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Does Labour have a broader charisma problem?

10:00 am - January 22nd 2012

by Mark Thompson    

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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.

Jim Callaghan and Gordon Brown were also PM during this period but they never won any elections. 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. Wilson was the first leader to really get the importance of TV and its effect on the electorate. 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 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.

But 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. 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).

The barrier does appear to be set a fair bit higher for Labour. 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.

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.

There is also some talk about Yvette Cooper as a replacement. There is no doubt she is capable and we shouldn’t underestimate how the electorate may react positively to Labour’s first female leader*. 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.

Mark Thompson blogs at Mark Reckons

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About the author
Mark Thompson is an occasional Liberal Conspiracy contributor. He is a Lib Dem member and activist and blogs about UK politics here
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Reader comments

I think Andy Burnham would be excellent.

Blair was a once-in-a-generation vortex of charisma. Held up to his light, every politician of our generation looks like a 40 watt bulb.

Nonetheless, Labour does have some charismatic front and backbench personalities.

The current leader is not among them. And, for that matter, NEITHER IS HIS BROTHER.

This is a problem that the left has always seemed to face.

Most people in the UK want to help those worse off than themselves, but also have a gut instinct that something has gone wrong with the system.

Those on the right tap into these emotional opinions and sway voters.

The left comes along with a 16 page report and a pile of spreadsheets to prove the gut instinct is wrong – but is then mystified as to why the average person wasn’t as fascinated by the facts as they were.

Generally, I personally prefer facts to gut instincts, but I find a lot of the left-wing intellectuals drone on in an incredibly tedious manner not seeking to persuade, but to bludgeon you into submission with reams of statistics.

What results from that is a feeling that maybe the facts were correct, but this is politics and statistics are easy to manipulate, and there is too much to wade through – so people fall back on gut instincts.

Simply reading off a list of factory production figures is not good, as Gordon Brown refused to grasp, because quite simply by the time you get to the fifth “fact”, people have forgotten what the first two facts were.

Those on the left need to learn the lesson that the likes of Wilson and Blair learnt – speak to the gut, not the brain.

4. the a&e charge nurse

[3] the power of the anecdote is well known – and has been lovingly demolished on a number of occasions

If we take health – what chance does painstaking and complex data on conditions such as cancer have against Daily Fail headlines like young mother denied life saving cancer drug?

With regard to the OP, if labour has to rely on the cult of personality then we are worse off than I feared.

I will never join or support the Labour party whilst it harbours the appalling bloodsports fanatic Kate Hoey.

@3 Ian

“Those on the left need to learn the lesson that the likes of Wilson and Blair learnt – speak to the gut, not the brain.”

Up to a point perhaps, but how far is “speaking to the gut” responsible for the many objectionable facets of the New Labour project, or indeed how far was it responsible for the worst excesses of Thatcherism in an earlier era? I’d wager that “most” people did not want to see a lot of the excesses carried out by either of these two regimes…. but happen they did.

In the end, however important charisma and presentation are, there has to be some “beef” there too. It is also possible to rely on the fact that the opposition is in disarray to sweep you into seemingly impressive position of dominance which doesn’t reflect the reality of your support. Thus people with little charisma, like Heath and Major, can win as can people who are divisive like Thatcher.

Blair won partly because he was charismatic, but partly because the opposition was so weak. Cameron failed to win convincingly because he lacked charisma and was/is seen as a toff, but again the opposition was weak, and he presented himself as the heir to Blair (God help us all!).

Ed Miliband is as far from charismatic as I am from being Prima Ballerina at the Bolshoi; but in the end his lack of charisma won’t be the deciding factor in whether Labour can regain power in 2015…. it’ll be the policies.

Let’s be very clear, the evidence thus far is that there isn’t a hell of a lot of difference policy wise between the Coalition and Newer Labour. They would have cut more slowly… but in most other respects, New Labour lives on (more’s the pity). We even have the truly astonishing spectacle of Labour lining up WITH the Tories in Scotland to oppose the plans of the elected Scottish government…. a government let’s remember whose popularity and poll ratings must make Cameron, Clegg and Miliband salivate with envy.

