Crosland, Jenkins and Healey were the reforming leaders Labour never had. They ruined each other's chances of saving the party from its wilderness yearsby Dick Leonard / October 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Book: Friends and Rivals Author: Giles Radice Price: Little, Brown ?20
In the 1960s and 1970s the Labour Party had in its ranks three supremely gifted figures, each of whom was dedicated to modernising the party and freeing it from the doctrinaire commitment to nationalisation which was sapping its popular appeal. If any one of them had succeeded in becoming party leader, something approaching the New Labour transformation would have occurred a generation earlier, to the immense benefit of party and nation.
This is the theme of Giles Radice’s brilliant triple biography of Tony Crosland, Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey, and the unspoken conclusion is that it would have been better if only one of them had existed-in which case his success would have been assured. The consequence of the rivalries of these three friends, he argues, was that each of them in turn helped to stymie the ambitions of the others, ceding the leadership to other contenders less committed to reform. The result was 18 years of Tory rule-an interlude which blighted Radice’s own prospects of a ministerial career. An MP for 28 years until last year, when he was elevated to the Lords, he was just too junior to be included in Callaghan’s government in 1976-79 and just too old when Blair formed his team in 1997.
The story starts in Oxford in the late 1930s, when the three young men were leading figures in the University Labour Club, from which Crosland and Jenkins later organised a breakaway Democratic Socialist Club, when it was captured by a communist faction led by Healey. It was a time of exceptional political mobilisation among undergraduates against the background of the Spanish civil war and the growing Nazi threat culminating in Munich, the Moscow trials and the Nazi-Soviet pact. All three-together with Ted Heath (an anti-Munich Tory)-took part in the famous Oxford by-election in October 1938 when a “popular front” candidate narrowly failed to defeat the pro-Munich Quintin Hogg.
If their formative years had not been spent in such a politicised atmosphere, it seems doubtful whether either Crosland or Healey would have been attracted to a political career. Both could easily have anticipated a rapid rise up the academic ladder and might well have ended up as Vice-Chancellors or heads of Oxbridge colleges. Jenkins, whose father, Arthur, was a miners’ MP and PPS to Clement Attlee, had already set his heart on politics before his arrival in Oxford.
After wartime military service, in which both Major Healey and Captain Crosland were involved in conflict, while Captain Jenkins was a code-breaker at Bletchley Park, each of them was elected to Parliament between 1948 and 1952. All of them were close supporters of Hugh Gaitskell, who became party leader in December 1955. I myself became acquainted with them at this time, on my appointment as a very young Assistant General Secretary of the Fabian Society, on whose Executive Committee they all served. I had little doubt then that one of them would rise to the party leadership, and my instinct was that it would be Healey. Jenkins was too shy, and Crosland too undisciplined, to win majority support among Labour MPs. Healey seemed more tough-minded and decisive.
Had Gaitskell lived and become prime minister, they would all have been assured of senior office, and the probability must be that one would have been his successor. Harold Wilson’s accession to the leadership placed a question mark against each of their futures, and his own ministerial dispositions stoked their rivalry and seemed to stack the cards initially in Jenkins’ and later in Healey’s favour. Jenkins might have got the leadership in 1968-69 when Wilson’s popularity was at a low ebb and his was rising fast, but he lacked the ruthlessness to lead a coup against his leader. Had Labour not unexpectedly lost the 1970 election, he would have been well placed to succeed Wilson if he had carried out his privately stated intention of retiring after two years.
As it was, the re-emergence of the European issue, and his own principled stand, subsequently made him unelectable, as was demonstrated in 1976 when Wilson finally stood down. Europe was also a factor in Healey’s failure to secure the succession after Callaghan’s resignation in 1980. His double somersault in 1971, when he switched his position twice in as many months, convinced the party’s pro-Europeans that he was an unreliable opportunist, and they failed to rally to him in sufficient numbers nine years later when he needed their votes to defeat Michael Foot. Crosland was never close to winning the leadership in his lifetime, though some (including Jenkins) believe that he would have been chosen in preference to Foot or Healey, had he lived.
Radice points out that when all three stood in the same leadership election in 1976, their combined first-round vote exceeded that of the eventual winner, James Callaghan. Had they agreed to suppress their own ambitions by standing down in favour of the one adjudged to have the best chance, they might well have carried the day. Radice compares their conduct unfavourably with that of Blair and Brown in 1994. Yet I, for one, am unconvinced that Brown did the right thing in that year. In an open contest it is overwhelmingly likely that he and Blair would have finished up numbers one and two in the ballot (with Blair probably comfortably ahead), with no risk of letting in any other candidate. The subsequent relationship between them would probably have been healthier if their rivalry had been brought to a head rather than suppressed.
The reality is that all three men discussed by Radice ended their political careers at a level just below the top: Jenkins as an outstanding home secretary and highly effective chancellor, Crosland as an innovative education secretary and a still untested foreign secretary, Healey as a masterful defence secretary but a less than memorable chancellor. It was not a bad achievement, but one which fell short of their full potential. Whether men of their calibre would today choose to go into politics is another question.