Bernard Ingham: What became of Wilson’s great dreams for Labour?

Harold Wilson came to office 50 years ago convinced he could make Labour the 'natural party of government' for a new technological age.
Harold Wilson came to office 50 years ago convinced he could make Labour the 'natural party of government' for a new technological age.
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IS Harold Wilson turning in his grave or is it his statue spinning like a top outside Huddersfield railway station’s classical frontage?

I ask because Yorkshire’s third Prime Minister wanted to make Labour “the natural party of government” and look at it now, 20 years come Sunday, since he passed away.

Nothing seems to change. Fifty years ago, he came to office determined to forge a new Britain “in the white heat of the technological revolution”. Instead, he wore himself out holding his fissiparous party together. That was probably his main achievement.

Now Labour has lost another election and is looking for a new leader. But not one of the unexciting candidates – assuming they remain candidates – has so far come anywhere near to explaining what is wrong with the party and how to remedy it. This being so, I should perhaps as a long-lapsed member try to analyse why Labour has not achieved Harold Wilson’s ambition.

The blunt truth is that time and technology have passed it by. Its driving force is the class war. In its preoccupation with poverty and deprivation, whether real or relative, and the eternal “exploitation” of working people, it remains blind to the changes in society that have occurred since Wilson’s day.

It is often their worst enemy through its doctrinal espousal of the comprehensive education system, its hostility to competition in the NHS to reduce costs and its addiction to the welfare state regardless of the consequences.

It seems to believe that all good things flow from state intervention. It could never appeal to Britons, as Jack Kennedy did to Americans, to ask them not what the state could do for them but what they could do for the state – and themselves.

This is because the logic of its position is to keep working people in their place lest they get ideas above their station and cease to vote Labour. Does it believe in individual freedom or the all-providing state? Who knows?

I suspect that most Labour MPs will scorn this analysis. Yet there can be no doubt that the party is, as ever, split between the statist Left and the much more pragmatic who nonetheless seem to claim a monopoly on compassion (at the taxpayers’ expense) for whoever can present themselves as underdogs.

And the problem for these much 
more pragmatic Labour politicians 
is that their party is kept afloat by a 
trade union movement which is intent on class war.

Worse, 97 per cent of Labour MPs are financially or otherwise associated with unions, which are still not above holding working people and the public purse to ransom. Witness the railwaymen who are now threatening to disrupt next week’s bank holiday.

Labour fails the first test of knowing what it stands for. It is even more adrift when it comes to explaining how it proposes to achieve whatever that goal is because of its contradictions.

I am not suggesting that other parties are crystals of clarity, with the possible exception of the Scottish Nationalists who want to break up the UK. If they were, the Tories might have won the election more decisively.

But Labour, as a potential natural party of government, is a sad case. It will remain one unless and until it sets out a clear intent to advance the condition of all the people without the baggage of 20th Century dogma and egalitarianism.

Where on this troubled Earth is 
there a society, successful or otherwise, that can boast of equality? There isn’t one. It is contrary to nature. In fact, the working man’s national sport – soccer – underlines the point when players are continually measured against each other and traded like cattle to keep others on their toes.

The most politicians can hope to achieve is equality of opportunity to enable men and women to secure the things they reach for.

But that will be beyond Labour so long as they stick with our unreformed state education system which abhors competition and too often fails to fire youngsters with the aspiration to better themselves and the world.

I shall believe things are changing when the Unite union starts to buy company shares and turns up at 
their annual meetings demanding a better performance to secure their members’ future.

That would cause Harold Wilson to turn in his grave and his statue in Huddersfield even to dance a jig. He would then know that his ambition to make Labour the natural party of government was in with a chance.