Who were the most successful British political party leaders since 1900?

David Cameron is the surprising top Tory performer, ahead even of Margaret Thatcher.

David Cameron is the surprising top Tory performer, ahead even of Margaret Thatcher

The current political situation clearly shows the significance of high quality political leadership. The stakes are immensely high and everyone knows it.

Two seminars later this year, one for Labour and one for the Conservatives, will address the subject by analysing the success or failure of political leaders over the last 100 years.

We start with the presumption that the skills of political leadership do matter. A party leader without the communication skills to present their vision will never be taken seriously. A leader who fails to end internal divisions could leave their party out of power for a generation. A leader who makes key strategic errors could see the national interest diverted or damaged.

So assessing political leaders is an important task in any democracy.

For example, the electoral success of the Conservative Party in the 1980s cannot be understood without appreciating the personal role of Margaret Thatcher.

By contrast, the Conservatives’ failure to make electoral headway between 1997 and 2005 has frequently been attributed to the deficiencies of the Tories’ short-term leaders during this time. Tim Bale, in his much praised book on the Conservative party, prefaces the title of his chapter on Iain Duncan Smith as ‘simply not up to it’.

But evaluating leaders is difficult.

Firstly, the benchmarks for success are not clear. Can even the most detached political scientist make objective, rational judgements about leaders separate from our own political values? For example, could a left-leaning observer ever recognise Margaret Thatcher’s leadership qualities; or a right-leaning one acknowledge the achievements Clement Attlee? Can we nail down some criteria about how leaders can be assessed which are fair and objective?

Secondly, no two leaders are in power at the same time, so direct comparison is impossible. So how can we know whether their failure or success is primarily a product of a favourable or unfavourable context?

The political scientist James MacGregor Burns claimed that some US Presidents were capable of transformative leadership. Great American Presidents could redesign perceptions, values and aspirations within American politics.

But is this always possible during times of economic crisis, party division or war? Do leaders really steer events or do they tend to be casualties to them? Would the ‘gang of four’ have left the Labour Party even if Michael Foot wasn’t leader? Could any Labour leader have defeated Thatcher in 1983 on the back of the Falklands War and an upswing in the economy?

Factoring in such circumstances is clearly important when we make judgements about political leaders.

Assessing Party leaders through general election results

Whatever criteria are thought most appropriate in measuring qualities of political leadership, General Elections offer a clear measure of outcomes for the leaders. Increases or decreases in either the share of the vote, or the number of Parliamentary seats, provide a ruthless guide to political success or failure.

Whatever mitigations may perfectly genuinely exist, the unsentimental and sometimes irrational verdict of the electorate is the final voice in a democracy. And of course that final voice itself governs the behaviour of politicians and governments in between elections too.

The ‘league tables’ for both Conservative and Labour leaders since the beginning of the 20th century ( figures are based upon Table 2.01 of British Electoral Facts 1832-2012 by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher) provide some unexpected verdicts.

David Cameron is the surprising top Tory performer, ahead even of Margaret Thatcher, while John Major’s poor result hides his unexpected success in 1992, even though he reaped the whirlwind in 1997. The Conservatives’ most surprising failure remains that of Winston Churchill, particularly given his obviously immense qualities of national leadership.

Leader General Elections Aggregate seat gain Aggregate vote %age gain
Cameron 1, 2010 +108 +3.7
Thatcher 3, 1979 – 87 +99 +6.5
Baldwin 5, 1923 – 35 +75 +15.8
Bonar Law 2, 1918 – 22 +73 -8.1
Howard 1, 2005 +32 +0.7
Eden 1, 1955 +24 +1.7
Macmillan 1, 1959 +20 -0.3
Hague 1, 2001 +1 +1.0
Heath 4, 1966 – 74 -27 -7.6
Home 1, 1964 -61 -6.0
       Churchill 3, 1945 – 51 -108 -5.3
Balfour 3, 1906 – 10 -131 -3.7
Major 2, 1992 – 97 -211 -11.6

It is no surprise that Clement Attlee tops the Labour table. He has long been esteemed both because of his surprising landslide in 1945 and his generally strong record in government. He pulled Labour back from the 1931 disaster, for which Macdonald has to take responsibility despite leaving the leadership five weeks before Parliament was dissolved (This table attributes 1931 to him and not to Arthur Henderson who succeeded him).

Similarly the failures of Michael Foot and Gordon Brown are little surprise. However the relative success of Clynes and Kinnock and the relative failure of Callaghan and Gaitskell will be less expected.

Leader General Elections Aggregate seat gain Aggregate vote %age gain
Attlee 5, 1935-55 +225 +12.9
Clynes 1, 1922 +85 +8.9
Blair 3, 1997-2005 +84 +0.8
Kinnock 2, 1983-92 +62 +6.8
Wilson 5, 1964-74 +61 -4.5
Hardie 1, 1906 +27 +3.5
Adamson 1, 1918 +15 +14.4
Henderson 1, 1910 +11 +2.2
Barnes 1, 1910 +2 -0.6
Gaitskell 1, 1959 -19 -2.6
Callaghan 1, 1979 -50 -2.4
Foot 1, 1983 -60 -9.3
Macdonald 4, 1923-31 -90 +1.2
Brown 1, 2010 -97 -6.2

The statecraft approach

General election results take us so far. A most detailed approach, proposed by Jim Buller and Toby James, involves looking at the things political leaders need to accomplish in order to win elections and maintain power; what they call statecraft. They suggest that leaders need to:

  • Develop a winning electoral strategy bycrafting an image and policy package that will help the party achieve the crucial impetus in the lead-up to the polls.
  • Cultivate a reputation for governing competence especially for economic policy.
  • Successfully manage their party in order to maintain power.
  • Win the battle of ideas in the elite debate regarding political problems, policies and the general stance of government.
  • Manage the constitutionto make winning elections easier to achieve for their party.

More recently, Buller and James also argue that we should factor context into our judgement of leaders. Some leaders will have to stand for election in more favourable circumstances than others.

With all this in mind, the biographers of past leaders will identify the challenges that each party leader faced and then evaluate them using this framework at two seminars to be held later this year. The first, on Labour leaders will be held on Saturday June 28 in London (more details, and registration, here). The second, on the Conservatives, will be held at Queen Mary University London later in the year.

Charles Clarke is a visiting professor of Politics at the University of East Anglia. Toby James is a lecturer at the University of East Anglia and co-convenor of the Political Studies Association specialist group on Political Leadership

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One Response to “Who were the most successful British political party leaders since 1900?”

  1. Jimmy

    What about Campbell Bannerman who gained 216 seats in 1905?

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