Denis Healey: ‘The best leader Labour never had?’

A Reflective Obituary

Denis Healey (30 November 1917 – 3 October 2015) has been widely described as ‘The best leader Labour never had.’ What might lie behind such claims?

This week [October 2015] the deaths were announced of two influential political figures, Denis Healey and Geoffrey Howe. Although from opposing political parties they will be linked in the history of the late 20th century. I will take a brief look at the attempts made by Denis Healey to become leader of his party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and claims that he was ‘The best leader Labour never had’.

Denis Healey lost two important leadership elections. The first was to Jim Callaghan when Harold Wilson stood down as Prime Minister in 1976.

Then he lost to Michael Foot when Callaghan resigned in 1980, and when his party was in disarray after the election of the Conservatives in 1979 led by the relatively unknown Margaret Thatcher.

In 1980, Michael Foot was backed internal to the Labour Party by the left-wing MPs who had the votes, and by the Unions who had considerable financial power.  Foot’s intellectual abilities were as highly rated as those of Wilson and Healey. However, Foot was perceived as unelectable as Prime Minister in a General Election even by senior MPs inside his own party who already considering the split that produced the SDP. Foot’s informal dress and appearance at public events contributed to his unpopularity with the electorate. There is some parallel here with the reaction by the media to the public image presented by Jeremy Corbyn this year on his appointment as leader of the Labour Party.

Foot had charisma as a public debater and intellectual. His speeches were memorable and utterly committed to a socialist vision within which the Campaign for nuclear disarmament (CND) figured prominently. Healey had the more populist appeal of the charismatic and pragmatic extrovert.

The judgement that Healey was ‘The best Prime Minister Labour never had’ has arisen particularly in the comparison between himself and Michael Foot. Denis had no doubt that he would also have done better in the top job than the avuncular and less intellectually brilliant Jim Callaghan.

Exceptional intellectual powers

Healey was Defense Secretary in Harald Wilson’s Labour Government which had come to power in 1964. Both he and Wilson had come from relatively under-privileged backgrounds to win exhibitions to Oxford where they demonstrated exceptional intellectual talents. Wilson was recognized the earlier although only a year older than Healey, and rose with remarkable speed under the reforming Attlee Government of 1945.

Dilemmas of leadership

It is difficult to compare the political events of fifty years ago with those of today, although some issues have similarities. I find a consideration of dilemmas of leadership still a useful means of exploring past and present issues.

Healey’s dilemma as Defense Secretary was accepting a diminished global role for Britain or facing dangerous economic pressures. His self-confidence as well as his ‘good war’ helped him argue for the former against considerable opposition. The subsequent pragmatic compromises were to contribute to another huge dilemma later.

As Chancellor of the Exchequer under Callaghan he struggled in difficult economic times. His gleeful assertion that he intended to ‘squeeze property developers until the pips squeak’ was never implemented. Healey faced the dilemma of retaining freedom to implement a policy of ‘progressive’ redistribution of wealth or the acceptance of fiscal and monetary controls as part of a deal with the international Monetary Fund. He and PM Callaghan were forced into accepting the loan under politically humiliating circumstances. Subsequent social hardship and unrest produced conditions for the arrival of the Thatcher era in the General Election of 1979.

Foot replaces Callaghan

Callaghan resigned as Labour Party leader in 1980. The more left-wing politicians in the party considered that the way forward was to replace him with Michael Foot. I tend to support the view that was the time when Healey lost the opportunity to become leader and possibly Prime Minister.

He failed to win the internal battle with Foot at least in part by his inattention to would-be supporters. He famously told one powerful right wing group that they had to vote for him as they had nowhere else to go.   He was contributing to the split in the Labour Party that produced the SDP. The Manifesto group supported Foot to damage the prospects of the Labour Party and promote defections to the SDP.

The best Prime Minister Labour never had?

The best Prime Minister Labour never had? The epithet has been often quoted. Why then did he fail in two attempts to lead the party? It was not for lack of ambition, energy, or intelligence. But when Harold Wilson stood down in 1976, Healey came fifth out of the six candidates and Jim Callaghan was elected. From a position as favourite to succeed Callaghan as party leader in 1980 he lost to Michael Foot who was considered honourable but likely to fail on policy and personal appeal to the wider electorate.

Comments welcomed on this fascinating figure in contemporary British politics.



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