Canny Harold’s lessons for the two Eds

by Kevin Meagher

Clem Attlee may be lionised as a great prime minister. Tony Blair revered as an election winner.

But you need to cast a backward glance to the swinging sixties and sagging seventies to see that it is Harold Wilson (Labour leader between 1963 and 1976, serving as prime minister for eight of those years) who has the most to teach Eds Miliband and Balls.

For Ed Miliband, Wilson’s successor-but-seven, there are three main lessons to be learned.

The first is in managing the party. This was no mean feat back in the 60s and 70s. Wilson led during the golden age of Labour dissent. He had to contend with a cabinet containing some of the hugest egos British politics has ever produced: Crossman, Jenkins, Healey, Callaghan, Castle and George Brown.

Wilson sat pre-eminent amid this mass of turbulent, squabbling, brilliance; partly, it has to be said, through the involuntary tactic of being distrusted by just about everyone.

But Wilson used talent effectively. His Gaitskellite chancellors: Callaghan, Jenkins and Healey – each loathed Wilson and were all strong potential replacements; yet Wilson co-opted their brainpower and political brute force for the good of his governments.

Similarly, Ed Miliband has made early efforts to put the cabalism of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown behind Labour.  That, itself, is a welcome throwing open of the party’s windows. Like all leaders he has rewarded loyalty, but he has embraced rivals too.

The promotion of Ed Balls to shadow chancellor – even in his opponents’ eyes, surely a round peg in a round hole – is a signal that there is a new approach to talent management. But shared offices and advisers between the leader and shadow chancellor is a canny piece of feng shui, worthy of the scheming Wilson.

The second lesson is to capture the mood of the times. Here, Wilson excelled like no other. Tony Blair may have had Noel Gallagher round to Number 10, but Harold Wilson posed with The Beatles – and shamelessly arranged for them to receive MBEs (which, of course, an even more arch media manipulator, John Lennon, handed back in protest at British arming the federal government during the Nigerian-Biafran war).

Wilson personified the politics of the sixties: an Oxford don from humble origins who appealed to working and middle-class voters alike. A moderniser and populist in a way no Labour leader has been before or since. His celebrated 1963 conference speech about the Britain that would be forged in the “white heat” of technology was as enduring a vision for his view of the 1960s as John Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric was for his.

In social policy, Wilson responded to the mood of the times allowing home secretary, Roy Jenkins, to repeal restrictive laws on homosexuality, censorship and divorce. As a northern Methodist, Wilson did not always approve, but he nevertheless made an ally of reform in what he recognised was a fast-changing Britain.

For Ed Miliband, a self-confessed geek, embodying our new political times may be a tougher call. But his earnest attempt to move Labour on from its recent past and reach out to movements beyond the party has the ring of authenticity about it. Mainly, however, he is fortunate to face a government laden with impossible contradictions.

The wax on David Cameron’s feathers will, at some stage, become unstuck. Ed Miliband will get his shot at capturing the mood of the country in due course (in a way that Neil Kinnock did not with Thatcher’s premature exit in 1990).

But this is not 1963. Wilson took over following Gaitskell’s death just a year before the 1964 general election. This Tory government, unlike Alec Douglas-Home’s, is not at the fag end of its term, so Ed Miliband will be a spectator a while longer.

Harold Wilson’s final lesson is showing how to leave a legacy. Wilson’s many adverse critics over the years have been coruscating of his “failings” in office. The brilliance of his team and the lofty ambitions of the 1960s are said to have given way to mediocre achievements.

With hindsight, however, his record doesn’t look that bad at all, particularly that of his 1964-70 government.

Wilson is harshly judged for failing to alter Britain’s economic destiny and for sterling’s devaluation in 1967. But he should also be remembered for comprehensive schools and the Open University; doing more for social mobility than any prime minister since. And he presided over a golden age of the welfare state, with ordinary families benefitting most from a concerted effort to make British society more equal.

