Labour’s forgotten leader

Remembering Labour’s Forgotten Leader.

Published on Labour List 11th April 2018

 

Harold Wilson is Labour’s most successful leader. This has long since been forgotten, but the

House of Lords began to put him back in the spotlight on March 6th when two politicians who

served under him, Bernard Donoughue and Giles Radice, gave lectures remembering him as

Prime Minister. Lord Donoughue, drew on inside knowledge  – he was one of Wilson’s “Kitchen Cabinet” after the first 1974 election and set up the Number 10 Policy Unit. Although the term ‘soft left’ had not been coined, Donoughue sees him in that tradition. This partly explains why the Blairites – deliberately – and the Corbynites – accidentally – have forgotten Wilson.

 

The basis of Wilson’s claim to success is his achievement in winning four of the five elections

he fought. As Donoughue says, this is unprecedented. Attlee won one and a half – 1945 followed

by the narrow victory of 1950 when the writing was on the wall – while Blair won two and a half-

the Landslide of 1997 repeated in 2001, followed by the narrow victory of 2005 when the writing

was on the wall. Labour has not won an election since.

 

So what did Wilson have going for him and what lessons can he teach today? Donoughue touches

on several, notably being adored by Labour voters and ‘hated by the Daily Mail, itself a proof of

his great qualities”. The route to being hated by the venemous Mail was his skill in leading the

Labour Party, divided as always between the hard left and the hard right, though Wilson himself

was fond of quoting the maxim “If you cannot ride three horses at the same time, you should not

be in the circus”* – and the divisions were not yet toxic. Wilson came from the soft left which Donoughue defines as “the familiar left wing Tribunite ladder” up which Wilson climbed, based

on the weekly Tribune newspaper – plus the Tribune Group of Labour MPs, which then split with

the hard left Campaign group emerging. But under Wilson the left = right split did not go critical, though the social democratic right which was to form the Social Democrat Party in the 1980s was already visible.

 

For Donoughue, his “most valuable leadership quality was in understanding that the Labour Move-

ment has always contained a coalition of two distinct traditions”, which he defines as the liberal

progressive intellectual elite, and “second the rank and file Blue Labour, including trade unions,

…concerned with the problems facing ordinary working people in everyday life”. Its a simple sketch which needs more work, but Donoughue  is right to seeing that bridging divides in the Party was Wilson’s critical task and his comment that “Neither side should… dominate and neglect the other, this time the Blue Labour core, with dire results in the Referendum”, makes sense.

 

The Blair- New Labour attitude to working people, was toxic, but it would be sensible to note that Wilson’s attitude to what became the Hard Left was dismissive, and Wilson had no time for Tony Benn, who like Wilson and Callaghan has largely vanished from public gaze. But that is partly due to New Labour, and Donoughue is right to suggest that the priority of Wilson as “improving the daily lives of working people from whatever class” seemed to New Labour utterly irrelevant, and this was the root of the rise of UKIP. Working people had been rejected by New Labour and the Referendum of 2016 was pay back time, largely in the old mining areas Thatcher had decimated.

 

As Donoughue said, Wilson healed the Labour split of 1972 over Europe with a referendum which

he used (in 1975) “to unite and not divide”. The first referendum was a massive success, achieved a 2/3 majority against Leaving the EU (the Tories had taken the UK into the European Community

in 1972 using parliament) and put the issue into touch for a generation. It was the behaviour of

the Blair- Cameron elite, dangerously out of touch with small town Britain, which allowed that

consensus to be broken. And the first EU referendum has been forgotten. There cannot be a

second EU Referendum. The 2016 vote was the second.

 

Wilson alas no longer figures in a history written by the victors, namely the Blair New Labourites

of the 1990s. However as Donoughue says, their day is over though they show no signs of under-

standing that the circus has moved on. They patronised the old Labour Right wing, the Unions and

the anti-capitalist and pro public service core of the party. Donoughue argues that “it may be time to move Labour’s policies, as we did in the last election, towards the soft left”. This is the way to move,

and in doing so it is vital to understand the legacy of Harold Wilson. We wait for Giles Radice to

put his lecture into the public arena, but the recovery of Wilson’s remarkable career surely cannot be long delayed.

 

* which the ILP always said was invented by their leader in the 1930s, Jimmy Maxton.

 

The lecture can be found on Lords Speakers Lectures, Harold Wilson, a flawed political genius

Remembering Labour’s Forgotten Leader.