The SNP is a prime example of a left of centre movement, with a charismatic leader, an impressive grass roots movement, and a clear set of progressive policies resulting in electoral success. A large proportion of SNP support is derived from people who do not support independence, but see them as preferable to any of the other 3 major parties in Scotland.

Scottish Labour meanwhile is having an existential crisis; a leader even less charismatic than Miliband (hard to believe I know, but they somehow managed it!), a drubbing at the last Holyrood election, on course for losing control of Glasgow at the next Scottish local elections and potentially losing a large number of Westminster seats at the next GE due to their barmy decision to fall into line with the Tories and LibDems on the independence referendum.

Perhaps Ed and his hopeless mates should be asking His Eckness Mr Salmond for advice? I won’t be holding my breath.

I met Neil Kinnock in South Wales once and have to say that he came across completely differently in person to the way he was portrayed in the media.

I think the problem may be the way the last Labour government manipulated the press – not just how Tony Blair sucked up to Rupert Murdoch or the fact Gordon Brown was Paul Dacre’s big buddy or how they allowed the Guardian to fiddle taxes with overseas shenanigans but just using them generally.

For Alistair Campbell to get lies published in the Sun – John Major and his underpants for example, WMD in Iraq etc means that Labour has basically got what it deserves.

Whilst Labour let’s the union dinosaurs elect their leaders and those leaders are clearly not credible to govern this country they will be attacked by the press – especially when the leader has no charisma at all it appears.

This article is bang on the money and the sooner a new leader is elected by the party members and not gerrymandered by the union dinosaurs the better…

I don’t think the problem is “charisma” (what a celebrity-culture-loaded term). The problem is the fact that the media will only give Labour leaders attention if they tick certain boxes. So they must be anti union, pro capitalism; anti socialism, pro America; anti public spending, pro lower taxes. And so on. In other words they must conform to the neoliberal consensus in which the corporate media are embedded and to which they have sworn alleigance. Bliar was – Miliband might be, but the corporate media want an all-Tory government next, so yes indeed, it will not be until the next pro free market Labour leader is elected from the coming generation of (carefully vetted) candidates that they will grant him (almost certainly him – another problem) the burnish of their approval. The narrative has already been scripted.

9. Alisdair Cameron

The central point of a lack of charisma is a decent one, but the piece is fatally undercut by its assumption that Chuka Umunna has the mysterious quality. He has an aloofness that doesn’t attract, is another of privileged background and wealth lifestyle, and whose speeches are woefully wonkish and technocratic.
Furthermore, the author makes no reference to Umunna’s politics, merely noting that he is a rising star with some visibility, which to me denotes personal ambition more than principle. Personality/celebrity/glamour politics is toxic, given that it’s given us Blair and now Cameron.

What this article misses is the roll of the tory media. They have a gigantic effect on elections. And have done over the last 60 -80 years.

It should be remembered that Blair won with a huge chunk of the tory media either supporting Blair (Murdoch) or very unhappy with Major. In 1992 The tory media went into overdrive in the last 2 weeks of the campaign, and squeezed the tories home by 21 votes.

Most people don’t read pages and pages of political coverage during a 5 year term. But they do read headlines, and editorial comment. And that constant chipping away , day after day has an effect.

I don’t want a leader with ‘charisma’: Clement Attlee was one of the least ‘charismatic’ Prime Ministers in British history, and look what he achieved.

If you think that ‘charisma’ matters, you end up with Thatcher and Blair. Just as in the US they’ve ended up with Clinton (W) and Obama; nominal Democrats who – once angling for, or achieving, the top job – end up trying to out-neo-lib the neo-libs and out-neo-conning the neo-cons. Triangulation.

I want a Labour leader who will actually have the balls (note lower case) to believe in something other than the fake-austerity consensus and actually stand up and say so. The fact that there is no-one at the top end of the Labour Party who seems capable of either the belief or its articulation means that millions are left effectively disenfranchised.

It’s not that Bland Milly is dull; it’s simply that he has nothing worth communicating other than ‘more of the same’ as far as the poor, the unemployed and the disabled are concerned.

And, as Sally said above, never underestimate the rôle of the official media in skewing the debate.

