Labour leadership elections through the years

The Labour party’s leadership contest comes to a close this week, with the winner announced at a special conference on Saturday. Our oral history project features many former Labour MPs’ recollections of leadership contests, and the consequences of them, particularly in the 1980s as the party grappled with life in opposition and internal divisions between left and right.

Former MP for Ipswich, Ken Weetch, described leading the Labour party at this time as ‘like leading a menagerie.’ These divisions were played out in the party’s internal processes, particularly how the party elected their leader and how candidates for parliament were selected.

James Callaghan’s defeat in 1979 and resignation as party leader in the 1980 led to the election of Michael Foot as party leader. Although he stood as a compromise candidate, Foot’s election saw the rise of the party’s left wing led by Tony Benn and two key changes to the party’s rules. Firstly, the leader would no longer be elected by the parliamentary party, but by an electoral college of unions, party members and MPs. Secondly, sitting MPs could be ‘deselected’ by their constituency parties if they felt that their MPs were not representing their views.

In this interview for the Oral history project, Bryan Magee, Labour MP for Leyton who later left for the Social Democratic Party (SDP), summed up the reasons behind these changes:

The conference passed left-wing resolutions which became party policy, but when the party actually got in to power most of the leadership consisted of moderates and right-wing people, who then didn’t carry out the party’s policy. Well the left understandably became very exasperated with this situation.

David Owen, former Foreign Secretary and one of the ‘Gang of Four’ who formed the breakaway SDP, could understand the reasons behind the strategy of the left as he describes in this audioclip:

Others on the right of the party simply thought that the change was wrong, as David Stoddart, MP for Swindon (who stayed with the party during this period) describes in this clip:

For many on the right, the left had seized control and were forcing through policies they simply could not stomach. As Owen explained:

Instinctively, I think we were right to fight. There had to be a limit to the diet of nonsense and dogma and sheer dishonest policy that you can stomach. Everybody has to stomach a lot in politics that they don’t agree with – it’s collective action – but there was too much on the agenda for us then.

In the period after the 1983 general election defeat the Labour party changed their rules on electing their leader and deselection. They also eventually expelled many militant members. For some, such as Llin Golding, these changes were necessary:

I just felt that we could not go on as we were going on, arguing, and we were just going to get nowhere. Some of the things naturally you don’t like: you don’t like giving way, but you have to to win. You have to take people with you, that’s what a democracy’s all about.

Naturally, for many on the left of the party, such as Alice Mahon, MP for Halifax, these changes went too far. She described her own selection as a candidate in 1987 as ‘fair’ because ‘they weren’t making up silly rules that excluded people.’ The result of the changes that followed, she argued, was that: ‘You can’t get anybody in who is really bright and progressive. There’s a certain clique who choose who can go and fight a seat.’ By the 1990s many on the left, such as Mildred Gordon, MP for Bow and Poplar, felt that their left-wing views meant they were silenced by the Whips ‘they always wanted to keep me out of the limelight because I was too left wing.’

79 of our interviews, which contain many other reminiscences and opinions of Labour, and Conservative, party politics from 1945, can now be found in the British Library where they can be accessed and listened to in their entirety.


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