Published on Labour List 11th April 2018

 

Harold Wilson is Labour’s most successful leader. This has long since been forgotten, but the

House of Lords began to put him back in the spotlight on March 6th when two politicians who

served under him, Bernard Donoughue and Giles Radice, gave lectures remembering him as

Prime Minister. Lord Donoughue, drew on inside knowledge  – he was one of Wilson’s “Kitchen Cabinet” after the first 1974 election and set up the Number 10 Policy Unit. Although the term ‘soft left’ had not been coined, Donoughue sees him in that tradition. This partly explains why the Blairites – deliberately – and the Corbynites – accidentally – have forgotten Wilson.

 

The basis of Wilson’s claim to success is his achievement in winning four of the five elections

he fought. As Donoughue says, this is unprecedented. Attlee won one and a half – 1945 followed

by the narrow victory of 1950 when the writing was on the wall – while Blair won two and a half-

the Landslide of 1997 repeated in 2001, followed by the narrow victory of 2005 when the writing

was on the wall. Labour has not won an election since.

 

So what did Wilson have going for him and what lessons can he teach today? Donoughue touches

on several, notably being adored by Labour voters and ‘hated by the Daily Mail, itself a proof of

his great qualities”. The route to being hated by the venemous Mail was his skill in leading the

Labour Party, divided as always between the hard left and the hard right, though Wilson himself

was fond of quoting the maxim “If you cannot ride three horses at the same time, you should not

be in the circus”* – and the divisions were not yet toxic. Wilson came from the soft left which Donoughue defines as “the familiar left wing Tribunite ladder” up which Wilson climbed, based

on the weekly Tribune newspaper – plus the Tribune Group of Labour MPs, which then split with

the hard left Campaign group emerging. But under Wilson the left = right split did not go critical, though the social democratic right which was to form the Social Democrat Party in the 1980s was already visible.

 

For Donoughue, his “most valuable leadership quality was in understanding that the Labour Move-

ment has always contained a coalition of two distinct traditions”, which he defines as the liberal

progressive intellectual elite, and “second the rank and file Blue Labour, including trade unions,

…concerned with the problems facing ordinary working people in everyday life”. Its a simple sketch which needs more work, but Donoughue  is right to seeing that bridging divides in the Party was Wilson’s critical task and his comment that “Neither side should… dominate and neglect the other, this time the Blue Labour core, with dire results in the Referendum”, makes sense.

 

The Blair- New Labour attitude to working people, was toxic, but it would be sensible to note that Wilson’s attitude to what became the Hard Left was dismissive, and Wilson had no time for Tony Benn, who like Wilson and Callaghan has largely vanished from public gaze. But that is partly due to New Labour, and Donoughue is right to suggest that the priority of Wilson as “improving the daily lives of working people from whatever class” seemed to New Labour utterly irrelevant, and this was the root of the rise of UKIP. Working people had been rejected by New Labour and the Referendum of 2016 was pay back time, largely in the old mining areas Thatcher had decimated.

 

As Donoughue said, Wilson healed the Labour split of 1972 over Europe with a referendum which

he used (in 1975) “to unite and not divide”. The first referendum was a massive success, achieved a 2/3 majority against Leaving the EU (the Tories had taken the UK into the European Community

in 1972 using parliament) and put the issue into touch for a generation. It was the behaviour of

the Blair- Cameron elite, dangerously out of touch with small town Britain, which allowed that

consensus to be broken. And the first EU referendum has been forgotten. There cannot be a

second EU Referendum. The 2016 vote was the second.

 

Wilson alas no longer figures in a history written by the victors, namely the Blair New Labourites

of the 1990s. However as Donoughue says, their day is over though they show no signs of under-

standing that the circus has moved on. They patronised the old Labour Right wing, the Unions and

the anti-capitalist and pro public service core of the party. Donoughue argues that “it may be time to move Labour’s policies, as we did in the last election, towards the soft left”. This is the way to move,

and in doing so it is vital to understand the legacy of Harold Wilson. We wait for Giles Radice to

put his lecture into the public arena, but the recovery of Wilson’s remarkable career surely cannot be long delayed.

 

* which the ILP always said was invented by their leader in the 1930s, Jimmy Maxton.

 

The lecture can be found on Lords Speakers Lectures, Harold Wilson, a flawed political genius

Comments are closed.