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With the 2020 Labour leadership contest reaching towards its climax in April, what lessons are there from the past?

The AMSR | Archive of Market and Social Research has polling results from previous contests which are instructive:

  • After James Callaghan stepped down in 1979, NOP found among all voters that 16% wanted Denis Healey, while 13% each wanted David Owen and Shirley Williams, 9% were for Tony Benn, and 5% for Michael Foot. But among Labour supporters, it was Tony Benn at 16%, and Michael Foot at 8%, who garnered comparatively greater support.
  • Then in July 1983, after Michael Foot had won the Labour leadership and lost the subsequent general election, he stepped down and another leadership contest began. MORI asked “Who should lead Labour?” and among all voters found that 29% were for Neil Kinnock, 30% for Roy Hattersley, 14% for Peter Shore, and 2% for Eric Heffer. But among Labour supporters, as many as 47% preferred Neil Kinnock and only 23% the more centrist Roy Hattersley.
  • And in May 1994, following the death of John Smith, MORI found that among the general public Tony Blair had a 13% lead over all other leadership candidates but this shrank to only 7% among Labour’s own supporters.

With hindsight we now know who became leader on each occasion, and the results of the subsequent general elections. The lesson appears to be that by choosing a radical leftist leader who is more fully supported by Labour voters than by the general public, the Labour party adopts a recipe for failure.

Bearing in mind the current contest, recent polling results from YouGov, Survation and others send mixed signals. But it seems clear from previous contests and elections that Labour Party members now have this choice: they can choose the radically-minded Rebecca Long-Bailey, but they would have a greater chance of winning the next general election with Sir Keir Starmer, whose appeal reaches more fully across the electorate as a whole.


The Archive of Market and Social Research contains a wide range of valuable material that is free to access. This story and much more can be found in the Archive under ‘MORI British Public Opinion (1983-2003)’ or by clicking here:

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