LLabor leaders who seek to cite their successful predecessors, at least in the most obvious electoral sense, don’t have much choice. Ramsay MacDonald, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair: the old-fashioned sound of these first three names tells us when most of Labor’s sporadic prime ministerships date back. It is now 50 years since a general election was won by a Labor leader other than Blair.
Successful Labor governments are even rarer if you measure success by how they are remembered. Media bias against the party, the more subtle negativity of many historians and the critical view of many Labor voters, members and politicians: all of this has combined for decades to highlight the ruling party’s failures and devalue its achievements.
This fraught story is yet another minefield for Keir Starmer in the interminable months before the election. As always, his approach to previous Labor governments has been cautious. His entourage and his instinct to get to the point on most issues may be Blairite, but in public he makes only occasional references to New Labour. Blair, visibly more charismatic, campaigned for power and governed in easier times. But even his premiership ended badly, with New Labor losing millions of voters and forever being associated with the disaster of Iraq rather than its imperfect but considerable domestic achievements in repairing public services , poverty reduction and transfer of power.
In his speeches, Starmer sometimes likes to evoke a Labor prime minister who is less divisive today: Wilson, once dominant and popular. Starmer describes him approvingly as someone who sought to “modernize” the country, but also as a figure with nobler ideas. “Harold Wilson once said that the Labor Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing,” Starmer said in 2021. “He was right.”
The fact that Wilson has also won more general elections than any other modern British party leader – four out of five he ran for – reinforces his appeal to Starmer, who has never enjoyed such a victory even as a as a deputy. It helps that Wilson’s terms in office from 1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1976 were also long enough ago that most voters know little or nothing about them. Unlike Blair, he can be presented as a relatively intact model.
However, if we look more closely at the Wilson governments, the lessons Labor can learn today may not be the ones Starmer wants us to learn. Like Starmer, Wilson has made reviving the economy his central mission. In 1964, he created a new Department of Economic Affairs (DEA), to work with the Treasury, which he rightly considered to be sometimes too passive and unambitious. But this innovation and its broader economic project failed, undermined by Whitehall infighting, the failings of certain ministers and the centuries-old reluctance of British finance to invest in British companies. The DEA was closed after five years and the economy did not emerge from its usual boom-and-bust cycle. Wilson’s initial reputation as a dynamic prime minister gave way to a more weary public persona. His tenure quickly aged him: he resigned shortly after his 60th birthday, younger than Starmer is today.
One of Wilson’s problems was that he was often better at campaigning than at government. With Starmer, the opposite could prove true. He lacks the wit, the ability to phrase sentences, and the ability to charm Wilson’s voters; but it releases more energy. Having become a politician much later than Wilson, Starmer seems determined to make the most of his opportunities. It’s hard to imagine him disappearing from Downing Street for entire afternoons, like Wilson, to drink tea at his doctor’s office in the London suburbs.
Wilson had plenty to escape from, especially in the 1970s. Besides a struggling economy, there was a war in the Middle East with global implications, a resurgence of the British far right, and a climate of introspective sadness in Whitehall , on corporate boards and in the media, where people accustomed to international influence were not present. enjoying their first full decade without an empire. The resemblance to today’s post-Brexit Britain is striking.
To some extent, Wilson’s government was simply crushed by the weight of the crises, much like the governments of the 1970s across the West. There is a risk of the same thing happening to any Starmer administration which, unlike Wilson’s, will also face the climate emergency, fragile public services and rapidly worsening poverty. Today’s right-wing media, inflamed by populism and the post-truth virus, are also even less fair to Labor than they were in the 1970s. If the party takes power, expect him to be blamed almost instantly for everything that is wrong in the country, rather than for our last 14 years under the Tories.
There is, however, a positive lesson for Labor from the Wilson era, if Starmer and his lieutenants want to heed it. For all their failures and crises, Wilson’s governments also managed to adopt or support many pioneering progressive legislation: against racism and for equal pay for women, against the death penalty and for legal maternity leave, gay rights, easier divorce and access to abortion.
These gains have been largely forgotten, thanks to the campaign since then by the right, and some on the left, to present post-war social democracy as a dead end, an inadequate solution to Britain’s long economic decline. . However, the life of a society is not only economic. Millions of lives were improved by Wilson’s social reforms, just as they were by the reforms of other supposedly unsuccessful Labor governments. To emphasize this is not to deny the many terrible compromises and disappointments of these governments. Labor performed far less well in office than it might have, especially in the precious era when it had a large majority, as Wilson did in the late 1960s and Blair from 1997 to 2005.
If Starmer wins the election, it would be foolish to expect a major change in this trend. But when and if his administration does anything right, from a center-left perspective – when and if it does “a difference worth fighting for”, as Starmer promised in his New Year speech yesterday – this must be recognized and then remembered. Otherwise, the history of the ruling Labor Party will continue to be written largely by its enemies, and power will generally be held by others.