Experts evaluate British Labour Party Leaders at the University of East Anglia

Who was the most successful Labour party leader of all time? And who was the worst? If we were to just count general election victories Harold Wilson comes top with four victories. But does this tell the whole story?  Are general election results really a fair test of a leader’s success?

The University of East Anglia, Queen Mary University of London and the PSA Political Leadership group hosted an event to address these questions on June 28th. Leading biographers and experts on each of the Labour party leaders.

Dr. Toby James introduces a framework for evaluating leaders
Dr. Toby James introduces a framework for evaluating leaders

To kick-off the discussion Toby James gave an introductory talk setting out a framework for evaluating leaders based on academic work recently published in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations. This suggests that we can assess leaders by looking at how successful they were in achieving statecraft:  winning office, or moving their party towards the goal of winning of office during their tenure. It also suggests that it is helpful to think about five key tasks that leaders need to achieve to win elections: developing a winning electoral strategy, a sense of governing competence among the electorate, party management, winning the battle of ideas on key policy issues and constitutional management.

Charles Clarke explains the results of his leadership 'league table'.
Charles Clarke explains the results of his leadership ‘league table’.

Rt. Hon Charles Clarke presented a simple statistical analysis of general election performance of the Labour leaders since Keir Hardie in the form of a ‘league table’.  According to the league table Clement Attlee comes top.   Labour  benefited from a net gain of 225 seats and a 12.9 percentage point vote share with Attlee at the helm.  Arthur Henderson came bottom, assuming that he is responsible for the 1931 general election result.  A further ‘league table’of the Conservative leaders put David Cameron top.

Charles Clarke said: “Leadership is instrumental for all political parties and is an important contribution to their collective success or failure.

“The league table compares the relative success of both Labour and Conservative leaders in relation to parliamentary seats and share of the vote won or lost at general elections.

“This conference analysed their performances by reference to impartial academic analysis.”

The author of the biography of each Labour Leader to have fought a general election presented their analysis, with each leader in mind.

Steve Richards, John Rentoul and Martin Westlake discuss Brown, Blair and Kinnock.
Steve Richards, John Rentoul and Martin Westlake discuss Brown, Blair and Kinnock.

In the first session Steve Richards argued that it was not true that Gordon Brown had no plan for being in office, as many have argued.  Instead, Richards argued that Brown had a good plan for a year until an election in 2008, but lost his way in 2007.  John Rentoul carefully argued that Tony Blair ‘was the finest peacetime PM of the democratic age’.   Martin Westlake defended the leadership of Neil Kinnock and the electoral progress that the party made under his leadership.

Baroness Patricia Hollis chaired some of the sessions and provided the closing remarks for the day.

  • Watch Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds pre-recorded talk on Clement Attlee here.

A second event will be held on Conservative leaders later on in the year.

A selection of tweets are below.  The full list of speakers list were:

The Speakers



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