Funny how a lot of Labour people talk about the ‘Tory’ media. The fact is that without exception the mainstream press in this country all sing from the same right wing song sheet. Of course so do all the main three parties, all there to ensure big business gets its way in the end. New Labour had no problem dealing with the right wing media because their agendas were both the same. Miliband and Balls are just a continuation of the status quo and will never ever challenge the system that really makes our society unjust because they are just acting on behalf of their corporate paymasters. Tory, Liberal, Labour you are all just the same.

I suspect a lot of politicians considered charismatic are only considered so because they win. As you say about Thatcher, she was seen in the 70s as lacking it – but a couple of elections and a war later she was “the Iron Lady”.

Yes Blair had charisma- but surely the far more important aspect of his leadership was “modernising” the party and ditching the bits the voters didn’t like. Foot arguably didn’t have it (although he was apparently brilliant in the Commons) but that wasn’t why he lost.

Tebbit and Livingstone have a certain charisma but if they ever led their parties it would have been to disaster.

11 the judge

Newt Gringrish. Good old Newt has managed to turn a floundering campaign around because when pushed onto the ropes by his weak flank, his infidelity towards his stricken wife. Never mind that he hounded Clinton for his indiscretions, never mind that he was playing to a so-called Bible belt constituency, when he turned it around to the ‘ reporter for the MSM’ he played to his victimhood status.

If you nod sagely when attacked, when they lie to your face and attack your supporters do look at your shoes or do look at the camera. Ed Milliband, like 99% of the Labour Party, tend to look away.

Today there is definitely a charisma deficit in the party, its increasingly beginning to represent a party of policy nerds with no means of communicating realistically with the electorate, it doesn’t help that most of the Shadow cabinet are career mp’s from the Oxford set. As for Charisma though, i think your taking a particularly selective reading of history and confusing correlation with causation.

Firstly what of Clement Attlee? He was one of the most plain and boring communicators known to Labour and took them to a win so large no leader since has been able to match. So this is firstly a clear anomaly.

Also in terms of polling, people tend not to put the matter of charisma very high and prefer to vote on how the party is operating. Michael Foot was considered a weak leader, but the biggest turn off for voters in the 1980’s (especially with a ‘moderate’ SDLP choice in the wings) was the divided party that appeared to be in the hands of sectional interests (The Unions). It took Neil Kinnock the rest of that decade to seal up the damages of the 1970’s on this matter. In fact Neil Kinnock is well known for being a very good orator and someone who could connect with the public, many public speaker coaches will take some his speeches as examples of exemplary public speaking.

My point being is that charisma is of course important, but there isn’t some magic correlation between charisma and winning elections, because people in this country don’t often vote along leadership lines but on the state of parties, which is why all this dirty laundry airing by Labourites is so destructive. Still, i do think that since Ed Miliband isn’t really coming out with any hard policies that clearly separate him from Cameron it could well become a charisma contest.

@10 & 11

Although I wouldn’t argue that the media has no role, and I’m in agreement that most of our media is deeply repugnant…. the role it plays can be exaggerated. Claims that “It wos the Sun wot won it” etc. may resonate because our political leaders obviously believe there is value to having the media on your side. As we’ve seen with Murdoch and the ongoing phone hacking debates, there is something deeply wrong with the relationship between our political elite and the media (and indeed the police).

Perhaps that stable is about to be cleaned out…or perhaps it will be fudged; but I don’t see any moves on the part of Labour (or anyone else) to propose something radical, or to ensure that people like Murdoch can’t build up the kind of “untouchable” position they enjoyed for so long.

Interestingly, one could hardly say that the SNP in Scotland had the media on their side either… and yet they seem to have managed nicely don’t they? It only goes to show that media support might be nice to have… but it is no substitute for having policies people support, doing the right things, and sticking to them.

I suspect that Labour real problem is that their campaigns and issues are not really ‘gut’ issues. A lot of what we on the Left believe and support are not really passionate ideas.

