Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 23 January 2012

Does Labour have a charisma problem?

I was thinking the other day about the Labour Party and its recent history and I realised something that had not really occurred to me before. Despite having held power for almost half of the last 50 years, there are only two Labour PMs from that period who have actually won an election. They are Harold Wilson and Tony Blair.

I think perhaps this sometimes gets a bit lost in the detail of the 7 election wins and 24 years of power they yielded. Of course Jim Callaghan and Gordon Brown were also PM during this period but they never won any elections.

The reason I am interested in this is because it shows that it is actually quite rare for Labour to have leaders that actually win power following an election. In that period there has been Wilson, Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Smith, Blair and Brown. Seven leaders and only two of them managed it. OK in the case of Smith fate intervened to prevent him from contesting an election as leader but even discounting him it is a success rate of only one third. And Kinnock even had two bites of the cherry and failed both times.

What is particularly interesting about this fact for me is that from that list of leaders, Wilson and Blair both stand out as being particularly charismatic. Wilson was the first leader to really get the importance of TV and its effect on the electorate. Looking at old footage of him it can seem quite staid and fuddy-duddy but for his time he was able to connect with the electorate in a way that his contemporaries struggled to do. That must have had a strong bearing on the fact that he managed to win 4 of the 5 elections that he contested between 1964 and 1974 (inclusive). Blair of course was indisputedly the most charismatic politician of his political generation and used this as leverage to help his party win 3 elections.

Callaghan had some avuncular qualities but made a number of mistakes and was rolled over by the Thatcher juggernaut. Foot was an intellectual powerhouse but was unable to connect with the electorate. Kinnock never connected either, perhaps because of his tendency to make long winded speeches that struggled to get to the point. Smith as discussed never had a shot as he died in 1994 and Gordon Brown was a charisma disaster area.

This suggests that far from the pendulum swinging back and forth between the two main parties with any sort of regularity (the Buggins Turn rule) there is a lot of resistance by the electorate to elect a Labour leader as PM unless they are particularly charismatic. I'm not quite sure why this is as the Conservatives don't appear to obey this rule as much. Heath was terrible at connecting and yet won in 1970 and Thatcher was reguarly derided in the 1970s for lacking what was needed in this area (note the joke in that episode of Fawlty Towers about "The wit of Margaret Thatcher" being one of the world's shortest books for example). And John Major was not exactly blessed with a great ability to connect either and yet he won in 1992 with the highest number of votes in UK electoral history (although he was up against Kinnock of course).

Maybe this is unfair to Labour but the barrier does appear to be set a fair bit higher for them. Which brings me to Ed Miliband. Looking at him purely in historical terms, his characteristics are probably closer to Foot and Kinnock than they are Wilson or Blair. He is a policy wonk who like some of his predecessors who failed to win elections is struggling to be heard. Much of the talk is about his personaility and lack of being able to connect. He has made some brave attempts to break through this. His speech at the Labour conference last year was widely derided but it contained some interesting ideas that chime with the times we are in. But of course hardly anyone remembers that now amid all the talk of his fragile hold on the leadership and attacks from the left and right of his party on a seemingly daily basis.

I would be surprised if Ed Miliband manages to get to the end of the year as Labour leader. The rumblings are already quite loud and it is only mid-January.

But who should replace him? A lot of the talk is about Yvette Cooper. There is no doubt she is capable and we shouldn't underestimate how the electorate may react positively to Labour's first female leader*. I even predicted she would be Labour leader by the end of the year myself in my 2012 predictions a couple of weeks ago. But Cooper is also a policy wonk by background. She has an unfortunate tendency to speak in the way that lots of New Labour rising stars of the noughties cannot seem to help, reeling off statistics and repeating the same points over and over again in the same interview. I think with her the party could end up with pretty much more of the problem that they have with Ed.

Which makes me wonder if it might be time for them to skip a generation. There is somebody who was only elected in 2010 but who has already reached the Shadow Cabinet. He definitely has the charm and charisma that Wilson and Blair had and is already being tipped for the top, albeit usually mentioned as the "next leader but one". He is also highly intelligent and has a way of talking that really does seem to connect with the public. I am talking of course about Chuka Umunna.

His youth (he is 33) and lack of experience may count against him but David Cameron had only been in parliament for 4 years when he became leader of his party. And Nick Clegg had only been an MP for less than 3 years when he became leader of his. The trend for younger and only recently elected leaders is well established.

So the question is whether Labour is willing to take a chance on an untested youngster who seems to have the characteristics required to win elections. History would seem to suggest that it will take someone like him for the party to regain power in 2015.

*I am aware that Margaret Beckett was also leader briefly in 1994 but I am talking about leaders who were elected by the party.

NOTE: For what it is worth, from my personal experience I met Yvette a few years back through my professional work. She breezed into the meeting, made a set speech, took a few questions which she basically didn't answer and breezed out before the meeting ended. In stark contrast I was on a radio show with Chuka a couple of years ago and he was charm personified. Despite the fact that I was disagreeing with him he was very graceful and made me think more about my position. He also contacted me on Twitter afterwards to say hello and thank me for the debate.

An edited version of this post was originally published on Liberal Conspiracy.


Richard Morris said...

That's a great piece Mark - tho I suspect Miliband will still be leading labour in 2015 just because Labour don't bump their leaders off (i wrote this a while back, still think it's true...)..

Lady Virginia Droit de Seigneur said...

It's a fair question - John Major managed to win without being charismatic but generally it seems some degree is required.

I struggle to see a decent replacement for Ed Miliband. If it's his brother it might be the precursor for some really nasty civil warfare. Cooper is economically illiterate and everyone would suspect hubby of running the show. Balls is electoral poison as far as I can see.

This brings me on to Umuna. He's certainly articulate although very very green. His personal wealth (those £1,200 suits!!) and those funny offshore tax arrangements will come under much closer scrutiny if he becomes leader.

I genuinely think Labour might have been better going with Alan Johnson as a caretaker - well liked and with enough credibility to land a few blows on the Tories.

They're stuck with Ed M who looks more and more like IDS as leader every day.

Good - they deserve at least a decade in Opposition