From MacDonald to Corbyn: a history of Labour leaders who ran afoul of the party

Martin Kettle
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Jeremy Corbyn already had a special place in the political record books. His more than 600 career Commons votes against Labour make him easily the most rebellious backbench MP ever to become a party leader. But Corbyn’s suspension from the party he led until April this year is a spectacular new first.

No former Labour leader in history has ever been suspended from the party. However, if Corbyn’s suspension – which he has said he will “strongly contest” – leads to his eventual expulsion, he will share a fate with a very different former Labour leader, in the shape of Ramsay MacDonald.

The two men and the two cases could hardly be more different. Corbyn has spent his career as a man of the Labour left, mostly on the back benches. MacDonald was expelled from Labour in 1931, when, as a Labour prime minister, he formed a National Government with Conservative and Liberal support in the face of the economic depression and surge in unemployment that followed the 1929 Wall Street crash.

Although a handful of Labour MPs followed MacDonald into the National Government in August 1931, the majority elected Arthur Henderson to succeed him and went into opposition. MacDonald nevertheless remained a member of the Labour party for another month, even as prime minister, before the Labour national executive finally expelled him “automatically and immediately” in September 1931. He instantly became the most vilified figure in Labour history, serving as prime minister for another four years until 1935. He died during a sea voyage in November 1937.

The only other Labour leader to run afoul of the party in a comparable way was Michael Foot, the leader from 1980-83. Like Corbyn, Foot spent the bulk of his long parliamentary career – he was first elected in 1945 – as a leftwing backbench rebel. Foot, like Corbyn this week, eventually lost the Labour whip for his frequent revolts. In March 1961 he voted against the party line over air force spending, and was expelled from the parliamentary Labour group. Foot only regained the whip after the election of Harold Wilson as Labour leader in February 1963.

Stafford Cripps, Clement Attlee’s chancellor of the exchequer from 1947-50, is the only postwar holder of the one of the great ministerial offices to have actually been expelled from Labour. That happened in 1939, when Cripps, then the MP for Bristol South-East (later the constituency of Tony Benn), advocated a “popular front” electoral strategy with the Communist and Liberal parties and with anti-Appeasement Conservatives. He rejoined Labour in 1945.

No Conservative leader of modern times has ever been expelled from the party. Iain Duncan Smith, leader from 2001-03, probably came closest, as a serial backbench rebel over Europe during the premiership of John Major in the 1990s. Much the most senior Conservatives to lose the party whip in recent years were the former chancellors of the exchequer Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond and the former home secretary Amber Rudd, who were among more than 20 Tory MPs punished for voting against Boris Johnson on Brexit in September 2019.

In the current parliament, elected in December 2019, Corbyn is the second Labour MP to lose the party whip. He joins Claudia Webbe, who lost the whip pending a court appearance next month in a harassment case. Webbe has not been expelled from the Labour party.

Other “independent” MPs in the current parliament now include Julian Lewis, who lost the Conservative whip after becoming chair of the Commons intelligence and security committee with Labour support earlier this year, and the former SNP MP Margaret Ferrier, who lost the whip for travelling from Glasgow to London and back after testing positive for Covid-19.