Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Good Old Mr Wilson

Over in The First Post, Neil Clark writes:

Man of the moment Ed Miliband has had no shortage of advice since he won the Labour leadership contest on Saturday. But if he's really shrewd and wants to re-establish his party as the party of government, he would do well to follow the example of Labour's most successful leader. No, not Tony Blair, but Harold Wilson. Taking over a dispirited party that had been out of office for 12 years, Wilson made Labour the 'natural party of government' (he won four elections out of the five he contested), without moving to the right, as Tony Blair did, and surrendering all Labour's traditional principles. Wilson was able to achieve such remarkable success because he realised that party unity was the key to winning elections.

This, as his biographer Philip Ziegler explains, meant taking up policy positions which "almost everyone could accept if not actually share". Wilson stressed that Clause Four - Labour's commitment to public ownership - was "the position of the whole party". On foreign policy he kept Britain in Nato, but refused to send British troops to Vietnam and supported détente with the Soviet Union and the communist countries of eastern Europe. On Europe, he kept both Labour Europhiles and Eurosceptics happy by expressing his support for the European ideal, but stressing that Britain would only join the EEC if there were adequate safeguards for the Commonwealth and for British agriculture. His announcement of a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EEC in 1975 was a classic example of Wilson's brilliant party management: any other policy would simply have split the party.

Wilson's cabinets and shadow cabinets reflected the broad nature of the Labour movement, including not just social democrats like Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland, but committed socialists like Tony Benn, Barbara Castle and Michael Foot. Wilson found room for everyone - as Ziegler states: "His preoccupation was that no one - left or right, ideologue or pragmatist - should feel excluded." Right-wingers who feared being marginalised by the advent of Wilson - a man of the left - as party leader were pleasantly surprised by Wilson's approach, while the left were kept happy because their most prominent members were given important cabinet posts. Wilson forged friendly relationships with prominent business leaders while still keeping the beer and sandwiches ready at Number 10 for the union leaders.

Of course, Wilson had his detractors: as I mentioned in The First Post last week, the far-left, including Ed Miliband's father Ralph, a Marxist academic, believed that he had 'sold out' for failing to condemn US military action in Vietnam and that in office he had not been left-wing enough. But critically, the vast majority of the left in Britain stayed onboard: Labour's electoral decline only started after Wilson stepped down as party leader and Prime Minister in 1976. After Wilson left, Labour gradually fell apart - with the left- and right-wings engaging in a brutal civil war which enabled the Conservatives to stay in power for almost 20 years.

Wilson has never got the credit he deserved, but with the passage of time, his achievements in government look even more commendable. Without having the benefit of North Sea oil revenues, Wilson extended public ownership, abolished prescription charges, established the Open University and passed important legislation outlawing racial and sexual discrimination. The gap between rich and poor narrowed in the Wilson years and ordinary people saw a significant rise in their living standards.

It will be harder for Ed Miliband to emulate Wilson's achievements today, given the fact that the media is far more right-wing than it was in Wilson's heyday. And despite the ludicrous 'Red Ed' jibes, Miliband is, on several key policy areas, far more to the right than Wilson was, as I highlighted in The First Post last week. Nevertheless if Miliband can up his game and put together a programme of progressive policies that can unite the vast majority of people in the Labour movement the rewards could be huge.

For that to happen, Miliband needs to 'do a Wilson' and listen to all strands of opinion within his party and not just a narrow right-wing clique who have dominated Labour for far too long and whose pro-privatisation, pro-war views are not shared by the population at large. To show to Labour traditionalists that the New Labour days really are over, he must find roles for prominent left-wingers like Diane Abbott and John McDonnell. But, in the interests of party unity, he also needs to find suitable positions for those who opposed his candidacy, such as Alan Johnson, the former Home Secretary, who backed Miliband's brother David. "What a change from Hugh (Gaitskell)! That man knows how to get the best out of people," enthused Tony Benn, on Wilson's leadership skills.

Labour supporters will be hoping that they'll be saying the same thing about Ed Miliband in a few years' time.

1 comment:

  1. EX-Labour voter (1965)29 September 2010 at 00:34

    One man's meat, they say......

    I do not share your rose-tinted spectacles view of Harold Wilson. I think that between 1965 and 1970 he presided over the most evil government to afflict this country in my lifetime; the damage it did changed the entire outlook of this country for the worse. But to you it is only history - some of us lived through it. And he was well served by one of the most evil politician ever to set foot in the palace of Westminster - both houses. The name? His Home Secretary, now 'Lord' Roy Jenkins. Just think about the passing of the abortion law (and don't tell me it was a private members bill by 'Lord' David Steel; he was just the dupe trying to make a name for himself. Over two million babies have been killed since that most scandalous piece of legislation was passed. And was it Ed Miliband saying today that one of Labour's strengths is how to look after the most vulnerable members of society? What a joke.
    And then there was the abolition of the office of the Lord Chamberlain. Within the week the West End was showing Hair and Oh Calcutta with it full frontal nudity that opened the floodgates now for anything-goes on TV and films where we are 'entertained' by foul-mouthed DJs and so-called comedians; one of the consequences is that decent women cannot walk the streets because of fear of assault by inadequates who have been poisoned by watching porn videos.
    And then there was another law that was passed that we cannot speak about in case we are hauled off to jail. It was indeed scandalous that a certain section of the community was criminalised for what they were and that law certainly needed to be repealed but we now have a situation where this subject cannot be commented on without fear of the thought police dragging you off as guilty without trial. And this has forced the closure of adoption agencies which were extremely successful in giving loving homes to the most difficult of children. Another of Harold's chickens has come to roost. The damage done to the social fabric of this country in that five year period has been immense and tragic. The only good thing he did was to provide Mike Yarwood with a comfortable living.