Perhaps his greatest feat, however, lay in foreign policy. Unlike Tony Blair over Iraq (and even the saintly Attlee over Korea), Wilson kept Britain out of a disastrous American war, in his case Vietnam, despite Lyndon Johnson’s taunts and threats. (And in the middle of the Cold War, the stakes were arguably a good deal higher than they would have been in brushing off George Bush).

He was no angel. Wilson was an inveterate plotter. “If he swallowed a sixpence, he’d shit a corkscrew”, noted one trade union opponent. But Harold was also a tactical genius. That is not a back-handed compliment; Wilson was ahead of his time. As a consummate media performer, he would have thrived in our contemporary 24/7 coverage of politics.

As a tactician, Wilson ingeniously called a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Community in 1975, allowing a deeply divided Labour cabinet (and country) to make a decision on the issue without seeing his government collapse.

Oh, and lest anyone forget, Harold won four general elections along the way.

Not to be outdone, Wilson – a former shadow chancellor himself – also has useful lessons for Ed Balls.

Wilson brilliantly created what those US political types call a “personal narrative”. As a young cabinet minister he would empty the Commons chamber in the late 1940s with his dreary, technocratic speeches on coal supplies.

Like Ed Balls, he had risen fast as a prodigiously talented economist, working as backroom boy to a powerful benefactor (in Wilson’ case, Sir William Beveridge, architect of the welfare state) before joining Attlee’s cabinet table in 1945.

In fact Wilson was an even more prodigious understrapper, becoming president of the board of trade at 31; the youngest cabinet minister of the Twentieth Century.

But not every apprentice becomes a master. Wilson managed to do so by creating his own vote-winning persona, putting aside the statistician’s anorak and donning his trademark Gannex mac instead. He transformed himself from a technocratic, charisma-free big brain into a witty, populist everyman.

Ed Balls has latterly tried something similar, moving out of Gordon Brown’s shadow to forge his own, more rounded identity. This came too late for last summer’s leadership contest, but not, perhaps, for the next.

His candid description of overcoming his childhood stammer is a deeply personal revelation. But smart politics too; receiving a sympathetic hearing for his occasional presentational slips, the only real weakness in his game.

So there we have it. Memories of Blair and Brown are raw. Either Ed would probably find few immediate qualities to emulate. But blowing the cobwebs off Harold Wilson’s record may unearth a few useful pointers.

After all, Harold won more elections than Tony Blair and governed for
longer than Attlee. He must have got something right.

Kevin Meagher is a campaign consultant and former ministerial adviser.


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9 Responses to “Canny Harold’s lessons for the two Eds”

  1. Tacitus says:

    Rather than being the great success suggested in this posting, I would argue Wilson was dvisive and helped set up a movement that allowed Kinnock and later Blair to totally realign Labour away from socialism and towards social democracy.

    Hhe sold out from list early left-wing days and created an environment where Labour moved further to the right. Only by reneging on many socialist principles could he create an environment where he could be replaced by Callaghan rather than Tony Benn.

    He will not be missed.

  2. Robert says:

    Tacitus, people forget that Wilson brought in new rules for strikes then backed down, and of course Thatcher then took these up.

    I’ve no doubt Wilson is seen as being Labour top gun now, because he was more like the New labour party although he did not go though with the strike laws, his wage rules which made that hikes in wages where held down. The seaman’s strike hurt Wilson badly.

    So to say Wilson was the start of new labour with that Great Welsh Pillock, was the end of the Labour movement

  3. john p Ried says:

