Beyond an evening of programmes on BBC Parliament this evening for political anoraks, the 50th anniversary of Harold Wilson becoming leader of the Labour party today went largely unnoticed and unremarked.
Wilson was a remarkable politician and a somewhat under-appreciated prime minister. He led his party for 13 years, winning four of the five general elections he fought. The governments he led may have been buffeted by economic storms – his first premiership was rocked by repeated sterling crises and devaluation, his second by the aftermath of the great oil shock of 1973 – but their imprint remains today. Wilson backed Roy Jenkins’ great liberalising moves as home secretary. Race relations and equal opportunities legislation was introduced on his watch. Wilson later said that his proudest achievement was the creation of the Open University. And his legendary canniness was deployed in resisting American entreaties to send British troops to Vietnam.
But it is perhaps his second, rather more unhappy, spell in government after he led Labour to an unexpected and narrow win over Ted Heath in February 1974 that holds the most important parallels for today.
While no two general elections are ever the same, it is not difficult to detect certain patterns. Some – 1945, 1979 or 1997 – are ‘sea change’ elections. On other occasions, the voters appear to give a hearty thumbs-up to the incumbent government’s performance: Wilson’s landslide re-election in 1966, that of Margaret Thatcher in 1983 or Tony Blair in 2001.
From others, the message is more difficult to detect. In February 1974, Labour returned to power with a share of the vote nearly six per cent lower than that it achieved when Wilson was ejected from office in 1970. The party was 17 seats short of a majority, just four seats ahead of the Conservatives and actually trailed them by 0.7 per cent in the popular vote. It would be another 36 years before the voters returned another hung parliament. And, while the rejection of Labour in 2010 may have been clearer than that of Heath in 1974, David Cameron’s failure to secure a majority in the wake of the financial crisis indicated a lack of trust and enthusiasm for an only partially modernised Conservative party.
As Andrew Adonis, Progress’ chair and a frontbench Treasury spokesman, suggested last summer, ‘a great mistake in politics is to extrapolate iron laws from the recent past.’ For the three decades after Thatcher came to power in 1979, British politics was remarkably stable: despite the stellar rise and equally dramatic fall of the Social Democratic party during the early 1980s, the mould was not broken. The Conservatives served for four successive terms, with Labour following for another three: each of those governments had double-digit majorities, and four of them had majorities of over 100.
But the decade leading up to Thatcher’s election was very different: amid industrial chaos, high unemployment and soaring inflation Britain had three changes of government and four changes of prime minister. Economic chaos and political instability created a deep impression on the national psyche: one strong enough for the Daily Mail to attempt to evoke it in 2010. ‘Vote decisively,’ it warned its readers on the eve of the last election, recalling that the hung parliament of 1974 had produced ‘five years of political paralysis, economic meltdown and national humiliation’. That warning may have gone unheeded in 2010, but similar frantic warnings by Tory ministers and the Tory press as the polls pointed to a similarly inconclusive result in 1992 may well have helped shatter Neil Kinnock’s hopes of making it to Downing Street.
There is, as the historian Dominic Sandbrook notes in the latest volume of his multi-volume history of postwar Britain, Seasons in the Sun, an element of ‘caricature’ in the Mail’s characterisation of the 1970s. ‘Many people have rather better memories of the decade,’ he notes, ‘and even the economic picture was not quite as terrible as we think. We remember the Conservatives’ stark poster ‘Labour Isn’t Working’, but we often forget the jobless figures in the late 1970s were generally better than during the Blair and Brown years, let alone the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s.’
The similarities between the 1970s and today abound, not least the image of incompetence and helplessness that appears to overwhelm Cameron’s government and its apparent inability to master the economic stagnation and high levels of unemployment over which it presides. It is, of course, true that the electorate deals some governments a better hand than others and some of Cameron’s difficulties stem from his being yoked to a party for whom clarity of purpose has never figured highly.
But his difficulties are both compounded and caused by the prime minister’s lack of a governing project. Governments with such a project – Thatcher’s determination to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’, crush the unions and build a Tory-voting ‘property-owning democracy’ or Blair’s push for modernisation of the constitution and investment and reform of public services – have a direction and purpose which enable them to ride the waves of unpopularity, error and scandal to which all inevitably fall prey on occasion.
