Dick Leonard, who has died aged 90, was a polymath with a series of successful careers, as a journalist, a psephologist, an acclaimed political historian and – albeit briefly – as a Labour MP in the 1970s. He was an internationalist whose idealism was nurtured by the lessons he had drawn from 20th-century European history and this led him to devote his long life to the pursuit of public service.
He won admiration even from those who did not share his political beliefs because of his generosity of spirit. He was tolerant and blessed with the ability never to take himself too seriously, yet his personal principles were such that at two crucial points in his life he faced decisions that would profoundly change the direction in which his career progressed. On both occasions he chose the more difficult course rather than accept compromising his own commitments.
The first arose early in his life on leaving Ealing grammar school when he secured a coveted place to study politics at the London School of Economics, conditional on his having completed his national service. As a conscientious objector, he chose instead to face a court that directed him to undertake “clerical duties of national importance”.
He duly completed this requirement at the Electricity Board, before then qualifying as a teacher at the Institute of Education, London University (now UCL Institute of Education), followed by two years in the classroom. In 1955 he got his first job in journalism, briefly editing the Teacher for the National Union of Teachers, and was then appointed assistant general secretary of the Fabian Society.
Leonard had joined the Labour party at the age of 15 and proudly participated in the postwar election that swept the Clement Attlee government into office in 1945, collecting party voting returns on his bicycle. Ten years later he was the youngest candidate for Labour in the election of that year, standing in the safe Conservative seat of Harrow West, the constituency containing his birthplace of Pinner, Middlesex. He was the second son of Cyril Leonard and Katie (nee Whyte), who met when they worked at the same furniture store in central London. Cyril became an office boy after service in the Royal Artillery during the first world war and his wife trained as a shorthand typist. Dick was evacuated during the second world war to a boarding school in Wardington, near Banbury, Oxfordshire.
His lifelong belief in a future united Europe was fostered during the 50s when he travelled widely through the ravages of postwar eastern Europe and participated in a number of the socialist camps that were then current in political circles.
He founded the Young Fabians during his five years at the society’s Dartmouth Street headquarters in Westminster and also worked with the Fabian Colonial Bureau. He once found himself pushing his broken-down Morris Minor with the help of Kenneth Kaunda, later the founding president of Zambia, to whom he had offered a lift. Leonard was a member of the Fabian Society executive from 1972 to 1980 and chaired the society from 1977 to 1978. He also chaired the Library Advisory Council from 1978 to 1981.
He became a full-time journalist in 1960, working as a foreign correspondent in the US, covering Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro at the UN general assembly in 1960 and joining the press corps on John F Kennedy’s presidential election jet in 1961. Returning to the UK he worked for the BBC, in charge of the televised coverage of the 1964 and 1966 general elections, and developed an early interest in the new political science of opinion polling.
He published his first books on British politics in these years, including the famed Guide to the General Election (1964, as RL Leonard) and the first of what would be many editions of Elections in Britain (1968). From 1968 to 1970 he was the Social Science Research Council research fellow at Essex University and acquired an MA, studying political behaviour.
In the 1970 general election Leonard successfully defended Romford for Labour, against the national swing that put the Conservatives in government, and at Westminster he was immediately appointed parliamentary private secretary by Tony Crosland, the party’s leading intellectual social democrat of the time.
The two men had met through the Fabian Society, and Leonard’s politics were much influenced by Crosland’s so-called revisionist thesis, published in 1956 as The Future of Socialism. There was a close affection between them and their families that would lead, in 2006, to Leonard editing a new edition of Crosland’s celebrated book to mark its half centenary.
He made what was greeted as a “well-informed and well-prepared” maiden speech in the Commons on a favoured topic: the economics of council housing in London, bemoaning the trebling in council house rents during the previous 13 years. He later became a trustee of the Association of London Housing Estates (1973-78).
He was a member of the Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Law (1972 -74) and in 1973 he unsuccessfully introduced a private member’s bill – which he called “a blow against social snobbery” – with the aim of removing titles from life peers in the Lords. Ending such an anachronism in a democracy, he claimed, would make parliament more effective.
By this time the issue of Britain’s membership of what was then the Common Market was already convulsing politics and Leonard was one of the 69 Labour MPs to rebel against the whip and vote with Edward Heath’s Conservatives on 28 October 1971, in favour of the principle of joining Europe.
Were it not for the political ramifications of Labour’s historically conflicted approach to this question, Leonard might have had a longer parliamentary career, but it was at this stage he faced his second crossroads.
His constituency party in Romford was opposed to Europe when Britain joined in 1973, and Boundary Commission changes before the February 1974 election made the seat a likely Conservative gain. Leonard did not stand for election, having unsuccessfully sought a more winnable seat in the difficult circumstances of being a pro-European in a party that was then widely opposed to membership. He would later briefly join the SDP, but rejoined Labour after the 1992 election.
Leaving Westminster, he returned once more to journalism, thereafter as assistant editor of the Economist from 1974 to 1985, moving to Brussels and in 1989 becoming a freelance syndicated columnist. He worked for the Observer from 1989 to 1997 and Europe magazine from 1992 to 2003. He was a visiting professor at the Free University of Brussels (1988-96), European adviser to the Publishers’ Association (1987-94) and a senior adviser to the Centre for European Policy Studies (1994-99). He was senior research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre, London, from 2003.
Back in London from 2009, he continued writing and editing a series of election guides and then authored a series of historical studies of British prime ministers. The final volume of his 1,000-page study, Modern British Prime Ministers from Balfour to Johnson, was recently completed and will be published in the autumn.
In 1960, on the croquet lawn of Beatrice Webb House in Surrey, a conference centre used by the Fabian Society and others, Leonard met Irène Heidelberger, the daughter of two German academics, who herself became a distinguished German scholar. The couple married in 1963.
Dick is survived by Irène, their two children, Mark and Miriam, and three grandchildren, Jakob, Noa and Isaac.
• Dick (Richard Lawrence) Leonard, politician, journalist and author, born 12 December 1930; died 24 June 2021
• This article was amended on 12 July 2021 to clarify the status of Beatrice Webb House: it belonged to the Webb Memorial Trust rather than the Fabian Society.