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How Starmer ‘24 is like Wilson ‘64

Labour went into a general election confident of a convincing victory for a programme of change - but factors that may sound familiar intervened

Newly appointed prime minister Harold Wilson with his wife, Mary, waving to the press as he arrives at Labour Party headquarters, Transport House, London, October 16th 1964. (Photo by Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

“End the chaos”, “Wasted years”, “Out of touch”, “A chance for change”.

Keir Starmer sentiments all, but each slogan was used also by another Labour leader of the opposition, Harold Wilson, in a general election campaign 60 years ago.

The leaders are similar in other respects. As the Economist noted earlier this year, both were workaholics from lower-middle-class families who aligned themselves with leftists (Aneurin Bevan for Wilson, the now-exiled Jeremy Corbyn for Starmer) before becoming centrist leaders.

In January 1964, Wilson, like Starmer in 2024, knew an election would likely be held in June or October. Whereas this year, most pundits – and Tory MPs – did not anticipate a July date, in 1964 Wilson did.

Between January and April, he embarked on a nationwide speaking tour intended to create pre-election momentum. However, unlike Sunak this year, the Conservative prime minister, Alec Douglas-Home, held on over the summer, eventually calling the election for October 15.

Not only slogans but many statements in the speeches Wilson made over those months have a contemporary Labour Party ring. As Starmer does now, so Wilson then claimed that after nearly a decade and a half of Conservative governance, the electorate wanted something different. On April 5 he spoke of the “utter and unvarying determination of the British people that it is time for a change.”

Wilson’s charge sheet against the Conservatives was based on class, prejudice and restricted opportunities for the many. Specific lines of Labour attack in 1964 which may now sound familiar were on the following:

Tory philosophy, “which identifies the national interest with the interest of those who make money rather than earn money.” (January 19)

Tory pessimism: “One of the worst things about the last 12 years has been the defeatism we have become accustomed to accept as normal.” (January 25)

Tory lethargy: “For 12 years now, since 1951, we have lagged behind. Other nations have surged past us.” (April 5)

Tory standards: “Our deep concern in recent years has been the casual attitude of certain ministers to Parliamentary as well as the legal processes.” (April 20); “Their secret weapon, on which they count, is short memories.” (March 8)

As prime ministers-in-waiting, Wilson and Starmer set out their stalls on how to grow the economy, necessary to create a Britain able to afford higher social spending. But though the aspiration may have been the same, they identified different means to achieve growth.

For Wilson, growth required state initiative. What was lacking was economic planning by the government. For Starmer, growth is predicated on wealth creation. What is lacking is economic stability, essential to attract private investment. Labour in 2024, as in 1964, promises an “end to the chaos”.

Wilson stressed the importance of the new government hitting the ground running to secure a set of achievements within the first 100 days – a theme of the then-recent Kennedy presidency that has been referenced by Labour in 2024. “Heaven knows we shall make mistakes,” Wilson told his audience in Leeds on February 8, 1964. Who knows what mistakes lie ahead if, as expected, Starmer wins on July 4?

Are there any lessons or warnings for Starmer, in what happened in the weeks, months and years following Labour’s long-awaited return to power?

To take just three, put briefly:

First, the election result was closer than expected. Second, immigration became a key issue. Third, long-anticipated economic growth didn’t happen. There is not long now until we know the election result. But the polls have good and bad news for Starmer compared to his predecessor.

Wilson, as Starmer, was trying to turn a large Conservative majority into a Labour one within a single parliament but a 20-point lead slimmed to 5.5 per cent by July 1964, although Wilson’s personal ratings remained very high. (Today, Labour’s lead has held but Starmer’s personal ratings only look impressive when placed next to the disastrous ones of Rishi Sunak.)

To many people’s surprise, the general election on October 15, 1964, was a cliffhanger. Labour ended up less than two points ahead of the Conservatives. Labour won 317 seats, Conservatives 304 (including the speaker) and the Liberals nine (with their highest share of the vote since 1929). In the early hours of October 16, when an interviewer on the BBC results programme asked Wison if he felt like a prime minister, he replied: “I feel like a drink.”

The 13 years of Conservative rule were over. But Labour’s overall majority was only four. A byelection defeat three months later halved that to two. Wilson called a second general election in March 1966, which Labour won with a convincing majority of 98.

Next, immigration. The morning after the 1964 election there was much discussion about what then was referred to as the “coloured issue” and the “racial vote”. This was primarily because of the result in the Smethwick constituency, where Patrick Gordon-Walker, the shadow foreign secretary, was defeated. in a campaign tarnished by the appearance of anonymous stickers with the shameful logo “If you want a nigger for a neighbour – vote Labour”, which were not disowned by the Conservative candidate.

The result, said Liberal leader Jo Grimond, was “a blot on the whole election.” Lord Boothby called it “the worst thing that’s happened in British politics for 200 years. It’s a disgusting thing in the worst American tradition”.

There was a swing away from Labour in constituencies where Conservative candidates had fought on a “racialist basis”: Deptford 9 per cent, Southall 8.5, Smethwick 7. Fenner Brockway, the standing Labour MP in Eton and Slough, was narrowly defeated, also after a local campaign with a “racialist element”. He was asked whether the racial vote would last beyond this election. He replied: “I think it will remain as long as the housing problem remains.”

Could issues involving racial tension come to haunt another Labour leader? We will know more when we see the extent of Reform’s vote.
But what happens to Starmer and Labour if, like Wilson, the economic growth he has touted fails to happen?

In October 1964, Britain’s public finances turned out to be in a state worse than even Labour had anticipated. Clearing his desk at the Treasury on the day after the election, Reginald Maudling, the outgoing Tory chancellor, apologised to James Callaghan, his Labour successor, for the state of the economy: “Sorry old cock, to leave it in this shape.”

Wilson’s first major decision as prime minister was to maintain the pound at $2.80. But this was backed first by foreign loans and finally by spending cuts, before a humiliating devaluation in November 1967. Wilson later wrote that his government “faced disappointment after disappointment and none greater than the economic restraints on our ability to carry through the social revolution to which we were committed at the speed we would have wished.”

The lesson for Starmer from the long road to devaluation would seem to be that if tough decisions face an incoming government, the sooner they are taken the better.

There are other lessons on which Starmer could draw, including that Labour’s post-election about-turn to seek UK membership (unsuccessfully) of the European Common Market did not damage its electoral prospects in 1966.

Also, that sustained and purposeful activity is necessary to prevent party disunity consuming a government in power, as happened in Wilson’s second term (1974-76). A decade earlier he had compared the Labour Party to an old stagecoach: “If it is rattling along at a rare old speed, most of the passengers are so exhilarated – perhaps seasick – they don’t start arguing or quarrelling. As soon as it stops, they start arguing about which way to go. The whole thing is to keep it at an exhilarating speed.” It is one thing to know this, another to make it happen.

There is one more warning from history for Starmer. It comes in what the former Conservative home secretary Rab Butler described as the greatest challenge for a statesman: ”Events, dear boy, events”.

At 4.32am on the morning after the 1964 election, BBC presenter Cliff Mitchelmore – still broadcasting – announced: “Not to alarm you, but I’m interrupting the programme to tell you that China has exploded an atomic bomb. Everything’s happening today, isn’t it?”

Perhaps the lesson of history is that a prime minister – any leader of his or her country – must expect the unexpected.

Colin Richardson is a freelance writer and historian

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