Power cuts, military superpowers in conflict, and Labour taking office in the midst of economic meltdown – could it be 1964 all over again?

by Declan McHugh

The incredible divergence of political fortunes that has seen Labour open up 30-point poll leads has given rise to a growing belief that the Conservatives are heading out of government. That view isn’t confined to those on the Labour side. It is now widely held in the business community, the media and indeed in the Conservative Party itself. Tory MPs openly lament that their party is careering, inexorably, to a catastrophic defeat at the next general election. The parallel that many draw is with 1997, when Tony Blair led Labour to an historic landslide. But is 1997 the right point of historical reference? Or do we need to look back several decades earlier for a more apt comparator – all the way to 1964?

That year saw the threat of blackouts at home and the eruption of superpowers in armed conflict abroad. It also saw Labour end 13 years in opposition; a narrow election victory enabling Harold Wilson to become PM. With a majority of just four, his new administration faced major political challenges from the outset. But the bigger problem facing the Wilson government was the economic inheritance left by the departing Conservatives.

An ill-fated ‘dash for growth’ had left the UK economy in a nose-dive. So much so that when the outgoing Chancellor, Reggie Maudling, handed Number 11 over to James Callaghan, he cheerily told him: “Sorry old cock to leave it in this shape. I suggested to Alec [Douglas Home] this morning that perhaps we should put up the Bank Rate but he thought he ought to leave it all to you.”

The incoming Labour government was saddled with an £800m deficit that immediately triggered a series of Sterling crises. One of Callaghan’s first acts was to raise interest rates to 7%, leading the Building Societies Association to hike rates for new mortgages to 6.75%. Although the party won a bigger majority in the 1966 election, it was never in control of the economic situation. By 1967 the Wilson Government was forced into a devaluation that saw the pound reduced from $2.80 to $2.40. Hopes of investment in the ‘white heat of technology’ were crushed as the administration was pushed into a programme of austerity that brought it into conflict with unions and, ultimately, contributed to electoral defeat in 1970.

By contrast, the political and economic conditions in 1997 were far more favourable. Labour went into that election facing nothing like the electoral mountain that stands before it today. Although the Conservatives had won a shock victory in 1992, they had done so with a majority of just 21. The electoral arithmetic today is starkly different. Assuming Labour don’t make spectacular gains against the SNP, the party requires a swing from the Tories of more than 13% just to get a bare majority. To put that into perspective, Blair won a landslide with a swing of 10%; Attlee won a post-war landslide with a swing of just over 12%. So for Labour to win a majority of any kind it must surpass those two landmark victories.

Unlike in 1964, the economy was moving in the right direction by the time of Blair’s landslide victory. The Major Government’s standing with the public had been destroyed by Black Wednesday and its aftermath. But over the next four years the economy moved into recovery, providing a solid foundation for the public investment that Labour subsequently delivered.

The same will not be true for any Starmer government emerging out of the economic chaos unfolding today. Inflation is high and forecast to persist, the pound is losing value, interest rates are set to rise and remain high, and massive borrowing announced in the disastrous ‘mini-budget’ is destined to unleash a new wave of austerity. These conditions are much more reminiscent of the situation that faced Wilson and Callaghan.

So in preparing for government today, perhaps Labour’s leadership should look further into the past for lessons that might inform their approach to the present. And the biggest lesson from 1964 is to make sure your economic and fiscal policy is agreed before you take office. One of the primary problems with the Wilson government was that it failed to decide its position on devaluation until too late in the day. That indecision meant Labour lost control of events and contributed to “creative tension” – but famously more of the latter than the former – between the Treasury and the Department for Economic Affairs, weakening the government. The number one challenge for Keir Starmer, Rachel Reeves and others is must therefore be to develop a clear and agreed response to the economic crisis before they are in the hot seat. If not, election victory could quickly turn into a poisoned chalice.

Declan McHugh is co-founder of Helm Partners, a strategic communications consultancy, and a former Labour special adviser and party director.

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