Saturday, 8 May 2021

Only three Labour leaders have won general elections


Britain (aka England) is predominantly a Conservative country. That may be hard to swallow for those of us who are left leaning, but I am not expressing an opinion. 

I am stating a fact.

Since 1900 – when Labour was formed – the party has only won eight out of 32 general elections.  

In the 121 years since the turn of the last century, only three Labour leaders have won general elections. 

During the same period, 10 Conservative leaders have won general elections. 

The Tory party has been the dominant party in power for over a century.

Labour governments have represented rare interludes punctuating what have been solid periods of Tory rule. 
The Tories are Teflon coated. They instinctively know how to cling onto power regardless of scandalous, corrupt and sleazy behaviour that has blighted so many of their administrations. 
Vital lessons must be taken on board by Labour and its supporters if the party is to wrest power from entrenched Conservative rule. 

For one, it needs to be accepted that - in the absence of an alliance of anti-Tory parties - Labour cannot win without the support of Tory voters. 

Mathematically, there simply aren’t enough traditional Labour voters in the country for the party to gain office with their support alone. 

It’s pretty much the same with the Conservatives. Boris Johnson could not have won the 2019 general election without votes from Labour supporters.

What does this tell us? 

It tells us that Labour has to create policies that win support from far beyond their own core. 

It doesn’t mean that radical policies can’t work. They can. 


Although there have been six Labour Prime Ministers since the party was formed in 1900, only three of them won general elections. 

Labour’s first Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, led minority Labour governments for nine months in 1924 and again between 1929 and 1931, but he never actually won a general election for the party. 

James Callaghan was Labour Prime Minister from 1976 to 1979, and Gordon Brown Labour Prime Minister from 2007 to 2010, but neither won a general election.

They became Prime Minister only after their predecessors – Harold Wilson and Tony Blair respectively – resigned. They then failed to win the subsequent general elections. 

▪ CLEMENT ATTLEE was Labour’s first leader to win a majority in a general election, in the party’s massive landslide victory of 1945. 

Attlee’s radical and ambitious plans to rebuild a broken Britain after the Second World War strongly appealed to the electorate.

His achievements included the creation of the modern welfare state and the National Health Service, nationalisation of coal mining, steel industries, the railways, the Bank of England, civil aviation, electricity and gas, and the building of a million new homes, most of them council houses for low-income families. 

Labour’s radical reforms of the late 1940s are considered to be the party’s most successful, shaping Britain for the decades that followed. 

Without Labour’s victory in 1945, it’s unlikely that Britain would ever have got its NHS.

But in the general election of 1950, Attlee’s Labour party only just won, with its majority dramatically slashed from 145 seats to five.  

This led to the return of the Tories under Winston Churchill in a snap general election a year later, followed by 13-years of Tory rule.

▪ HAROLD WILSON won three general elections for Labour, in 1964, 1966 and 1974. 

His radical plans included abolishing capital punishment, decriminalising homosexuality, relaxing divorce laws, liberalising abortion law and ending theatre censorship. 

He was also responsible for the UK’s first ever referendum, in 1975, on whether the UK should remain a member of the European Community. 

He refused to commit British troops to the war in Vietnam. He also promoted with passion his commitment to “the white heat of technology”, asserting that scientific progress was the key to economic and social advancement.

He was regarded as a member of Labour’s ‘soft left’. 

▪ TONY BLAIR won three consecutive general elections with big majorities, in 1997, 2001 and 2005, making him Labour’s longest serving Prime Minister (for ten years). 

Regarded as being on the right of the party, he won power with what were considered quite radical policies at the time under the banner of ‘New Labour’. 

These included the establishment of a national minimum wage, civil partnerships for gay people, an independent police complaints commission, devolved governments for Scotland and Wales, a big expansion in higher and further education and cutting NHS waiting lists.

He also introduced the Freedom of Information Act and the Human Rights Act, enabling citizens to have alleged abuses of human rights heard in British courts. 


Tories have had the upper hand in British politics for many generations, with the rock-solid support of a predominantly Tory press, and an electoral system that favours Conservatives.

But Labour has to win despite that, and not lose because of it.

History shows us that radical Labour policies can appeal to the nation and win.

But they need to be compellingly presented and combined with middle-of-the-road polices that will attract a broad spectrum of voters. 

Most importantly, to break the mould of immutable year-to-year Tory rule, Labour leaders must be confident, consistent, and doggedly determined, presenting exceptionally clear and exciting policies with panache and passion. 

Labour hasn’t got that right now. 

Who knows what are Labour’s current policies? Let alone policies that are exceptionally clear and exciting? 

And in what way is the current Labour leader confident, consistent, and doggedly determined, let alone with panache and passion? 

  • I am not saying this is how politics should be. Far from it.

  • I am not saying that I don’t support radical left-of-centre policies that would seem normal in Scandinavian countries. Far from it.

  • I am not saying that personalities that aren’t larger-than-life can’t make good leaders. Far from it. 

What I am saying is that to break predominantly Tory rule, Labour has to appeal to Tory voters. 

That means their policies cannot be so radical as to scare them away, but also, they cannot be so mild and wishy-washy as to demean Labour’s core mission to achieve social reforms.

Successive Labour leaders can ignore that, but it means they stay in Opposition.

Other articles by Jon Danzig:
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