How does Jeremy Corbyn compare to past Labour leaders?

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One of the frustrating things about the current Brexit episode is watching Jeremy Corbyn perform in the Commons. The other day, on the Twitterdome, I compared Mr Corbyn unfavourably with past Labour leader, John Smith. I think it is fair to say that if John Smith were currently Labour leader he would, by now, have delivered a rhetorical blow to Theresa May comparable to that which he dealt to John Major with this passage of one of his Commons’ speeches:

In response to the plummeting popularity of the Administration itself, revealed at Newbury and in the shire county elections, we have the Prime Minister’s botched reshuffle. If we were to offer that tale of events to the BBC light entertainment department as a script for a programme, I think that the producers of “Yes, Minister” would have turned it down as hopelessly over the top. It might have even been too much for “Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Them”.
The tragedy for us all is that it is really happening—it is fact, not fiction. The man with the non-Midas touch is in charge. It is no wonder that we live in a country where the grand national does not start and hotels fall into the sea.

It caught the moment. The fact that I am still quoting it 26 years later is testament to its strength.

I have just finished reading Ben Pimlott’s biography of Harold Wilson. It is a great tragedy that Ben Pimlott did not live long enough to write a retrospective commentary about Wilson some years after he (Wilson) died. However, the 2016 edition of the tome did have a forward by Peter Hennessy which allowed some reflection on the place in history of Britain’s Prime Minister from 1964-1970 and 1973-1976.

In the forward, Peter Hennessy spends some time comparing Harold Wilson to Jeremy Corbyn (albeit in 2016). His analysis can be summed up with these of his words:

For all his striking achievement in the course of a single summer in 2015 in capturing the base and the leadership apex of the Labour party (with considerable support from the leaders of the fewer yet larger conglomerate trade unions), Jeremy Corbyn is simply not in the Wilson class. Crucially for Corbyn, his wit, his style, his policies simply do not run in the crucial middle, including th ebulk of the PLP. In terms of jumping and clearing the Labour Party’s internal fences, Wilson was a Grand National winner; Corbyn has yet to win a local point-to-point. The gap between them as parliamentary performers in the House of Commons similarly yawns chasm-like. Wilson was born to excel at Prime Minister’s Questions.

Pimlott’s biography narrates the remarkable long and thorough grounding which Wilson had in politics, as a civil servant and then a minister in Atlee’s post-war government. He resigned from that government in 1951,firmly allying himself with the left of the Labour party. His time as Labour party leader was remarkable in that he managed to work a path through the competing sub-tribes of Labour. Trying to reconcile the leftist Bevanites and rightist Gaitskellites, with fiery characters such as George (“If it’s Tuesday, I’m resigning”) Brown and Barbara Castle also in the mix, was nigh-on impossible and it is one of Wilson’s great achievements that he managed it for many years. But Wilson also had a remarkable skill to martial his party on policy and speech-making so that he often rang rings around his opponent, who was more often than not, Edward Heath.

Indeed, it is possible to look at a long list of Labour politicians of the past: Atlee, Wilson, Gaitskell, Castle, Jenkins, Callaghan, Kinnock, Smith, Blair, Harman, Beckett, Brown, David Miliband etc etc and conclude that any one of them would have rhetorically knocked Theresa May into a cocked hat by now, whereas Jeremy Corbyn never seems to manage it.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • David Warren 25th Jan '19 - 10:39am

    Poor Jeremy never wanted to be leader in the first place. He was the reluctant candidate of the Socialist Campaign Group in the 2015 leadership election and expected to finish last.

    With him at the helm Labour have become a party with a far left base and a Blairite majority in the parliamentary party. If they still had shadow cabinet elections Jeremy’s supporters wouldn’t get elected.

    It’s all Ed Milibands fault he abolished shadow cabinet elections and introduced a new system for electing the leader that paved the way for Corbyn’s victory.

    My prediction is that Labour will lose the next General Election whenever it is and Jeremy will probably still be leader by then.

    That is when change will come probably driven by the big unions who will finally realise that Corbyn or someone like him simply can’t win.

  • Paul, where would you place May/Cameron in the list of Tory leaders or, more importantly, Cable/Farron/Clegg in ours?

    Regarding Corbyn, I agree he is rather unprepossessing but then again so was Atlee. Is Corbyn an Atlee in waiting; I doubt it? However, ‘handsome is as handsome does’ and his policies on things that really matter ( welfare, employment rights, equality, taxation, etc.) are far more in keeping with ours than those of the party we propped up for 5 years.

