Unity is Strength – what Labour can learn from Harold Wilson

18th February, 2013 6:14 pm

Harold Wilson was a political giant in my formative years. His battles with Edward Heath are my first political memory and I, therefore, enjoyed “Harold Wilson Night”, BBC Parliament’s retrospective.

Interesting parallels with today abound. The most obvious is that of the under pressure Party Leader reaching for the short-term solution of the referendum on Europe with seismic, damaging long-term consequences.

However, what struck me most was the huge scale of division within the Labour Party which Wilson was forced to manage. The shadow of the Bevanite/ Gaitskellite split remained and Wilson’s Cabinet certainly contained big beasts: Callaghan, Jenkins and Healey above all but also the declining George Brown and the ambitious Tony Benn.

When Wilson was asked about his achievements, his first response was that he “kept the Party” together, before swiftly adding that he had done the same for the country. It struck me watching the interviews and perspectives from the 1960s and 1970s that far too much of Harold Wilson’s energy was devoted to holding his Cabinet and the Labour Party together and too little to the huge challenges of a Britain facing decline of traditional industries and managing the withdrawal from Empire.

When this happens to a Government, it fails. It defeated John Major, who went as far as to resign the leadership of the Conservative Party in order to maintain his position as Prime Minister. We now see David Cameron formulating a policy on Europe to try to hold the same Conservative Party, not the country, together.

We undervalue unity in today’s Labour Party. Ed Miliband’s progress as Leader has been built upon support from across the full breadth of the Labour Party. Following a protracted and very close leadership election, there were many predictions of division and conflict within Labour. The Party has, however, shown a maturity, discipline and unity following General Election defeat which was absent in 1970 and 1979.

As Britain hovers on the edge of recession once more and as Labour builds its programme for the next General Election, it is crucial that this unity endures. We must devote our energies to working together to formulate and present policies to the electorate, based on the premise of One Nation working together which Ed has identified, to secure power in 2015.

For me, the disappointment of Harold Wilson was that he was right in identifying the problems Britain faced but failed to address those problems adequately in power: we did need the white heat of technology and we did need to withdraw from Empire. But too much of the then Prime Minister’s time was spent resolving internal tensions in the Labour Party and too little to managing needed change in Britain. The huge steps that Britain needed to take then – from declining to innovative industry, from Empire to Europe – were not taken firmly enough for Wilson to be remembered as a Prime Minister of the stature of, for example, Clement Attlee.

Wilson, all agreed, had a formidable intellect and an engaging ability to appear comfortable in any company. He was able to use television successfully in a way his great rival, Heath, never managed. These qualities enabled him to win power four times but were not sufficient to enable him to use that power effectively. He was defeated by the personal ambitions of some of his Cabinet and doctrinaire divisions in the Labour Party.

Ed Miliband, by contrast, has worked with a stable team in his Shadow Cabinet and leads a united Labour Party. We must build on this foundation in the vital two years ahead. If we are distracted by division, whether it is over the legacy of the Iraq War or over internal Party issues which do not interest the voters, we risk losing the momentum we now have. In all our work up to 2015, we must remember that unity is strength. Unity was a blessing which Harold Wilson never had. If he had led a united Labour Party, who knows what he might have achieved?

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham

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