With the ‘big society’ cast aside and ‘vote blue, go green’ a distant memory, Cameron’s government has no such project, and, in its absence, cutting the deficit has becoming its overriding goal. While this goal would have been a central purpose of any government elected in 2010, it does not provide the definition and direction a government needs. It is why so much else that the prime minister has set out to achieve has foundered
There are both dangers and opportunities for Labour here. First, throughout its history the Conservative party has displayed an eye for the electoral main chance second to none. The ease with which the party announced that 20 of its 40 target seats for the next election were currently occupied by its coalition allies – and the vigour with which it has attempted to seize Eastleigh – should leave no one in any doubt that the Conservatives view the Liberal Democrats as utterly dispensable. According to one pollster who frequently conducts focus groups, the main argument that brings voters (particularly those who supported or considered backing Cameron in 2010) back to the Tory party is the notion that the government’s weaknesses and poor performance stem from the fact the Tories have been forced into coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Expect the Conservatives to deploy that argument ruthlessly as 2015 approaches.
Second, while the midterm polls currently look good for Labour, the party is still not performing as well as it perhaps should. As Peter Kellner of YouGov has suggested, no opposition party which has not achieved a lead of 20 per cent or more at some point in the parliament has then gone on to form a government at the subsequent general election (and, indeed, Kinnock took Labour to leads of this level in 1990 and still lost two years later).
The dynamics of the coalition may, of course, make such precedents less useful. For the first time in modern times, voters will have a choice between, on the one hand, two governing parties and, on the other, one opposition party. But, equally, as Kellner sketched in a scenario in January about how the Tories might achieve a majority in 2015, big movements of centre-left voters from Nick Clegg’s party to Ed Miliband could allow the Conservatives to topple enough Liberal Democrat MPs for Cameron to reach the winning post that eluded him in 2010.
However, another indecisive election – although both in the same year, two occurred in the 1970s as well – remains a likely outcome in 2015. Research published by the Fabian Society earlier this month, for instance, indicated that only 400,000 voters have moved from the Conservatives to Labour since the last election. But while the party has picked up some 2.3 million former Liberal Democrat voters these alone are unlikely to be enough to secure Miliband a majority. Indeed, his chances of doing so will, according to the Fabians’ figures, rely on the rather less reliable 1.4 million voters who did not turn out in 2010 but say they will back Labour in 2015.
The surest way to avoid a hung parliament in 2015 and Miliband’s best hope of avoiding the pitfalls that have befallen Cameron if one does emerge is the development of that governing project which the prime minister so evidently lacks. In an important speech last week, the head of Labour’s policy review, Jon Cruddas, began to sketch the broad contours and outline the priorities which lay beneath Miliband’s nascent ‘One Nation’ project. Cautioning against any Labour ‘drift to state managerialism’, Cruddas also warned that ‘simply opposing the cuts without an alternative is no good’. Meanwhile, Miliband’s speech today on living standards – with its eye-catching and symbolically important pledge to reintroduce the 10p tax rate and its clear statement that we need, to paraphrase Barack Obama, to ‘grow the economy from the middle out’ – is a further, important recognition of this fact.
Wilson’s experience in February 1974 underlines the dangers of failing to develop that alternative . ‘The obvious problem was that Wilson’s ministers arrived in Downing Street without any real idea how they were going to resolve the economic crisis,’ suggests Sandbrook. ‘To some extent this was deliberate on Harold Wilson’s part; for more than a decade, he had maintained his grip on a fractious party by practising the politics of ambiguity.’ None of this went unnoticed by the voters: three years after Wilson stepped down as prime minister in 1976, his party limped into the first of four successive general election defeats and the political wilderness from which it would not emerge for 18 years.
Robert Philpot is director of Progress
10p tax rate, Conservatives, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Edward Heath, election 2015, Fabian Society, Harold Wilson, Jon Cruddas, Labour, Labour history, Liberal Democrats, Margaret Thatcher, Nick Clegg, one nation Labour, Open University, Peter Kellner, polling, Roy Jenkins, Tony Blair