  • John Marriott 25th Jan '19 - 10:53am

    It’s ‘list time’ again, is it? As someone who, as far as he can recall, has never voted Labour in his life (although I do admit in my misguided youth to have voted Conservative a couple of times) perhaps I should be debarred. But, what the heck, here’s my ‘top five’ for what it’s worth:

    1. Attlee : Like Lord Liverpool more than a century earlier, a good captain of a team of stars. In fact, I think he actually did reach the rank of Captain during WW1.
    2. Ramsey McDonald : Yes, ‘Ramsey Mac’, whom my grandfather knew when he was one of Leicester’s two MPs (the other was a Liberal) and who, before he committed heresy by forming a National Government (are you listening Mr Argent?) did more than most to build up the party to supplant the Liberals.
    3. Hugh Gaitskell : The great ‘what if?’. He stood up to the left wingers before his untimely death. He could have shaped the post Tory decade rather than the next person on my list.
    4. Harold Wilson : The great survivor. ‘White heat of technology’, the Open University, the 1975 Referendum, the Swinging Sixties, the pipe (although he apparently preferred cigars in private), the Gannex Mac from his ‘mate’ Joe Kagan’s factory in Elland.
    5. Neil Kinnock : Faced down the left wing zealots, unlike Gaitskell, from the left wing. Pity how he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at that infamous Sheffield Rally. Never used five words when twenty five would do – a bit like a few more people I know!

    As for the rest, well, in the immortal words of the late, great NFL coach, Vince Lombardi, “they couldn’t generate a pint of ‘p**s’”.

  • Sorry Jenny Barnes it’s chaos whether it’s Labour or Conservative. The U.K. will be up the creek whoever delivers Brexit.
    Until that issue is resolved nothing of substance will happen

  • Joseph Bourke 25th Jan '19 - 12:42pm


    “his policies on things that really matter ( welfare, employment rights, equality, taxation, etc.) are far more in keeping with ours than those of the party we propped up for 5 years.”

    I think this is true to an extent e.g in giving workers a stake in companies etc., but not necessarily when it comes to widespread nationalisation. In terms of Labour administations the policies of new labour under Blair/Brown and Labour under Ed Milliband were probably a closer fit with Libdem policy.

    Either way, voters rejected the Attlee government in 1951 and put the Conservative party back in power for 13 years . They rejected socialism again after Wilson/Callaghan and put Thatcher/Major back in power for 18 years. New Labour’s run of 13 years was based on adopting much of the policies of the prior Conservative administations.
    Jermy Corbyn’s pledge to abolish tuition brought swathes of younger voters to Labour in 2017; but even with a Conservative party tearing itself apart before our eyes after years of public service and welfare cuts, British voters were not prepared to put a socialist government in power.
    The Liberal Democrats must present a distinctively socially liberal/social democrat offer to the public and steer well clear of the centralised collectivism of socialism.

  • Peter Martin 25th Jan '19 - 1:37pm

    It seems, in Lib Dem eyes, and perhaps not unsurprisingly, the Labour leaders who were/are on the right were/are the ‘good guys’ whereas those on the left (or should that be ‘hard left’?) are the baddies.

    In many way the right wing of Labour and the Lib Dems share a similar view that capitalism can be successfully managed to produce the social outcomes that most of us want. ie A well resourced NHS, full employment, good education, minimal inequality etc etc. This usually ties in to a pro-EU viewpoint.

    ‘Hard lefties’, on the other hand, tend to consider that capitalism, and which is enshrined in EU law and so many are against it for that reason, can never be relied upon to do that and it needs to be replaced with socialism. The green lefties would also say that capitalism is incompatible with a sustainable economy of the type needed to save the planet.

    I have to say that the left are winning the argument at the moment. Look at the mess the EU is in! In the 90s when it was fashionable to quote books like Fukuyama’s “the End of History and the last Man”, it might have seemed otherwise.

  • Joseph Bourke 25th Jan ’19 – 12:42pm…………..Either way, voters rejected the Attlee government in 1951 and put the Conservative party back in power for 13 years ………

    When one considers the achievements of the Atlee years with that under the “13 years of Tory stagnation” (Harold Wilson 1964) your remarks are rather churlish.

    As for your “Jermy Corbyn’s pledge to abolish tuition brought swathes of younger voters to Labour in 2017”..writing that takes more ‘brass neck’ than even I possess.

