ON February 17, 2020, Channel 4 hosted a live hustings of Labour leadership hopefuls Rebecca Long Bailey, Sir Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy. The presenter asked each candidate who they thought was the greatest Labour leader of the last half-century. By restricting the pool this way the answer had to be one of the following: Harold Wilson, ‘Sunny’ James Callaghan, Michael ‘Worzel’ Foot, Neil Kinnock, John Smith, T-ny Bl–r, Gordon Frown, The Wrong Miliband, and a Bearded Loon.
All three avoided the Blairlephant in the room.
Long Bailey, after much hesitation and trying to please the crowd more than provide a proper answer, named Clement Attlee, whose term as Labour leader ended 66 years ago in 1955. It was better to feign (I hope) ignorance than to provide a response which might become a dead albatross later, another albatross to go alongside her car-crash interview with Andrew Neil.
Lisa Nandy also swerved, naming Barbara Castle as the ‘greatest Labour leader that never was’.
Only Sir Keir provided a straight answer. Placed in the middle of the trio, he did not want to look as dumb as Long Bailey, but also did not know what Nandy was going to say. So he chose Harold Wilson, who became leader in 1963, outside the 50-year limit, but was still leader in 1970.
Perception of Wilson when he defeated George Brown for the leadership was different from what we are told now, which is to contrast his youth and energy with Harold Macmillan and his common touch with Alec Douglas-Home. Certainly, his soundbites about Labour being a moral crusade, a week being a long time in politics, and the promise of a ‘white heat’ technological revolution resonate through the years, but so does his ‘pound in your pocket’ devaluation speech as the shine came off his premiership. Wilson is not much feted for his second period as Prime Minister in 1974, which was mainly about keeping our ailing country on life support in the face of a union militancy that sought national collapse.
Sir Keir also described Wilson as a unifying leader. How little he really knows.
On February 16, 1963, almost exactly 57 years after Sir Keir invoked Wilson, the BBC broadcast a live edition of the satirical show That Was The Week That Was which covered Wilson’s leadership victory. People think modern television is edgy and irreverent. Just imagine the reaction from Labour and its supporters if the BBC did to Corbyn in 2015, or to Sir Keir himself last year, what they did to Harold Wilson two days after he became Leader of the Opposition.
This is what we have lost: