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Harold Wilson’s legacy

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Some argue that Harold Wilson, who became Labour leader 50 years ago this month, represented the "real" Labour tradition – Simon Basketter looks at the reality
Issue 2339
William Hogarth (centre), leader of the Seamen’s union, arrives for talks with Harold Wilson’s government in 1966
William Hogarth (centre), leader of the Seamen’s union, arrives for talks with Harold Wilson’s government in 1966

Harold Wilson became leader of the Labour Party 50 years ago this month.

He faced the same choice as every Labour leader—whether to confront the rich and represent those who elected him, or to back British capitalism.

And like every Labour leader, Wilson chose the latter.

Some on the left see Wilson in a more favourable light because he talked about socialism.

Wilson wrote, “Socialism as I understand it means to apply a sense of purpose to our national life: economic purpose, social purpose, moral purpose.”

This was as vague as many things that Labour leaders say today.

Wilson was elected Labour leader in 1963 as Britain’s post-war economic boom was slowing down.

The boom had revived workers’ confidence and led to struggles to defend wages.

Yet some in the Labour Party felt that class struggle was becoming irrelevant because living standards were rising for everyone.

Many argued for a move away from links to working class organisation.

But the party needed those links. It rejected attempts by Hugh Gaitskell, then right wing leader of the party, to ditch its verbal commitment to socialism.

At that point Wilson positioned himself as part of the left.

The strains on the post-war boom created new tensions in the Labour Party.

In 1961 the party published Signposts for the Sixties, which looked for a new solution to the problems of British capital.

Its authors included Gaitskell and Wilson.


It argued that if the “deadwood were cut out of Britain’s boardrooms and replaced by the keen young executives, production engineers and scientists” the crisis could be averted.

Gaitskell died in 1963. Wilson, as both a man who courted both the left and the right of the Labour Party, was the perfect choice for leader.

Labour fought the election of 1964 as a classless party, overtly appealing to what they said were the new middle class.

Famously Wilson argued that Britain needed to “harness socialism to science to lead to a Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of scientific revolution”.

Labour won the election—and set about attacking workers.

Wilson’s Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s were responsible for some of biggest public spending cuts ever seen in Britain.

The government’s first budget included a 20 percent rise in pensions. But workers’ national insurance payments were increased to pay for it.

Lord Cromer, the governor of the Bank of England, demanded “immediate cuts in government expenditure” and particularly to social services.

Wilson was shocked by the idea of bankers ordering politicians around.

But this was mostly because he thought manufacturing

capitalists, not bankers, should run the economy.

Cromer backed down, but Wilson imposed cuts anyway, to prove that Labour could be trusted to run the economy for the bosses.

He increased indirect taxes on the poor by 10 percent and slashed public spending.

Workers faced a six-month wage freeze. Unemployment grew.

With the help of the TUC and union leaders Wilson isolated and defeated the seafarers’ strike of 1966.

In July of that year the government’s Prices and Incomes Board got legal powers to control wages and the TUC refused to oppose the move.

But some rank and file workers were well organised enough to fight independently of their union leaders.


In 1967 a strike in the Liverpool docks was followed by stoppages of bus workers, bin workers, construction workers and market porters.

And in 1968 women struck over equal pay and paralysed parts of Ford’s operation.

In February 1969, 100,000 workers in Glasgow and Liverpool protested against Labour’s plans for anti-union laws.

These were the first openly political stoppages since the 1926 general strike.

Sections of the Labour Party joined the revolt as did some union leaders. Labour withdrew the plans.

But its attacks demoralised many of its supporters. The turnout in the 1970 election was the lowest for 35 years, and the Labour vote slumped by 5 percent. It was enough for the Tories, under Edward Heath, to win.

Renewed working class struggle again defeated attempts to bring in anti-union laws in 1972. Workers’ confidence destroyed the government.

Labour was re-elected in 1974, at a time of global economic recession.

The right wing press blamed supposedly high wage settlements for soaring inflation.

In response the TUC forged an agreement with the government called the Social Contract.

They promised to police strikes and limit wage claims in exchange for concessions over other issues—which never came.

The Social Contract saw a 4.5 percent limit on pay rises in 1976 while inflation was 16.5 percent.

Union leaders’ loyalty to Labour meant they did their best to hold back struggle.

Wilson resigned in 1976, having fulfilled his purpose of driving through changes to help the bosses.

He didn’t do this out of a peculiar personal commitment.

He did so because Labour’s tradition is to work through parliament, yet real power lies with the bosses and the rich.

Wilson himself showed how this worked.

He described a meeting with the governor of the Bank of England in the mid-1960s;

“Not for the first time, I said that we had now reached the situation where a newly elected government—with a mandate from the people—was being told by international speculators that the policies on which we had fought the election could not be implemented, that the government was to be forced into the adoption of Tory policies to which it was fundamentally opposed.

“The governor confirmed that this was in fact the case.”

Socialist Worker’s Paul Foot argued in a book on Harold Wilson, “The supreme achievement of Harold Wilson has been his ability to proclaim such transparently capitalist policies as stark necessities, not only forced upon British Labour but also adapted by them in the most pragmatically socialist manner.”

Spinning attacks on workers as both necessary and better if rammed through by Labour is a Labour tradition that has continued to this day.

Read more:

A Marxist History of the Labour Party—Tony Cliff

The Vote: How it was won and how it was undermined—Paul Foot

State and Revolution— Vladimir Lenin

All available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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