Fifty years on, Harold Wilson’s triumph offers important lessons for Ed

by Rob Philpot

The similarities between Ed Miliband and Harold Wilson, who became prime minister for the first time fifty years ago this week, are not immediately obvious. While Wilson’s father had been an active Liberal, his Huddersfield upbringing had little in common with the north London childhood, steeped in politics, of the current Labour leader. Wilson’s studied ‘man of the people’ persona – the Yorkshire accent, Gannex raincoat and pipe, love of HP Sauce, and support for Huddersfield Town – is hardly one shared by Miliband. And few would currently wager a bet on Miliband challenging Wilson’s record of four general election victories.

Nonetheless, Wilson’s premiership offers some important lessons for Miliband. When Labour returned to power in October 1964 it did so with a majority of just four. Miliband could face similarly tricky parliamentary arithmetic in six month’s time. With the arrival of fixed-term parliaments, he will not have the luxury afforded Wilson of governing for 18 months before going back to the country and asking for a majority to ‘finish the job’.

But Wilson’s strategy of reassurance during the short parliament of 1964-1966 – the focus on making Labour the ‘natural party of government’ and the determination to reach out to middle-class voters whose support was crucial if a bigger majority was to be attainted – is instructive. It was one which paid rich dividends: fighting on a slogan of ‘you know Labour government works’, Wilson went back to the country in March 1966 and won a majority of 97, secured seats that have only ever fallen to the party in 1945 and under Tony Blair, and, at 48 per cent, polled the party’s second highest ever share of the vote. As Ben Pimlott suggested, Labour had been rewarded for ‘a sense of movement and freshness, and a reforming zeal limited only by a tight economy and a very tight majority’. Wilson’s government had ‘ceased to alarm the electorate, yet succeeded in remaining the party of promise’.  Crucially, he continues, ‘not only had the Labour government handled the economy better than the Tories, its proven ability in this field was the real point of the election.’

Miliband should, though, balance a reassurance strategy with a willingness to take tough decisions early. Wilson’s determination that Labour should not again be seen as ‘the party of devaluation’ – he had been central to the debates in Attlee’s cabinet when it decided to devalue in 1949 – led him to postpone that painful but necessary decision for three years. Devaluing when Labour had first come into office could – with good justification – have been laid at the door of the policies of the outgoing Tory government. By 1967, Labour was landed with the entire blame. The fallout from that contributed to the party’s defeat in 1970.

Both Wilson and his defenders stressed his ability to hold the Labour party together as one of his great talents. In 1973, on the 10th anniversary of his election as Labour leader, he listed ‘keeping the party united’ as one of the three most important achievements of his decade at the top. This was no mean feat. As Geoffrey Goodman, a Daily Mirror journalist close to Wilson, has suggested, Labour in the 1960s and 1970s was a ‘disparate and warring coalition of ideas and ambitions’. While the party has long been free of such deep ideological divisions, Miliband’s skill at preventing the Labour party from engaging in the kind of vicious infighting which accompanied its return to opposition after its defeats in 1951 and 1979 is nonetheless an achievement.

However, while internal party warfare is a sure route to electoral defeat, postponing tough decisions simply because they might provoke a row also has a political cost. After its defeat in 1979 Labour would pay a heavy price for Wilson’s unwillingness during the early and mid-1970s to heed the warnings of those – such as the party’s national agent, Reg Underhill  – who urged him to confront the growing power of the hard left, including the infiltration of Trotskyites into local constituency parties.

Miliband’s leadership has been marked by a belief that challenging the party and unions smacks of New Labour-like triangulation. But this determination to preserve unity above all else may rebound upon him if Labour wins next May as the anger of those unprepared for the squeeze on public expenditure his government will have to implement boils over into parliamentary rebellions and public sector strikes.

Wilson’s cabinet was also truly a team of rivals. Roy Jenkins, Jim Callaghan, George Brown, Richard Crossman, Barbara Castle, Denis Healey, Tony Crosland: this was a government of huge talent, and huge egos. And just as Miliband has an uneasy relationship with the supporters of his predecessor but one, so Wilson was confronted around his cabinet table by many colleagues who retained an emotional loyalty to his predecessor. For them, Hugh Gaitskell’s early death had robbed the party of a man who was both more principled and more able than the man who sat before them as prime minister.

Wilson artfully managed and exploited those egos and rivalries, but he rarely showed he was intimidated or threatened by them. At the height of the government’s unpopularity in 1969, the prime minister skilfully dampened the persistent speculation that he was about to be challenged for the leadership, with a joke at a May Day rally: ‘May I say, for the benefit of those who have been carried away by the gossip of the last few days that I know what’s going on,’ he began before a dramatic pause: ‘I’m going on, and the Labour government’s going on.’

Perhaps his own cultural conservatism led Wilson not to seek over-identification with perhaps the greatest achievement of his governments: the package of liberalising measures which decriminalised homosexuality, scrapped censorship, ended backstreet abortions and abolished capital punishment. Nonetheless, Wilson allowed Jenkins – a man who definitely had his sights on the premiership – a largely free rein at the Home Office, and support at crucial junctures. Similarly, on Labour’s return to power in 1974, Wilson told his new foreign secretary, Jim Callaghan, he would allow him to pursue the policies he though right – except on Israel and South Africa, the former a reflection of the prime minister’s passionate Zionism, the later his abhorrence of apartheid.

Wilson’s somewhat middling reputation – historians routinely rank him below the likes of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Clement Attlee but above Anthony Eden, Ted Heath and John Major – reflects not simply the perception of a man who appeared, as Philip Ziegler put it, to raise ‘expediency to the level of a political philosophy’, but the gnawing sense that this intellectually brilliant and skilled politician should have achieved so much more. That assessment is perhaps not one shared by the beneficiaries of the race relations or equal pay legislation which passed on Wilson’s watch. Nor does it fully take account of the skill with which he resisted American pressure to embroil Britain in the Vietnam war.

However, like Miliband, Wilson entertained grand plans to reform fundamentally the British economy, with his determination to break the conservative stranglehold of the Treasury institutionalised in the short-lived Department for Economic Affairs. It is the gap between those plans and his record into which Wilson’s reputation has fallen. In the end, it was the creation of the Open University which, above all else, Wilson wished to be remembered for. It is not an achievement to belittle. Over the past four decades 1.9 million students (many of whom may not otherwise have had the chance to go onto higher education) have studied on its courses. Politically, moreover, the Open University points to the value of a prime minister being able to lay claim to something very concrete if his or her more grandiose visions prove unrealisable.

It is probably an understatement to suggest that Miliband’s final conference speech before the general election has not captured the mood of the country in quite the way that Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ did in 1963. That speech symbolised a leader who had an agenda which appeared modern, future-focused and forward-looking. With just over six months until polling day that, perhaps, is the most important lesson Miliband could learn from Wilson today.

Robert Philpot is director of Progress

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8 Responses to “Fifty years on, Harold Wilson’s triumph offers important lessons for Ed”

  1. swatantra says:

    I remember the ’64 election and it was a close run thing, running against Alec Douglas Home a Tory Toff, and Labour just about achieved a majority of 3.
    So Harold was right to postpone ‘Jerusalem’; but then it never came in ’66 either. Cautious Harold, ever conscience of image, the pipe and gannex were just tools and probably the accent as well and the pint of beer and sandwiches.
    Harold won ’66 on the back of Englands World Cup victory. Those times will never come again. In the end it was the Unions that brought Labour down throughout the 70’s because Labour didn’t have the stomach to stand up to closed shops and restrictive practices, and the loony Left. But there you go. Society changed for the worse as well in the 60’s with Roy Jenkins and the Permissive Society, drugs and RocknRoll. Public Morality took a dive. And we’re suffering the consequences even now. There were good times, but there were also bad times.

  2. John Reid says:

    Excluding keeping troops put of Vietnam, I can’t say I agree, Gaitskell, had got Bevan Crossman,Barbara Castle nd the unions behind him,Michael foot had the party whip taken from him in 1961′ and labour had seen off Unilteralsom,and stood on a manifesto in 1959 to sell council homes, when the Tries said you’ve never had it so good, building more council homes than Attlee, and Labour had trouble explaining how they’d spend but not put up taxes in 1959′ the Tories got 13.9m votes to Labour on 12.4m, with Burgess Mcleane, and Profumo, plus 13 years in power,a nd a re surging Lberal party the Tory vote fell in 1964 to 12m, but Labours vote fell too, to 12.2m , Sp wilson won in 1964 with less votes than Gatskell lost on.