    The more posts I read on here the more I’m coming to realise that this party is no longer for me!

  • John Marriott 25th Jan '19 - 3:54pm

    @David Raw
    Thanks for putting me right about Attlee’s rank. Yes, he was a great PM on any list. He certainly did not deserve the Churchillian barb of “a modest man with much to be modest about”. There’s a great newsreel clip of him being interviewed when the reporter asks him if he has any comment or something to say and he replies; ”No”.

    The one I like from Wilson is when, speaking at a conference in the mid 1970s when there was speculation about his future, when he said something like; “People keep asking me what’s going on in the party. Well, I’ve got news for them. I’m going on”. I bet someone can recall the exact words.

    Harold certainly enjoyed his brushes with show biz, witness him and the Beatles. So did Neil Kinnock, who featured on a Tracy Ullman pop video. And let’s not forget the Canute moment with him and Glenys on the beach.

    Oh, I suppose I really ought to have mentioned Mr Corbyn as Paul has been known to get annoyed when we go ‘off piste’. Well, the problem with JC is that, having spent most of his political career as an outsider, it’s a bit rich of him to demand loyalty to the party when that’s something that he has clearly failed to show prior to his winning the leadership contest. Can I imagine him in No 10? No. Mind you, could I ever have imagined Mr Trump in the White House?

  • John Marriott,

    I think you are right to put Ramsay Macdonald near the top of your list. Although denounced as a class traitor by many a generation of Labour politicians he was pivotal in bringing the nascent Labour party into being along with his contemporaries Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson.
    David Marquand (sometime Liberal/Labour/Plaid Cymru politician and historian) credited MacDonald for his efforts in trying to preserve peace in the inter-war period and for his decision to place national interests before that of party in 1931.
    Robert Skidelsky although comparing the orthodox policies advocated by leading politicians of both parties unfavourably with the more radical, proto-Keynesian measures proposed by David Lloyd George and Oswald Mosley, argued that the post-war experience of currency crises and capital flight made it hard to be critical of politicians who wanted to achieve stability by cutting labour costs and defending the value of the currency.

    With the return of globalized markets, by the 1980s, it was no longer so clear that Keynesian methods could have addressed the crisis in 1931 any better than the cheap money policy that was instigated after coming off the gold standard that saw annual growth of 4% established from 1933-34. Confidence crises snowball; currencies can fall precipitously; public credit can run-out and a plummeting currency can be as or even more painful than deflationary expenditure cuts. Governments trying to defend their currency against an avalanche of speculative foreign exchange short-selling had to relearn old lessons. In the absence of restrictive capital controls the value of the currency will be determined in the foreign exchange markets on the basis of the fundamentals of the domestic economy.

  • Paul Barker 25th Jan '19 - 4:15pm

    Labour have been committed to destroying our Party ever since their creation 119 Years ago, if they choose to elect a Leader who is extreme & incompetent, we should be pleased. Long Live JC !
    Labour helped get our Country into this mess & are standing in the way of any solution, we should be glad that they are slowly losing Voters & Members, long may that continue.

  • expats,

    the Attlee administration did indeed achieve a great deal including implementing the Beveridge report. The infrastructure for the NHS was largely in place by the end of the war (including hospitals staffed with Doctors and Nurses). It was mostly under Local Authority control. Labour centralized and nationalized the service much to the chagrin of William Beveridge. The nationalisation of industry also occurred during the war – railways, power generation, coal, iron and steel were all brought under the direct control of the wartime coalition The post-war nationalisation was largely a formalisation of the process of buying our shareholders of loss making industries to maintain full-employment.
    The Loans secured by Keynes from the US and Canada were not for the purposes of establishing a welfare state, they were primarily to meet the costs of maintaining a large British military presence across the empire. The welfare state was funded by the same means it had been before the war (albeit at higher rates) through national insurance and income taxation.

    Attlee himself was not of the working classes or trade union movement. He came to the Labour party as a campaigner for social justice. He was an Oxford graduate who had a career as a barrister and served as an officer in WW1. During WW2 he served as deputy prime minister in Churchill’s coalition government.

    War-time rationing continued into the early fifties. The “13 years of Tory stagnation” (Harold Wilson 1964) don’t look so bad in retrospect when you consider that cyclical unemployment was virtually eliminated in this period; exports, the economy and living standards were growing and housebuilding (private and Public) was ramped up.
    Harold Macmillan had good reason to say in 1957:
    “You will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime – nor indeed in the history of this country. Indeed let us be frank about it – most of our people have never had it so good. Go around the country, go to the industrial towns, go to the farms and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime – nor indeed in the history of this country.”
    The main issue faced by the MacMillan government was how to maintain growth and employment but keep inflation in check – what he called the “64,000-dollar question”.
    These are just historical facts and it is wise to separate political propaganda from actual outcomes if you are serious about bringing about change for the better.

  • @Joseph Bourke 25th Jan ’19 – 12:42pm

    “Either way, voters rejected the Attlee government in 1951”

    “Reject” is I think a little bit harsh given that Labour won the popular vote (by 0.8%) although they got fewer seats than Churchill’s Tories.

  • Joseph Bourke 25th Jan '19 - 10:27pm

    David Raw,

    you’ll be telling me next that Hilary Cinton and not Donald Trump actually won the American presidential election.

  • In my opinion, Attlee was the only Labour PM to have achieved genuinely transformational change and to have left an enduring (and largely positive) legacy. An apparently modest and unassuming man, he was decidedly more substance than style.

    By comparison, Corbyn’s “achievements”, e.g. during the 2017 General Election ca,paign, are likely to prove temporary and illusory. It is the UK’s great misfortune that, at this time of national crisis, we suffer from the most inept and divided government AND official opposition in recent history – yet, thanks to our own errors of judgement and leadership failings (over which I will not dwell here!), the Lib Dems still show no real signs of recovery.

  • Joseph Bourke 26th Jan '19 - 12:44am

    David Raw,

    you are right it was not a rejection, but the Landslide victory of 1945 was gone by 1950 when Labours vote share slumped by 11.3% from 61.7% to 50.4%. It doesn’t take away from Attlee’s achievements, but it does give an indication that the policies were not as universally popular with the public as is sometimes intimated. By 1955 Labour’s vote share was down to 44% and by 1959 (even after the Suez crisis) it was down to 41%. It took 13 years before Harlold Wilson could form another Labour government with a 4 seat majority, aided greatly by the Profumo affair and a big swing from the Conservatives to Jo Grimond’s Liberal party.

  • Arnold Kiel 26th Jan '19 - 9:00am


    your downgrading of Corbyn on rhetorical rather than policy grounds contradicts your inverse treatment of Clegg.

    Corbyn is no good in parliament, because he opposes May only philosophically, not concerning practical politics (i.e. Brexit) where they are well aligned. Even a mediocre orator could destroy May, if he/she had substantively different plans.

    Concerning the sloppily applied juxtaposition of capitalism vs. socialism above we should be clear: they are mutually exclusive opposites only if defined by the protection or abolition, respectively, of private property. I assume most proponents of socialism outside Cuba (which includes Corbyn) mean in reality social democracy, i.e. a rather redistrubitive government based on a capitalist economic system.

    As a temporary and optional UK resident, I would quite like to see one more radical social democratic experiment in Europe. It would likely fail, but experimentally eliminating options seems to be the new way of politics.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Jan '19 - 9:10am

    Harold Wilson served under a brilliant Liberal academic during WW2.
    Unlike MacMillan and Heath he did not have military experience.
    He kept the UK out of the Vietnam war, to the chagrin of President Johnson, who commented pithily about the nature of the UK’s support (compared to Australia’s).
    Wilson was part of a long-running double act with Conservative leader Edward Heath and became a lost soul when Heath was defeated in a leadership election.
    He made a feeble attempt to join the EEC and was trumped when Heath achieved it, after the French electorate voted against President De Gaulle in a referendum.

  • The Lib Dems are currently the fighting with Ukip for fourth party place..nestling at between 6 -9% in the polls.. the party received little or none major coverage and the cruel years of the dreaded Coalition haunt it still…and you lecture Labour…ha ha ha.

  • Joseph Bourke 26th Jan '19 - 12:30pm

    Good points about Churchill’s state of health in the post-war years, Ian. Clement Davies suffered from what we would today recognise as chronic alcoholism ( for two of his three general election campaigns as leader he was hospitalised). Davis did keep the party intact for 11 years after the war; and as you write above refused a cabinet position as Education Minister offered by Churchill in 1951 when the Conservatives were reliant on the support of the UUP. Coalition then may well have finished the party off entirely before Jo Grimond could step up to take on the leadership of the Liberal Party in 1956.

  • To address the question raised by this article, I don’t have enough information to compare Jeremy with Keir Hardie (1906-08). I also have little information about Arthur Henderson (1908-10, 1914-17, 1931-32), but possibly he was better than Jeremy as it seems he had a large role in the development of the Labour Party and trying to hold it together, but he kept losing his Parliamentary seats and was leader when the number of Labour MPs fell to 52 losing over 200 seats including his own. Again I know little about George Barnes (1910-11) but I think it is highly likely that Jeremy is a better leader of the Labour Party than him.

    I have not even heard of William Adamson (1917-21), but in the 1918 general election the number of Labour MPs increased. Another leader I haven’t heard of is John Robert Clynes (1921-22) who was leader for the 1922 general election where the number of Labour MPs increased from 57 to 142 and it achieved 29.7% of the vote. It would be interesting to know why these 142 MPs decided when they met in Westminister to replace him as leader with Ramsay MacDonald.

    Again I know little about George Lansbury (1932-35), but maybe he was a better leader than Jeremy, inspiring the Labour Party during this difficult time, however his pacifism was his undoing. I think that Jeremy is a better leader than James Callaghan (1976-80) and Michael Foot (1980-83) who both lost a general election. Perhaps James Callaghan was the worse leader of the Labour Party, as he was the leader who held on to office too long, and he could not hold his party together. Perhaps Michael Foot was the second worse leader. However, I don’t consider Gordon Brown (2007-10) as a good leader either and so think perhaps he is the third worse leader.

  • @Joseph Bourke
    “If electoral majorities are the measure of a good leader …. Winning elections is ultimately the test that any political leader must pass ….”

    Although obviously relevant, surely this cannot be the sole criteria for assessing the relative merits of different political leaders. That must depend on what they actually achieve with any electoral mandate they secure and any enduring legacy they leave behind. In any case, judgements about a leader’s electoral performance must also take account of the base level of party support from which s/he started.

    Otherwise, applying your logic that election victories/majorities are the main measure of good political leadership, we are left with two inescapable, but highly simplistic and equally unpalatable conclusions … (a) that Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher were the most electorally successful, and therefore the best, UK political leaders in living memory (alarmingly contentious!) … and (b) that all Liberal/SDP/Lib Dem leaders during the past 100+ years have been abject failures (severely depressing!). I assume that these are not propositions that you’d wish to support?!

  • Joe Bourke, I think I now understand why we disagree so much on economics. After the First World War the UK unemployment rate fell to 2.6% in June 1919, but rose afterwards. The lowest annual average was 9.7% for the 1920s. The average for 1932 was 22.1%; it was not until May 1939 that the rate fell below 10% (9.3%). You see this as an economic success and I see it as an economic failure.

    Perhaps you see 1990 as an economic success with an annual unemployment rate of 5.8%. By August 1992 the unemployment rate was 10%. For comparison the annual unemployment rate for 1882 was 2.8%; for 1883 2.5%; for 1889 and 1890 2.1%; for 1891 3.5%; for 1896 and 1897 3.3%; for 1898 2.8%; for 1899 2.0%, for 1890 2.5%; for 1901 3.3%; for 1911 3.0%; and for 1913 it was 3.6% (Unemployment statistics from 1881 to the present day ONS).

  • Richard Underhill 30th Jun '19 - 1:02pm

    Jeremy Corbyn’s health is in the news and he is complaining. It is extremely unusual for senior civil servants to comment to a newspaper in the way they have been presented, which is anonymously.
    The Andrew Marr Show had an interview with the leader of the Unite union, who thoroughly rubbished the report in the Times and wanted the names of the sources.
    He must know that journalists are like chefs who do not like to reveal their sauces,
    but he is on sounder ground by asking that the head of the civil service should have an enquiry.
    Those who have seen ‘Yes Minister’ (or was it ‘Yes Prime Minister’?) will know what often happens in leak enquiries.
    An alternative view could be derived from ‘Gardeners’ World’ whose main presenter Monty Don is a successful campaigner on mental health and the beneficial effects that gardening can have, individually, socially in groups and environmentally.
    While disagreeing with many things that Jeremy Corbyn says we should accept that he has an allotment and works in it regularly.
    If there is sufficient evidence we might need to accept that he is advised on gardening issues by other allotment holders who might keep his feet on the ground from his current elevated position as leader of the Labour Party.
    I had an allotment in Reading (1975-1983). Sharing of water was an issue.

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