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Opinion

Harold Wilson's failure to reform the country is why Keir Starmer needs to listen to history 

The Labour leader should take this moment to plan an overhaul of political delivery, should he get elected

Harold Wilson

Former Labour government leader Harold Wilson was unable to fulfil his dynamic programme. Image: Allan Cash Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Next year, election year, will be the 60th anniversary of Harold Wilson’s rather partial triumph with his four-seat majority Labour government of 1964. He had to go back to the country for a second election 18 months later, which gave him the majority that saw him through to defeat in 1970 at the hands of an astonished Edward Heath.

Polls – a warning here – are not always a guide to voting patterns.  So 60 years later we are facing the chance of a revitalised Labour opposition preparing for power, and getting it. There is as much buzz around Keir Starmer as the potential new prime minister as there was about Harold Wilson in 1963. Wilson had taken over after the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell who was considered prime ministerial even though he never took power. Gaitskell seemed to be a safe pair of hands, with just enough of the ruling class about him to convince the middle- and working-class voters that he could do the job.  

There is always the idea that you need the middle classes and the upper middle class running the Parliamentary Labour Party as a kind of insurance policy that they wouldn’t make a Labour government too workerish. That is, driven by the trade unions. And it has always proved a remarkable fact that, with some rare exceptions, Oxbridge always gets to win the day in British political leadership.  

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Old Oxonian Wilson was an aspirant and a real reformer, his administrations bringing in the ending of the death penalty, the partial legalisation of homosexuality, the Open University and, among other things, an unrealised commitment to modernise British industry. To create a skilled working class, skilling workers away from poverty. Not by increasing benefits do you get out of poverty, ran his argument, but by education and better jobs that are not all manual, tapping into the natural genius of the working classes.  

Alas the 1960s UK economy was, in many ways, largely Edwardian and Victorian. As a personal example (sorry – an anecdote): when I worked for the state-owned British Leyland in a truck and bus-making factory in the mid ’60s, I was working on a radial drill and universal mill that had been commissioned before the First World War.  

Wilson’s statement about forging a new Britain in “the white heat of technology” and his later “in place of strife” were almost a declaration of war on the dominant trade union movement, the very movement that had created the Labour Party. The trade unions were wired to protect jobs at all costs, with the working class having lived through the harrowing pain of the 1930s depression.  

Wilson’s big deal was planning and the use of data to create a better world for all. Alas he did not get far. For me the Premier Inn at London’s Putney Bridge is symbolic of the demise of Wilson’s ambition for a new technological, highly skilled workforce. Before being a hotel it was the HQ of ICL, International Computers Limited, a British attempt at seeing off the US behemoth of IBM. Which it failed to do.

Interestingly, and I love pointing this out, the other side of the Thames saw the Putney Debates of 1645 when, having defeated the Royalists, the New Model Army talked about ending the class system and not allowing poverty. We came that close to a revolution, but as usual it was closed down by the wiser counsel of those bits of the ruling class that were mixed in with the radicals.  

Wilson had his limitations, for instance arming the Nigerian army to turn Biafra into a bloodbath might be his mini-Vietnam; Vietnam itself being something he kept the UK out of despite US pressure.  

But there was no way that a reform and modernisation of industry and a growth of education and skill-enhancing among workers was going to get through to ‘live the promise’. The only truly modern bit of the UK turned out to be John, Paul, George and Ringo and their storming of the US. They brought in much-needed dollars at a time when the UK was suffering from low productivity and low investment in old-fashioned, unmodernised industries. Accompanying this was a run on the pound. John, Paul, George and Ringo did get their MBEs as a pat on the back for helping to save the country, but they couldn’t do it on their own.  

What faces Sir Keir Starmer? Certainly if he enters the next election using the same old tools, the same government structure, the same old promises of getting Britain back to work, he may end up swallowed up by history like Mr Sunak. Empty, vacuous promises will abound, and even good intentions will come to nought. For Starmer has that rasping evangelism about really turning the tap off on corruption, inadequate policy, the untold indifference to the plight of those just about managing.  

This should be a time for cool pausing. For looking at the record: what empty and flatulent policies lie
scattered about in history? Should Starmer not be planning a complete overhaul of political delivery, of the poor use of public money which keeps an increasing amount of people wretched?  

I do hope Sir Keir comes banging at my door and requests advice on creating a Ministry of Poverty that would relieve all government departments of the polluting effects of poverty on their budgets – poverty which they have no ability to control. 

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here 

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