Bill Carmichael: Why Labour need a return to Harold Wilson’s values in order to save itself from Jeremy Corbyn

What would Harold Wilson make of today's Labour party? Columnist Bill Carmichael poses the question.
What would Harold Wilson make of today's Labour party? Columnist Bill Carmichael poses the question.
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MY one – very slight – claim to fame is that I once bought a sitting British Prime Minister a pint of bitter on the day of a famous election victory.

He didn’t buy me one back. It was 1974 and I was a pupil at a Liverpool comprehensive school and my history teacher was also the chairman of the constituency Labour Party where Prime Minister Harold Wilson was our MP.

Jeremy Corbyn is the current Labour leader.

Jeremy Corbyn is the current Labour leader.

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I had spent the previous two weeks bunking off my A-level studies to knock on doors and stuff leaflets through letterboxes for the party and my reward was an invitation to the Huyton Labour Club – top table no less – on election night once the polls had closed.

Wilson was a brilliant, Huddersfield-born grammar school boy who had enjoyed a sparkling career as an Oxford academic before becoming leader of the Labour Party and serving as Prime Minister on two occasions.

I wish I could remember more of our conversation, but as a politically obsessed teenager I was completely awestruck. I do recall agonising over whether to address him as “Sir”, “Prime Minister” or “Mr Wilson” before he laughed and said “Harold” was just fine.

Regular readers will know I rarely find myself on the same side of a political argument as Labour these days, but I cut my political teeth with the party and can say from experience that the vast majority of members and supporters are fine, decent people and, taken in the long term, Labour has been a force for good.

All the more reason why to see the current party tearing itself apart, mired in scandals involving racism, bullying and lies, is utterly heartbreaking.

Don’t say we weren’t warned. Indeed we witnessed an uncannily similar rehearsal of the party’s current agonies in Liverpool almost 40 years ago.

When I returned to the city in the 1980s after my university studies, the Labour party had changed completely. The old guard – war veterans who had campaigned for Clement Attlee – had been unceremoniously ousted to be replaced by “Degsy” Hatton’s glassy-eyed cadre of Militant Tendency fanatics.

In a frighteningly short period of time, these lunatics brought that great city to its knees through a mixture of managerial incompetence, vicious infighting, untrammelled profligacy and a rigid obsession with ideological purity at the expense of any practical measures to help working people.

The shameful episode ended in ignominious failure and humiliating defeat. As Neil Kinnock famously observed: “The grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council – hiring taxis to scuttle around a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.”

I hate to say it but the parallels with today’s Labour Party are becoming increasing clear – the intolerance of any other point of view, the vicious bullying and, above all, the repeated, shameless lying.

Incidentally, there was a glorious symmetry last month when Derek Hatton was readmitted to Labour 33 years after he was expelled – only for him to by suspended days later over allegedly racist comments. Absolutely no change there then!

And I am afraid I don’t buy this image of Jeremy Corbyn as the avuncular old buffer never happier than when tending the marrows on his allotment. Throughout his career, he has been a keen supporter of some of the nastiest and most racist killers on the planet. From the Provisional IRA, to Hamas, Black September and Hezbollah, the Labour leader has never met a terrorist he didn’t like.

As for his relationship with the truth, the problems multiply. Corbyn tells us he didn’t really look at a racist mural he defended, and he says he was “present but not involved” at a ceremony to honour the terrorists behind the Munich Olympics massacre – only for a photograph to emerge of him actually holding the wreath.

He didn’t call Theresa May a “stupid woman”, despite video evidence that suggests otherwise, and last week he assured fellow MP Margaret Hodge that his office had not intervened to water down sanctions against racists in the party – only for evidence to emerge of his officials doing exactly that. This is what the extreme left always does and always will do.

I say to my old friends in Labour – this isn’t going to end well. And that’s a great pity because working people could do with a decent, moderate, Harold Wilson-style Labour party to fight their corner in the years to come.