When Keir Starmer stands up to give his leader’s speech at the Labour conference in Liverpool today, he could be forgiven for thinking that it might be best to play it safe. With his party ahead in the polls by double digits, he might well conclude that exuding caution and competence is the key to getting the keys to No. 10. Yet the real risk could lie in not taking any risks. Fifty years since one of the most famous conference orations of all time, Starmer would do well to look to his dynamic predecessor, Harold Wilson, if he wants to inject some White Heat into his rhetoric.
1963, as the poet Philip Larkin noted, was the year of two cultural watersheds: the end of the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the launch of the Beatles’ first LP. It was an exciting year in politics too, not to say a torrid one.
It began with the French veto of the UK’s application to join the EEC, sandbagging the Conservative government’s plan for the country’s strategic and economic revival. Then, in June, the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, resigned due to a sex scandal with alleged national security implications. These were not events, perhaps, quite on the scale of Brexit and the Covid pandemic, whose impact on voters’ lives and pocketbooks has been much more direct. But the post-war years were a more deferential age, and the successive crises rocked the British psyche while the nation’s youth rocked to Please Please Me.
Meanwhile, Wilson became Labour’s new leader following the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell. He had the advantage of experience – he had been in the Cabinet under Clement Attlee – but also seemed like a fresh face. It must be remembered that the bar for political excitement was comparatively low. Starmer must be envious of the fact that, in those days, being a man in your forties who liked HP Sauce and Coronation Street could be enough to get you labelled ‘the British Kennedy’.
But, for Wilson, political relevance required more than being photographed with the Fab Four. He found what Starmer has to date appeared to lack: a compelling political theme. That theme was ‘scientific modernisation’. It tapped into the zeitgeist, because it addressed the sense that Britain was falling behind in a threatening world, and that the country’s current leaders, old-fashioned in their attitudes, were ill-equipped to meet the demands of the day.
Wilson stepped onto the stage at Scarborough after working through the night in a scramble to prepare. Though it is hard to plan for off-the-cuff creativity, Starmer might take a lesson from the way Wilson drew passion from the jaws of improvisation.
Though drawing on themes he had spoken about before, Wilson now brought the threads together in an electrifying performance. He said he was redefining socialism in terms of the scientific revolution. He did not actually use the phrase ‘white heat of technology’ that is often attributed to him. Rather, in an oblique dig at both unions and management, he declared that ‘The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry.’
The speech delighted the delegates, but as one journalist noted, part of its significance lay in the subtlety with which Wilson ‘steered his rank and file away from sterile traditional disputations on to new and more relevant political ground.’
Starmer, for his part, now faces the challenge of healing the wounds left by Corbynism and preparing the party for power. However, one aspect of Wilson’s story might unnerve him. By May 1964 Labour had built up a lead of nearly 20% in the Gallup poll, but by the time the election in October this had all but disappeared. Wilson entered Downing Street amidst excitement but with a miniscule majority.
The tale has other cautionary aspects too. Wilson’s record as Prime Minister was in practice rather mixed. Some of the ideas in the Scarborough speech, such as the plan for what became the Open University, stood the test of time. But although he successfully summoned up a ‘sense of promise’, his time in office came to be seen as a time of missed opportunity, even (by some on the Left) as one of betrayal.
Starmer should take from Wilson the lesson that it is not enough to enunciate a list of policies, however individually popular they may be. Successful leadership means weaving plans and personalities into a narrative which convincingly offers individual and national betterment. Doing that helps parties win elections. But, as Wilson’s example shows, if they do not deliver on the hopes they conjure up, they will ultimately play a painful price.
Professor Toye’s new book, Age of Hope: Labour, 1945, and the Birth of Modern Britain, is published this week.