British Politics

, Volume 5, Issue 1, pp 65–91

Ideological alignments within the parliamentary Labour Party and the leadership election of 1976

Original Article


The orthodox interpretation of Labour Party historical analysis in the 1960s and 1970s has assumed the existence of a ‘majority’ social democratic right within the parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) prevailing over a ‘minority’ socialist left. In the limited academic work that exists on the Labour Party leadership election to determine the successor to Harold Wilson, it has become established that voting behaviour by Labour parliamentarians, and the subsequent election of James Callaghan over Michael Foot, was shaped by ideological alignments and was thus indicative of the enduring numeric strength of the social democratic right vis-à-vis the socialist left. This article offers a narrative of the succession contest and reappraises this traditional explanation. It then challenges the validity of the traditional explanation by questioning the viability of the orthodox one-dimensional left-right ideological divide. The article identifies the cross-cutting nature of ideological alignments within the PLP in 1976, and demonstrates that individual Labour MPs could not necessarily be placed in left wing (that is, economic expansionist, unilateralist and anti-common market) or right wing (that is, economic consolidators, multilateralist and pro-common market) pigeon holes. By analysing the attitudes and behaviour of all Labour parliamentarians across the three dominant ideological policy divides (that is, the economy, defence and the common market), the article will demonstrate that left wing thinking was actually predominant within the PLP on the economy, defence and the common market. Our revisionist account highlights how the candidature of Foot failed to secure the loyalty of ideological bedfellows, while the triumph of Callaghan was due to his capacity to appeal to those who did not necessarily share his ideological commitments.


the Labour Party party political leadership leadership elections prime minister james Callaghan party factionalism parliamentary behaviour 


The following newspapers were researched during the course of the leadership campaign, and helped to inform the analysis: (The Times, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Guardian and Observer).

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Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Timothy Heppell
    • 1
  • Andrew Crines
    • 2
  • Robert Nicholls
    • 2
  1. 1.School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), University of LeedsLeedsUK
  2. 2.Division of CriminologyPolitics and Sociology, University of HuddersfieldHuddersfieldUK

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