    Tacticus Robert ,I was goingto write a scathing attack on Wilson as a leftwigner who left labour that it was in such astate that no amtter how hard they tried we were out of power for a generation, But to call Wilson New labour is rediculous, When Gaitskell wnated to get rid of clause4 in 1960 ,Wilson led the main cahrge agsitn Gaitskell,and was very silent on foots unilateralist plan and when foot had the party whip withdrawn in ’60,it was Wilson after his victory in 63 that brought him back in the fold,
    As fr Callaghan being a Gatskellite who despised Wilson ,He aw asEWilsons biggest ally and fully supported the 74 manifesto, And Healey backed wilson over George brown for leader, As for the idea that Benn would have won the 76 leadership contest if it weren’t for wilson geting in Callaghan, callghsn was a better politicain and Wilson wanted Healey as he now saw the damge the left were doing to the party, actually wilson begged Shirley williams not to leave in ’81
    Lastly Wilsons legacy was he inherited a untie dparty from GAitskell ready for pwer and when the 75 referendum resulted in the public wanting to stay in the EEC ,5 years later Benn said the publics opinion was wrong, look at they way they let the union through the cloised shop intimiodate people, it put the party out of pwer for years and we had to promise not to give back union power to get elected in ’97.

  4. Nice piece Kevin, a lot of people forget their history. For comparison, did an article here at Uncut (and later at the Centre Left) a couple of weeks back on the lessons Balls could learn from Healey. There’s quite a bit of common ground there.

    However, let’s hope Ed and Ed don’t follow Wilson’s fairly disastrous last government in terms of political direction, where they and Callaghan had pandered too much to the left and sowed the seeds for 18 years of opposition, not to mention the rise of Militant.

  5. john p Ried says:

    Its also worth noting that the breakaway 4 ,who were the founder members of the SDP as front benchers in th 74 government were all opposed to the Closed shop ,but got out voted on itsa introduction and George brown left the party over it and he oined the SDP in 83.

  6. Chris says:

    @Rob Marchant

    When did Callaghan pander to the left? The reason for the strikes in 78/79 was because Callaghan wouldn’t pander and tried to hold down pay for another year.

  7. Kevin Meagher says:

    Interesting to see poor old Harold still rouses such emotions! But there is no getting away from the fact he was an election winner who left, when all is said and done, a decent, enduring legacy.

    We look back with rose-tinted spectacles to Attlee, but he was criticised in his day just as Wilson was in his (as, indeed, is Tony Blair) for not making more of the electoral hands they were given.

    Robert – I’ll bet there are many ardent trade unionists who died the last ditch to oppose In Place if Strife in ‘69 who would happily have settled for it if they knew what was coming a decade later.

    John – yes, Wilson opposed Clause Four rewrite in 1960. But Wilson bequeathed Labour’s best-ever piece of branding: “The Labour party is a moral crusade or it is nothing”.

    And Healey was no fan of Wilson, despite supporting him for leader in 1963. Gaitskellites were conflicted. As Tony Crosland acidly put it, the contest between George Brown and Harold Wilson “was a choice between a drunk and a crook”.

    The bitter lesson for Labour is that we have often been an unpopular people’s party. Harold Wilson’s Labour managed to splice together modernity, decent Labour tradition and populism – and Harold embodied those elements. Few of his ‘brilliant’ cabinet detractors could make a similar claim – which is why he was leader and they were not.

  8. @Chris, well technically you could say his most important pandering to the left came earlier. As Kevin rightly points out above, perhaps the real pivotal event for the 70s (and in some way, the 80s and 90s as well) came with In Place Of Strife, where Callaghan betrayed Wilson by marching with the unions to bring it down. The Party never really recovered from that blow to the modernisers.

    It’s true that in the three years that Callaghan was Prime Minister, of course, the buck stopped with him and he did what he ought. But he hardly supported Wilson in facing down the left before that, when Wilson was leader, much to the loss of the Labour Party.

  9. Sin says:

    Goodness me Luke. Planning ahead for a whole generation. How plueciar. That’s what has got us to this pretty pass. Which ones of these would be leader of the opposition?Your post may do the opposite of your intention and urge Mili to go now and not wait 15 or 20 years for his chance – assuming another young whipper snapper (or pair of them) doesn’t come along and disrupt his succession.And why why why would a tilt at the Leadership now prevent Mili (or, ahem, McDonnell) from being round a cabinet table? Is that really the way these petty children run things?

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