Although the British Labour Party has indeed had a party leader since its establishment in 1906, the official title of 'Leader of the Labour Party' has only been in use since 1978. Prior to that date a variety of different formal titles applied as follows;

Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party (1906-1922)
Chairman and Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party (1922-1970)
Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party (1970-1978)

However irrespective of whatever formal title bestowed upon the leader by the party itself, the individual concered remained generally known as the Leader of the Labour Party.

Method of election

From 1906 until 1981 the Leader was elected by the Parliamentary Labour Party at the beginning of each parliamentary session, although this requirement only applied when the Labour Party was in opposition, and even then most elections were uncontested. Such stipulations however didn't prevent Herbert Morrison from arguing that there 'ought' to an election at the beginning of the parliamentary session following the July 1945 General Election despite the fact that the party then formed the government. Had Mr Morrison been successful in his demand for an election, it would have been held in accordance of the time honoured practice whereby a simple majority of the votes cast was all that was required for any candidate to be declared the victor, although fairly obviously, where there were more than two candidates standing it was perfectly possible that no one would achieve a majority. In those circumstances the candidate with the fewest votes was eliminated from the contest and a second ballot was held, and so on until one candidate obtained the required majority. The record in this regard was the leadership election of 1976, when six candidates stood in the first round and it took three ballots to finally elect James Callaghan as leader.

These long standing arrangements were later changed in the aftermath of Labour's defeat in the 1979 General Election, which saw the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy come to prominence in its efforts to democratise the party and make it more accountable to individual members. One of its major aims was the extension of the franchise for electing the leader, a proposal which led to considerable debate between the left and right of the party. A special Labour Party conference held at Wembley on the 24th January 1981 eventually agreed that in future both the party leader and deputy leader would be chosen by an electoral college, where affiliated organisations (essentially the Trade Unions, although also including various socialist groups such as the Fabian Society) had a 40% share of the vote, and the Parliamentary Labour Party and Constituency Labour Parties each had a 30% share of the vote. Both Neil Kinnock in 1983 and John Smith in 1992 were chosen by this method, however as part of the modernising reforms introduced by John Smith the composition of the electoral college was changed in 1993, so that the three constituent parts of the electoral college each had one-third of the votes whilst both constituency parties and trade unions were required to ballot their members and divide their votes accordingly. It was this revised electoral college that chose Tony Blair as leader in 1994 and would have applied in 2007 had there been an actual contest required. As with the prior arrangements, under the electoral college system any candidate was required to achieve an overall majority in order to be declared leader. It so happens however that every case of a leadership election held so far on this basis, the first ballot has delivered a decisive verdict.

Although the establishment of the electoral college has seen the Parliamentary Labour Party lose its monopoly over the choice of leader, it remains especially influential in the process, since although any affiliated organisation or constituency Labour Party can nominate someone to be leader, any nominee must receive the support of at least 12.5% of the Commons members of the Parliamentary Labour Party in order to qualify as a candidate. The precise form of words used here is important, since Labour members of the European Parliament also qualify as members of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and although they form part of parliamentary party for the purposes of voting in the electoral college, they don't for the nomination process. (The intention being presumably to ensure that the chosen leader has at least some degree of support from his fellow MPs.) It should however be noted that the 12.5% threshold only applies where there is a vacancy, and rises to 20% when there is no vacancy, i.e. someone wishes to challenge the incumbent; since the Labour Party Rule Book states that in respect of the office of party leader, "nominations shall be sought each year prior to the annual session of party conference", and therefore (in theory at least) it remains an annual office.

This requirement to obtain a minumum level of support from amongst the Labour members of the House of Commons was the problem faced by John McDonnell in 2007, who despite his declared intention to stand in the leadership contest, could only secure the support of twenty-nine MPs and therefore fell well short of the required target of forty-five. However despite the fact that the 2007 leadership contest turned into somthing of a non-event, it was still possible at one time to purchase "souvenirs of these historic elections" in the form of "special leadership elections mugs and pins".

One Member One Vote

Under the old electoral college system (1981-1993) it was often the case that the individual Trade Unions and indeed constituency parties paid little heed to the actual views of their members as to the choice of party leader, with the relevant executive committees deciding on who to support and throwing their entire voting strength behind that individual. Towards the end of the 1980s as the reformist wing of the Labour Party recovered its strength and sought to bring an end to this practice under the rallying call of One Member One Vote (OMOV). They were eventually successful and, as noted above, one of the changes introduced in 1993 was the requirement that constituency parties, trade unions and other affiliated organisations actually ballot their members, and that their share of the vote was then allocated in accordance of the results of that ballot. It is however worth noting that in practice it is often a case of One Member Many Votes, since it is perfectly possible for any individual to be a member of their local constituency Labour Party, a member of an affiliated trade union, and a member of any number of affiliated societies and therefore be able to cast a separate vote in each case. Indeed every Labour MP always has at least two votes; one as a member of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and another as a party member, although of course the former carries far more weight in influencing the outcome of the contest.

Acting leaders

On two occasions the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party has assumed temporary leadership of the party following the unexpected death of the incumbent. The first instance was that of George Brown who was the acting leader from the 18th January 1963 to the 14th February 1963 following the death of Hugh Gaitskell, and more recently there was the case of Margaret Beckett who was similarly acting leader between the 12th May 1994 to 21st July 1994 following the death of John Smith. Although both Brown and Becket stood as candidates in the resulting leadership elections, neither was successful.

For the sake of completeness the names of those individuals who served as the annually elected chairmen of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) between 1900 to 1906 have been included. As the LRC is regarded as the forerunner of the Labour Party, it is sometimes the case that its chairman are also referred to as being leaders of the Labour Party, although strictly speaking there was no actual party in existence at that time.


Chairmen of the Labour Representation Committee

Leaders of the Labour Party


  • Leaders of the Labour Representation Committee and the Labour Party (1900–2004)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press, May 2006; online edn, Jan 2008
  • Leaders of the Labour Party
  • Labour Leadership Election
  • Mary Durkin and Paul Lesterm, Leadership Elections: Labour Party, from the House of Commons Library

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