Hardly a day goes by when the leader of the Labour Party is not under threat of losing their position. The current leadership contest is unlikely to end the difficult and fraught debates on the direction of the Labour party. This appears the norm in British politics- an unease that the Labour leader is merely a temporary figure until the next electoral defeat. Labour has produced just six prime ministers, with only Harold Wilson and Tony Blair winning multiple general elections. What in particular made Wilson and Blair so electable?
Tackling the left and right wings of the Labour Party
The Labour Party, when viewed from the wings, can appear like two clashing movements. The Left, an outcrop of the communist/socialist workers party, in comparison to the Right, a lighter version of the Lib Dems or worse: Tory-Lite. A good leader is able to navigate both sides. Wilson was flexible, a liberal at heart who tried his best through pragmatism to heal the faction. Blair on the other hand, rode roughshod over his perception of an uncompromising, backward looking left, responsible for countless Labour defeats.
Good leaders exude charisma. In 1964, Wilson’s down to earth roots and hardworking nature endeared him to a nation put off with another aloof and privileged Tory leader, under the guise of Sir Alec Douglas-Home. With Blair, a thoroughly middle-class man, his presidential style won over the elusive ‘Middle-England’. The 1997 Labour manifesto pledged nothing too left wing, promising strong leadership to take the country into the 21st Century. Wilson had his pipe; Blair had his grinning smile, both were instantly recognisable figures.
Seizing on Social Optimism
The premierships of Wilson and Blair coincided with great periods of cultural change in the UK.
For Wilson it was the swinging sixties and for Blair, ‘Cool Britannia’ epitomised the 90s. Both took advantage of meeting the stars of the time, associating with the Beatles and Oasis respectively. It is a tricky balance, which can border on cringe, but both leaders managed to understand the cultural zeitgeist. Contrast this to Ed Miliband’s ill-formed decision to court Russell Brand in the run up to the 2015 election.
It’s the economy, stupid!
For Labour, the biggest challenge is the economy. Labour in the 1997 and 2001 landslides, cheekily turned the books on the Tories, claiming a return to boom and bust, if Brown and Blair were not managing the economy. Labour will often win debates on handling public services, but this does not win the day. Not surprisingly, Labour scored poorly on economic leadership at the 2015 election. The Conservative have once again painted Labour as inept economic custodians.
Benefiting from Tory mismanagement
Both Wilson and Blair rode on the wave of disillusionment. Wilson won the 1964 election after 13 years of Conservative government. When Wilson won the first of two elections in 1974, it had much to do with the failure of Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, tackling the unions than Labour convincing the nation.
Blair benefited from the self-implosion of the Conservative government of 1990s, dogged by sleaze and disunity over Europe. Presenting ‘New Labour’, Blair turned an inevitable victory for Labour into an incredible landslide.
If, as expected Jeremy Corbyn triumphs over Owen Smith, will Corbyn follow the disastrous Michael Foot or emulate Clement Atlee? If Corbyn succeeds, he will beat the odds and bring a type of socialism not seen in government for over 60 years.