Tillerscast 14: 1964, part one – Labour Losing, It’s Not Unusual


What follows are some thoughts on Labour’s electoral history in general, and why the win in 1964 matters so much to Labour history, Essentially, if you take Tony Blair out of equation, Labour’s electoral history has been none too impressive.

Why is this?


By which. I mean they have often been rubbish in opposition

When the Conservatives lose, they have most often reshaped themselves in short order and won next time

  • Lost in 1929, won a landslide in 1931
  • Lost to a landslide in 1945, came close in 1950 and won in 1951
  • Lost and 1964 and 1966, won in 1970
  • Lost in 1974, won in 1979

The exception, by the way was 1997: then, it was the Tories that went bananas

Post-defeat, Labour have always prone to bitter infighting

  • They were bitterly divided after defeat in 1970 between left and right, and over Europe
  • After Brown’s defeat in 2010, they couldn’t even agree on one candidate per family


Worse still, after some defeats they have gone to the far left, and gone mad

  • After the catastrophe of 1931, George Lansbury
  • After Thatcher’s victory in 1979, open warfare broke out between the Bennite left and the moderates. Michael Foot was elected leader, the party split with creation of the SPD and ‘the longest suicide note in history’ (as the 1983 manifesto was nicknamed by Gerald Kaufmann) saw Thatcher win a landslide.
  • In 2015, Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership, the hard left took control and Labour lost to a blindingly awful Theresa May in 2017 and lost big in 2020


Each time, Labour has had to be slowly dragged back to electability

  • After Lansbury, Bevin And Attlee had to restore sanity
  • After Foot, Kinnock, Smith and Blair had to do the same: Labour was out of power for 18 years. Labour didn’t win until it had gone very badly wrong for Major’s Conservatives
  • Kier Starmer?

What of the ‘fifties?

  • 1951 & 1955 were the first case: there were bitter divisions between the Bevanite left and the moderate majority
  • 1959 was the second case as the party swung to the left. Gaitskell (below) and Wilson had to repair the damage just as it was going wrong for the Conservatives



The electoral cycle was very much a feature of the long ‘50s, and of the Thatcher years too

  • The Conservatives won in 1955 and 1959, but at the mid-point of both governments, Labour were ahead in the polls
  • Labour had a huge lead in 1962/63, but the Conservatives nearly won in 1964

Labour had to break that pattern



attleee limehouse

Labour don’t win against Tory incumbents without hope

  • Let us face the Future 1945
  • White Heat & Wilson 1964 and 1966
  • Blair & things can only get better 1997
  • Is 1974 the exeception?

When they whinge on about how terrible things are, they lose: 1983, 1987, 1992; 2015, 2017, 2020. The implicit criticism in the optimistic cloak is what works



  • Labour majorities have been pretty rare: 1945, 1950, 1964, 1966, October 1974, 1997, 2001, 2005
  • You could add winning in hung parliaments: 1929, February 1974
  • Only three Labour leaders have won outright majorities: Attlee, Wilson, Blair; if we add MacDonald only four Labour leaders have won elections
  • Since 1918 Adamson, Clynes, Henderson, Lansbury, Gaitskell, Callaghan, Kinnock, Smith, Brown, Miliband & Corbyn did not win an election. Of them, only Callaghan and Brown became prime minister
  • By contrast, from 1906 until the Tory defeat in 1997  the only Tory leader who was not prime minister was Austen Chamberlain; only Austen and Neville Chamberlain, and Home didn’t win an election
  • If you take Tony Blair out of the equation, with three big wins (1997, 2001, 2005), Labour had just two big wins: 1945 and 1966. The only big wins against an incumbent Tory government were in 1945 and 1997, and in 1945 Labour had been in government since 1940 until the left the government after VE-day
  • This, before Blair, when Labour won it had more often been very narrowly or as a the leading party in hung parliament
  • One other thought, it might be thought that it has been the Conservatives losing  elections as much as it has been Labour winning them: 1929, 1945, 1964. 1974, 1997

And don’t forget, ether is an inbuilt bias in the electoral system between 1950 to 1997 in favour of the Tories

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 10.15.23

Or to put in another way, we shouldn’t underestimate the 1964 victory


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