    By 1974 Benn had swung to the left,the once suspended Foot was Employment secretary and Ted Heaths industrial relations act was junked the closed ahop was brought in and even though Labour again had suggested the right to buy on council homes, Benn Reversed it, Benn and Foot had said on the EU referndum if the public voted to stay in the EU, then they’d accept it ,but by the time Wilson left, Reg underhills, record on Militant wasnt even read by the NEC, george brown and Reg Prentice had both left labour if Wilson claimed he’d United the party, as two of the right of the party had left and the left of the party had gained control of Loburs Union laws, thenHe hadnt U ited the party, he’d let it swing to the left,

    I can’t believe that Rotherham labour council members can’t have known the scandal wasn’t going on and tried to intimidate and smear those objecting,by trying to hide it, so that ring of ignoring militant, the record of ignoring militant and the winter of discontent put us out of pwer for a generation,the Rotterham case and not accepting our recent record onthe economy , could be similar

  3. paul barker says:

    Labour in 1964 had a big Liberal element who mostly left with the SDP, can you imagine Wilsons Party trying to bring in 3 Months imprisonment, without even a charge ?
    Labour in the 1970s was damaged by militant Unions, just contrast with the Unite or RMT of today.

  4. Mike Stallard says:

    OK, so I am a floating disappointed conservative and there are lots like me out there. Under what circumstances would I vote Labour?

    First of all, a lot of us did vote Labour under Tony Blair, who we instantly recognised as one of us. With Wilson, I suspect, we did it out of desperation with the fat, gay Edward Health feasting on his yacht while we starved.
    We need reassurance about the economy: we need a promise that the Welfare State will be cut back and controlled and made more efficient. We want to see scroungers and drongoes disappointed and the truly vulnerable helped much more efficiently. We want to see the National Health reformed so that the many overpaid and greedy and inefficient managers and spokespersons are replaced by nurses who are prepared to wipe people’s bottoms, to blow patients’ noses and bathe their disgusting wounds. We would also like to see far less government interference in our rapidly improving schools.
    I do not see that any of this is abhorrent to a true Labour supporter.

    Foreign policy? Thing of the past. We are desperate to do something about immigration too. Why is that anti-Labour though? And we need to leave the EU now before it turns into the EUSSR.
    Why is that anti-Labour?
    I honestly think that if the Labour Party got out of the London bubble and offered these things, they would sweep the board. But what would Mr McCluskey think of all this?

  5. John Reid says:

    Paul Barker, we still had the death penalty on the books till 1969 all be it it hadn’t been used for 4 years, and the police went unchecked on racism,let alone it was under Labour that Blair Peachand the birmingham6/Guidlford4/Maquire 7 stich ups happened, I don’t think the RMT are affilaited?

  6. Tony says:

    ‘Harold won ’66 on the back of England’s World Cup victory.’

    No way, the general election took place before then!

    Unfortunately, Wilson did not cancel Polaris. He did not send British troops to participate in the invasion of Vietnam but only because it would have been too controversial in his own party.

  7. swatantra says:

    @ Tony : True, but expectations were high for England and Wembley was the venue, and the Victory was expected. Patriotism was in the air!
    As for Polaris, we were still in a ‘Cold War’ with Russia, and Labour couldn’t abandon it if it wanted to. But nowadays, Russia is not the enemy; its Islamofacism, and ypou don’t need Trident to deal with Islamofacism.

  8. uglyfatbloke says:

    An overlooked point about the decision not to join the war in Vietnam is that Wilson simply did not have any resources to send there. The services were already over-stretched by a vast list of commitments right across the world and major operations in Aden, Malaysia/Singapore, Germany and – increasingly from 1969 onwards – Ireland. Johnson told Wilson he’d settle for even a marching band, but in reality they both knew that any British contingent would have to be at least as large as that of Australia…a Brigade Group. In fact the UK did give significant support to the US, particularly with RN and RAF facilities in Hong Kong and Singapore.

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