IT is 50 years since Harold Wilson became leader of the Labour Party, on St Valentine’s Day 1963. Amazingly, the world then looked a lot like it does today.
There was a Tory government led by an old Etonian (Harold Macmillan), the economy was in recession and we’d just had the worst winter in decades. General de Gaulle had vetoed the UK’s bid to join the EEC, sparking another round of hand-wringing over what to do about Europe. The latest Bond movie was out (From Russia with Love) and there was a new Pope (Paul VI). Across the Atlantic, an eloquent young President occupied the White House.
Wilson became Prime Minister (by a whisker) barely 18 months later, after the Tories were shipwrecked by a gloriously messy sex scandal. He would go on to win three more general elections, a Labour record not even Tony Blair equalled. Yet Wilson’s reputation remains at rock bottom. His Cabinet colleague Denis Healey summed up Wilson as having “neither political principle” nor “sense of direction.” Ouch!
Posterity will restore Wilson’s reputation. Non-politicians remembered him as being a quintessentially nice man. He was predictable to the point of being boring – not vacillating. A grammar school boy from the lower middle class, he won a scholarship to Oxford where, through ferocious hard work, he earned a brilliant honours degrees in economics. When told he was too serious, he put his legendary concentration to work to become funny. I remember hearing him reduce an audience at Leith Town Hall to stitches.
Though initially he sided with the left, Wilson’s politics were not those of a doctrinaire socialist or Marxist (where the waspish Healey began his own career). Wilson was more of a 19th century radical in the tradition of Lloyd George. He favoured reform, solidarity and equality – not class war. Above all, he saw the Labour Party as the tool to achieve these, which is why he gave party unity such a high priority.
What Wilson succeeded in doing – here is my point – was to transform the Labour Party electorally from being an extension of the trades unions into a broader platform for economic and social reform that embraced the new professional middle classes. During Wilson administrations we had divorce law reform, gay rights, legalised abortion, the first equal pay act and a massive extension of university education.
After the economic storms of the 1970s, the coalition which delivered these reforms fell apart, giving rise to Mrs Thatcher. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown tried to repeat the Wilson trick but did not understand that Wilson was a genuine radical, not a political conman trying to stitch together a majority. New Labour pandered to the oligarchs and enmeshed us in foreign wars. Wilson kept Britain out of Vietnam. Harold Wilson made Labour (for a time) the natural party of government without abandoning reform. This is the task facing the current leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband. Which is why I find it so bizarre Miliband has taken as his inspiration not the four-times electoral champ Harold Wilson, but Wilson’s bete noir – the Tory Harold Macmillan.
Yesterday, on the anniversary of Macmillan’s famous 1957 ‘you’ve never had it so good’ speech, Miliband went to Bedford where it was delivered, to proclaim Labour as the ‘one nation party’. It does not seem to have occurred to Mr Miliband that we’ve rarely had it so bad, and that incomes are back where they were a decade ago – a crisis that began when Ed was in the Cabinet.
Miliband wants to capture the ‘one nation’ brand from David Cameron. Hence his plan to re-introduce the 10p starting rate of tax scrapped by Gordon Brown in 2009, paid for by a new “mansion tax” on houses valued at £2m. This proposal is fiendishly populist, bashing ‘the rich’ and providing something for ‘ordinary people’. Plus it skewers the Lib Dems, who were the originators of the idea then abandoned it for the sake of Nick Clegg’s ministerial limo.
Miliband is much more tactically astute (and therefore dangerous) than he is given credit for. The public image of a backroom policy wonk still sticks. But remember that he earned his political spurs in Gordon Brown’s poisonous backroom where the black arts of knifing your ostensible allies were honed to a fine art. Miliband Jr took out his brother David to grab the leadership. Now he is willing to denounce his old mentor Gordon Brown, describing his decision to scrap the 10p rate as a “bad mistake”.
However, my guess is that ‘one nation Labour’ will not work as a political message, even if the focus groups are responding at the moment. In the heat of a general election, voters have to choose a government, even if it is only the least bad bunch. They may get bored being told Messers Miliband and Balls were centrally involved in cocking up the economy last time round, but the accusation will stick like pig manure unless Labour comes up with something more positive to sell than being ‘one nation’. There is a new proletariat of semi-employed young graduates who won’t be soft-soaped. Besides, come the election, expect Chancellor Osborne to depth charge Miliband’s vague 10p rate with a tax giveaway of his own.
By 2015, the UK (with or without Scotland) will have been in economic stagnation for the longest period since the 1930s. Tweaking demand by cutting VAT temporarily, as Miliband proposes, won’t reboot economic growth, especially as productivity has nose-dived and lack of industrial investment is turning our factories into museums.
Wilson entered the 1964 election with a plan to modernise British industry, famously summed up in his (hard to pronounce) phrase “the white-hot heat of the technological revolution”. True, it was half-baked and depended on bureaucratic state intervention. But that’s not the point. Wilson was ‘the man with the plan’ and that was something voters understood. Miliband’s populist rhetoric about bashing energy companies and banks may warm the electorate’s cockles but, deep down, they want the economy fixed. Ed has yet to explain how it will do that.