at all.

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The Leader is irrelevant, comrade.

It is the PROJECT that matters, only the project. And despite the shambles of the past few weeks, the project is on track.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive