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The British Labour Party1 was founded in 1900. Since then, when all but one Conservative leader rose to the highest office in the land, Prime Minister, many Labour leaders didn't. This entry looks at those Labour men who never quite made it to Number 10 Downing Street2. It looks at the events that led to each man's rise to power in the Party, and what stopped them from becoming Prime Minister.
James Keir Hardie
Keir Hardie was born in 1856 in Legbrannock, Lanarkshire, Scotland. In 1892, he became the first representative of working class men in the House of Commons when he won an election as an independent candidate.
He was born to an unmarried farm servant (though his mother later married a ship's carpenter) and his childhood was spent in Glasgow and Lanarkshire's coal fields. He never attended school because at an early age he started his working life down the pits. In the 1870s, however, he became blacklisted by the Lanarkshire pit owners for organising a strike. He moved to Ayr where he became secretary of the miners' organisation. He also took up journalism and founded (and edited) The Miner and Labour Leader periodical. He went on to form the Scottish Labour Party in 1888 and in the same year he fought - and lost - his first election.
In 1889, Keir Hardie won an election and took his place in Parliament. Following a meeting in Bradford he also became one of the founding fathers of the nationwide Independent Labour Party. The Independent Labour Party was formed to have Christian, British and working class appeal unlike the Fabian Society which was middle-classed, Marxist and therefore foreign-inspired and atheistic.
In 1895, Hardie lost his seat in the election. He set about forming the Labour Representative Party along Parliamentary lines similar to those of the Liberals and Conservatives. He returned to Westminster after an election victory at the 1900 election, the same year that the Labour Representative Party was officially formed (they would later become the Labour Party). Hardie eventually became the elected leader (initially chairman) of the Party and after the 1906 election, when 29 members of the Labour Representative Committee won seats, he was made the Parliamentary leader. He was replaced as leader of the Party by George Barnes in 1910 and the following year he relinquished the position of Party secretary to Ramsey McDonald, a fellow Scot, who in 1924 became the first Labour Prime Minister.
Hardie died in 1915 having seen the cause of the Labour movement establish a foothold in Westminster and form part of the War Time Coalition Parliament.
George Barnes continued the Scottish trend for leadership of the Labour Party. He was born in Dundee in 1859, although his family later moved to Liverpool before settling in London. He joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) but, though he attended meetings of the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, he did not join either of these movements, disapproving of the idea of Socialist Revolution.
On 13 February, 1887, Barnes attended a demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London. The result turned into a riot, known as 'Bloody Sunday'3, in which Barnes was injured under the hoofs of a mounted police horse. In 1896, Barnes became a full-time union official when he was elected General Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (at the time the third largest union in the UK) and worked closely with other officials including Keir Hardie.
In 1900, at a meeting in London he was one of 129 delegates who decided to pass Hardie's motion to establish 'a distinct Labour group in Parliament'. Two years later, Barnes set up a committee to look at the subject of old age pensions. For the next three years he travelled the country urging for social welfare reform and watching popular support grow. At the 1906 election, this reforming policy helped Barnes defeat Andrew Bonar Law, a Conservative Cabinet minister (and future Tory leader). Though the Liberal Party won the overall election, Chancellor Lloyd George took heed of the popularity of these policies and introduced them in his own budget in 1908.
Barnes believed that the Labour movement should have been championing causes such as pensions and social reform rather than getting side-tracked on minor issues. It was this focus that led to the Party proposing that he replace Hardie as Party leader.
With the outbreak of World War I, Barnes came out strongly in favour of military action and went to Canada to encourage their engineers to come and work in the UK to support the war effort4. Not even the loss of his son in the war in 1915 changed his views on it being a necessary war. In 1916, however, he remained one of the few Labour MPs in support of the effort.
Unrest was growing in Parliament with the way Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was running the country. Barnes supported the rival Liberal faction, led by Lloyd George, in their quest to gain power of the Party and country. He was rewarded with a new post of Pensions Minister in Lloyd George's coalition government. When the war ended in 1918, so did the coalition and Barnes resigned from the Labour Party to stay on as an independent Minister for Pensions, until ill health in 1920 forced him to retire. He was unable to gain support from the Party for the 1922 election and so resigned from the commons. He died in 1940.
At the start of World War I, Ramsey McDonald made way for yet another Scot to lead the Party. Arthur Henderson was born in Glasgow in 1863 and worked as an iron moulder in Robert Stevenson's locomotive works in Newcastle. His political life started as a Liberal councillor in Newcastle, Darlington and Durham, eventually rising to the position of Mayor of Darlington by 1903. Later that year he became the first Labour member of Parliament to beat both a Conservative and Liberal candidate5 in Barnard Castle, Durham.
Henderson was appointed Party Secretary in 1911 and also became Leader of the Party in 1914 after a majority of Labour MPs backed the war effort and forced the resignation of McDonald, a pacifist. In the two subsequent coalition governments, headed first by Asquith, then by Lloyd George, Henderson served in both Cabinets as the sole Labour representative. However, he resigned from the Cabinet and the 'five-man war Cabinet' after a disagreement with Lloyd George over a proposal from the Russian Aleksander Kerensky for a Socialist conference. Henderson retired from the front bench while remaining leader of the Labour Party, though he later lost his seat in the 1918 election and was forced to resign as Party leader.
When Ramsey McDonald came to power in 1922 and formed the first ever Labour administration, he called on Henderson to serve as Home Secretary, a position he led until November 1924 when he took the position of Foreign Secretary. He became a strong supporter of the fledgling League of Nations was chosen to head the World Disarmament Conference which first met in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1932.
Henderson resigned from McDonald's Cabinet in August, 1931, when the need grew for another coalition government. However, in 1935, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on disarmament, no doubt due in part to his promotion of the League of Nations' Armament Limitation plan during his visits to Paris, Rome, Berlin, Prague and Munich.
After Henderson's fall out with Lloyd George, another Scot, William Adamson - a Dunfermline-born former miner - took over the Party leadership until 1921. He was first elected to Parliament in 1910 for West Fife.
He became the first Labour Secretary of State for Scotland following McDonald's successful 1923 election, a post he held for the short 11 months that administration held power. He returned to the Scottish Office in 1929 when Labour returned to power, but the disastrous election of 1931 (which left the Party in turmoil) saw Adamson ousted (only 46 Labour MPs managed to retain their seats). He died in 1936.
Clynes was born in Oldham in 1869 and worked in the mills in the town. He argued that the Spinners Union was not doing enough for the child labourers and so in 1886 he helped set up the Piercers Union to protect their rights. He was a delegate at the 1900 Independent Labour Party conference and became a Union Representative on the LRC executive. He was elected vice-chairman of the Party in 1910.
Clynes was also a writer, contributing to The Clarion and other Socialist newspapers. He stood in the 1906 election for North East Manchester and won. He was a strong supporter of votes for woman and, like Adamson, he was one of the small numbers of Labour members in support of the War, and was rewarded by Lloyd George with a position in the post-war coalition government, that of Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Food.
When Henderson lost his seat in 1918, Clynes became leader of the House of Commons. He took over as leader of the Party as a whole in 1921 up until McDonald was returned as Member for Aberavon in the 1922 election. Clynes was appointed Leader of the House in the first Labour administration and in 1929 he was appointed Home Secretary. He was one of those who voted against McDonald and the May committee's proposed reforms, which led to the disastrous 1931 election where Clynes lost his seat. He regained it, however, in 1935 and held it until he retired from Parliament in 1945. He died aged 80 in 1949.
George Lansbury was born in Suffolk in 1859, but his family moved to East London when he was very young. At age 11, he started to work in an office, but after a year he returned to school until he was 14 before becoming a clerk, grocer and worker in a coffee house. He later set up his own business as a contractor working for Great Western Railways and in 1884 he decided to emigrate with his wife and family of three to Australia. They didn't settle, however, returning to England a year later, with Lansbury taking a position in his father-in-law's timber merchants. Lansbury felt that his unhappiness in Australia was caused by false propaganda being spread by the emigration authorities, a feeling which inspired him to join a campaign against the policies enticing immigrants to make the long voyage.
In the 1886 general election, he joined the Liberal Party and was soon elected secretary of the Bow and Bromley Liberal Association, but eventually he became disillusioned with the Party. He became a member of the Gasworkers and General Labourers Union in 1889 and joined the local strike committee for the London dockers' industrial action that year. This led to him meeting Henry Hyndman who was leader of the Social Democratic Federation.
In 1895, he contested his first election as a Social Democratic Federation candidate in Walworth. His 204 votes were not enough for him to win, though this did not put him off, as he stood again in 1900. This time his 2,558 votes were less than 2,000 behind the Conservative victor. However, he was finding it more difficult as a Christian Socialist to get on with the atheistic vision of Hyndman. In 1903, he defected to the Independent Labour Party.
Since 1892, he'd been on the Board of Guardians of the Poplar Workhouse, but in 1906 a government enquiry was held to investigate wastage of ratepayers' money on generous treatment of the workhouse poor and the funding of the Laindon Farm Colony. Lansbury argued his case for treating people in workhouses with dignity. The government report though critical of the Guardians, did not result in a change of policy and eventually the authorities decided not to take action against them. This increased Lansbury's status within the Party.
In 1910, he was eventually elected to Parliament as a Labour MP and along with Keir Hardie led the campaign for women's votes. In the heat of debate, however, Lansbury was ordered to leave the House of Commons. He had told Asquith, the Prime Minister that he was 'beneath contempt' while shaking his fist in Asquith's face because of the treatment of suffragettes. Many other members of the Labour Party, however, said that until the suffrage of all working class men was universal, they would not begin to fight for the rights of women.
To highlight the issue further, Lansbury resigned his seat in 1912 and fought the by-election solely on the issue of woman's votes. Apparently, his constituents weren't ready for this kind of progressive thinking; he lost by 731 votes. However, he carried on the fight for universal suffrage, even being imprisoned for making speeches in favour of the suffragettes. He also took to journalism, founding the Daily Herald in 1911 and becoming the newspaper's editor two years later. The Daily Herald supported the majority Labour view in opposing the War but, like other anti-war Labour candidates, in 1918 Lansbury still failed to get re-elected.
However, Lansbury did gain a local council seat and in 1921 served as Mayor of Poplar, seeing the council increase spending on poor relief. Lansbury, along with the majority of the council, went to prison for over four months, for going against government policy on this issue. In the election of 1922, Lansbury was returned as member for Bow and Bromley with an impressive majority of 7000.
In 1931, Ramsey McDonald had a dispute which led to the creation of the short-lived Nationalist government, though he carried on as Prime Minister without the support of the rest of the Labour Party. Lansbury replaced him as leader of the Labour Party - effectively in opposition to the former Labour leader's new government. With fascism growing in Italy, however, Lansbury remained opposed to the use of force to suppress it. So when the League of Nations proposed military action to counter Italy's invasion of Abyssinia, Lansbury refused to support this move. Several leading members of his own Party criticised this decision and forced him to resign.
Lansbury carried on his pacifist agenda as the shadow of another great war threatened Europe. He had talks with Adolf Hitler and believed - as did others - that it was still possible to reach an agreement that would prevent the inevitability of war. His efforts proved fruitless, however. He died in May, 1940, as war raged across Europe.
Gaitskell was born in London in 1906, the year Labour first returned more than one member to Parliament. After a career as a university lecturer, he entered Parliament in 1945 and in 1955 - four years after the fall of Clement Atlee's post-war government - the Party elected him as Atlee's successor. His relative inexperience, having only entered the Commons in the post-war election, didn't prevent him from rising rapidly through the ranks. Throughout the war, he had worked for the Ministry of Economic warfare. He entered the Cabinet in 1947 as Minster for Fuel and Power and he was appointed Minister of State for Economic Affairs in 1950. Later that same year he became Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, the following year the Conservatives regained power and he was sitting on the Opposition benches.
His appointment as leader surprised many as he defeated two senior figures in the Party, Herbert Morrison and Aneurin ('Nye') Beven. His leadership faced an early test when his Party lost to the Conservatives in the 1959 election. The following year brought more trouble when the Labour Party's ruling National Executive opposed unilateral nuclear disarmament, but at the Party conference the Party members voted in favour of it. He survived to see the decision overturned the following year and set the Party on course to oppose membership of the EEC, which the Conservatives at the time were keenly negotiating. His sudden death in 1963 of a heart attack led to Harold Wilson becoming leader of the Party. Wilson would, of course, become Labour's most successful election winner.
Following James Callaghan's defeat to the Conservative's Margaret Thatcher in the 1979 election, The Labour Party's 1980 conference showed a move towards the far-left wing of the Party. 67-year-old Michael Foot defeated the more moderate choice of the slightly younger Dennis Healey by just 10 votes. Healey went on to only narrowly defeat another left-winger, Tony Benn6, in the vote for deputy leader.
Foot came from a Liberal family; his father represented the Liberals as a Member of Parliament. Foot was educated at Wadham College, Oxford, and began a career in newspapers as an editor and columnist. He turned to Socialism because of the mass unemployment caused by the depression. He entered Parliament in 1945 the same year as Gaitskell, Wilson and Callaghan, and remained there (aside from a brief break from 1955 - 1960) until he retired from Parliament in 1987.
During Wilson's second tenure at Number 10, Foot entered the Cabinet as the Secretary of State for Employment and then under Callaghan he became Leader of the House from 1976, while also being the deputy leader. He was notoriously scruffy in appearance with flyaway, unkempt hair and going about in very much working-class clothes, including his favourite camel-hair jacket.
However, following his appointment as leader (coupled with other extreme left-wing tendencies arising in the Party), some of the more moderate membership of the Party resigned to form the Social Democratic Party (which later merged with the Liberals to form the Liberal Democrats). Foot was a great advocate for trade unionism and nuclear disarmament. His leadership of the Party led to an even more crushing defeat at the hands of Thatcher's Conservatives and forced his resignation after the election of 1983. He was succeeded by Neil Kinnock.
In 2001, at the age of 89, Foot was made a director of his beloved Plymouth Argyle Football Club.
Neil Kinnock was only three years old when his four immediate predecessors as leader all entered Parliament in 1945. His election as leader in 1983 made him the youngest man so far (at just 41) to lead the Party. He was a Welsh miner's son who became the first member of his family ever to attend university, University College, Cardiff. From there he went on to organise and teach industrial and trade union studies at the Workers' Educational Association.
In 1970, he was elected to Parliament as member for Bedwelty. Soon he was recognised as a great debater and speechmaker and started his rapid ascension through the Party ranks, although this may have been aided slightly by the patronage of Michael Foot. From 1974 - 75 he served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for employment. In 1978, he was first elected to the Labour Party's ruling National Executive Committee.
The 1983 election had been a disaster and the Party wanted someone to unite the warring factions of the Party, which Foot had failed to do, and which had resulted in the Party's biggest defeat in 67 years. Despite never holding even a junior ministerial post, he emerged victorious in the leadership votes ahead of Roy Hattersley (who instead became deputy leader). At the start of his leadership, Kinnock supported the Party's stance on disarmament and the removal of US nuclear weapons and bases from the UK. However, after Labour lost the 1987 election to Thatcher for a third time, Kinnock managed to persuade his Party to revise some of their major policies, including its pro-unilateral disarmament stance and the large scale intent to re-nationalise the industries that the Conservatives had privatised. However, even with the in-fighting in the Conservative Party, Kinnock was unable to defeat Thatcher's successor, John Major, at the 1992 election. Kinnock resigned as Party Leader in the hope that some new impetuous into his revitalising policies could enable the Party to overhaul the conservatives and make Labour electable again. His was succeeded by John Smith.
After stepping down as Labour leader, Kinnock went on to become a United Kingdom Commissioner to the European Parliament, and in 1994, his wife Glynis joined him as a member of the European Parliament.
John Smith was born in 1938. He studied law at Glasgow University along with Donald Dewar (who would go on to become the first 'First Minister' of the new Scottish Parliament). The two student lawyers practised their debating skills at university forming a considerable partnership even winning the Observer Mace, the premier British debating contest. He went on to practise as a barrister in Scotland.
He was first elected to Parliament as the MP for Monklands East in 1970. He was appointed Secretary of State for Trade in 1978, and, in opposition following the election of Margaret Thatcher, he served as spokesman on economic and industrial issues. Considered by many to be a moderate, his politics were more to the centre than his more left-wing predecessors.
In 1992, following a fourth successive election defeat and Kinnock's subsequent resignation as leader, John Smith was elected Party leader, beating Bryan Gould with over 90% of the vote. He promised to continue the process of reform, including tackling the trade union block.
Smith showed compassion and was careful in how fast and how far to move his Party along to a position of electability. He continued along the road to recovery that Kinnock had put the Party. At the Party conference in 1993, he guided the Party towards greater democracy by persuading Party members to adopt the long-debated 'One Member, One Vote' policy that prevented the trade unions imposing control of the Parliamentary selection process by taking away their direct representation via the unions and giving it to the members as individuals.
However, while being careful in dealing with his own Party, Smith displayed a keen 'cut and thrust' as a debater in the House of Commons. One of his finest hours came on 16 September, 1992 - 'Black Wednesday' - when the Conservatives faced an economic crisis which saw interest rates rise to fend off devaluation of the pound, before leaving the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Monetary System. As the Conservatives panicked to keep up with fast-moving events, Smith took every opportunity to question the decisions made on that day and after.
In May 1994, Labour recorded what was, at the time, their greatest local election results. On 11 May, Smith told a gathering of Party supporters that his Labour Party wanted 'a chance to serve; that is all we ask'. This public speech would be his last. Early the next morning he died of a massive heart attack. It was a shock to the Party and the nation as a whole; Smith was seen as Labour's best hope in years of wresting power from the Conservatives. On his death, even his Conservative opponents admitted that they had admired and respected his common sense approach to politics, people and the economy. Tony Blair was elected as Smith's successor. Inheriting a Party that was now more electable than they had been for two decades, Blair was in the enviable position of being able to take advantage of the reforms of his two predecessors and guide his Party back into power.