Campaigning for disabled people is not easy. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it is easy to get people interested in children with tubes in their noses and bald heads, god knows it is easy to get people going with a squaddie in a wheelchair, but what about a debilitating disease that people cannot see? No wheelchair, no problem. No-one likes to think of the possibility that we could be struck down by a terminal or restricting illness, either. Same with unemployment and homelessness. Again lots of seemingly normal people end up in one of those camps or even both, but few of us think it will happen to them. Disabled people are just normal people like us, so they drink too much, smoke too much, eat too much, swear too much and everything else, so we are so keen to find something we can blame their disability on. Not every disabled person is a plaster saint in the same way we are not too keen to believe the rape victim when we find out she did a line of coke and had the odd quickie in the stationary cupboard. The only ‘true’ rape victim is the classic ‘virgin in a vicarage’. It is not the same kind of fear that the Russians are coming of the eighties, the Poles are coming today or Muslims are ready to blow up your tube train.

Of course, when it does it is often too late to win them over. Few people come out of a bout of unemployment and the soul destroying misery and think, ‘God, that was so bad, I will campaign to ensure others are not subjected to such dehumanising treatment’.

To be honest, the Left have been victims of their own success in recent years. Despite our woeful record in recent decades, we have had spectacular results. We built a welfare state after the war, for example. That Welfare State was so successful that few of us can ever imagine the sort of grinding poverty that used to exist in this Country. In fact, I bet you we have all heard the old ‘We never actually needed a welfare state, no-one lives in poverty in this Country’. People on both the Left and the ‘decent Right’ (or what’s left of it) have actually forgotten the grinding poverty that the welfare state was actually set up to combat. Most working people have completely forgotten that unemployment was rife in this Country between the wars and unemployment meant penury.

That is not true of the Right, that is true of the Left as well. That is just as true for middle class sub urbanites and the inner city low paid too.

We also look back at social housing. It is impossible to imagine that we used to build a quarter of a million council houses under the Tories half a centaury ago. There are people alive today who are totally unaware that for most working class people living in affordable public sector homes was the norm. We take it for granted that social housing is the domain of the unemployed and underclass.

We now accept that decent working terms and conditions and safe factories are the norm. We appear not too interested in ‘red tape’ and the implications of removing it.

For millions of young people they have lived in a Country that the NHS provided good health cover, free at the point of use, in shinny new hospitals. Not for them the cash starved Victorian wards or the fear of becoming too poor to afford to be sick.

We find it hard to motivate people to care about the NHS being privatised because for millions of people it means nothing. A private health service is too abstract for millions of people.

One of the funniest things I remember last year was Cameron announce that he was in favour of gay marriage, not in spite of being a Tory, but BECAUSE he was a Tory. Now, is that possible? Where the Tory Party the bastion of gay rights and we have all forgotten that? Or has the Left moved gay rights onto the forefront of the agenda to the extent that openly gay men are now Tories and think nothing of it? That counts as a victory folks.

I freely admit we are losing the arguments today and who knows, perhaps we are losing those arguments permanently.

Perhaps we are witnessing the death throes of the Post War settlement, but can you really blame some people of being complacent?

18. Man on Clapham Omnibus

I think the first question should be ‘Does Labour have a policy problem’. Charisma might have an advantage in delivering a message but you have to have something to say first

Good piece Jim. And it is true that the 1945 govt in setting up the NHS and welfare state, sowed the seeds of apathy and complacency in many people.

“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.”

Well, only three Tory PMs won elections in that Period – Heath, Th*tcher and Major

Man on the Clapham Omnibus @18. I very much agree that a clear message is vital. Charisma is important, but it will only get you so far. And at the moment there is a serious lack of clarity over the message. The recent Miliband/Balls tactic on the Coalition’s cuts hasn’t helped. Labour are failing to communicate what is distinctive about what it is offering.

22. Leon Wolfeson

Blair lost the party 4 million voters. Colour me unimpressed.

@11 – Totally agreed.


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.

You mean we’re jockeying for the 2015 leadership contest already? Look, we know that Umunna is ‘Labour’s Barack Obama’ (lazy journalists, passim.), so presumably the ‘narrative’ will be about him versus Cooper (or maybe Rachel Reeves) and all that jazz. None of which actually solves Labour’s more immediate problems (see Sunny’s ‘are wonks the problem?’ post).

Next up: can Angela Eagle be Labour’s Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir? (Sunny, you already have my email address)

What a stupid, lazy and intellectually dishonest piece.

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