Voices: Keir Starmer is looking more like four-time election winner Harold Wilson every day

·5-min read

I could write one of those first paragraphs where I seem to be talking about Keir Starmer becoming prime minister after an energy crisis and then reveal that it is an account of Harold Wilson forming a government in February 1974.

It is hard to make it work, because the parallels are not exact, but they are close enough to make the publication this week of a new biography of Wilson, unsubtly subtitled The Winner, interesting. The most interesting thing about it is that its author, Nick Thomas-Symonds, is a member of Labour’s shadow cabinet, as shadow international trade secretary, and it carries an endorsement by Starmer on the front cover: “Puts Harold Wilson in his rightful place ... A fine work of history.”

Like most Labour leaders, Starmer is irritated by comparisons with his predecessors. (Conservatives have fewer hang-ups: Boris Johnson with Churchill and Liz Truss with Thatcher, for example.) But he has taken refuge in Wilson when pressed on why he isn’t more like Tony Blair, so the history is important.

Starmer is like Wilson in that he came to the leadership from what the party regarded as the left, although his main opponent, Rebecca Long-Bailey, was more “left-wing” than he was, and Lisa Nandy was at the time only ambiguously and slightly to the right. He is like Wilson, too, in that he was immediately aligned with the party’s right wing.

But Labour’s ideological divides are different from in Wilson’s day, and Starmer hasn’t needed to devote so much time to managing a divided parliamentary party. The Corbynites are a small rump in parliament, who have mostly excluded themselves from Starmer’s front bench.

There are, though, other similarities between Starmer’s situation now and Wilson’s before each of his initial election victories, in 1964 and in 1974. In 1964, Wilson exploited the sense of decay that had infected the Conservative Party after 13 years in government. Harold Macmillan’s star had faded, and the party was beset by scandal and division, resorting to importing Alec Douglas-Home from the House of Lords as leader and prime minister a year before the election.

Wilson perhaps had more buckle and swash about him than Starmer, and presented himself as the agent of the white heat of modernisation, but Douglas-Home turned out to be a surprisingly effective opponent, and Wilson only scraped in with a majority of four.

Wilson’s return to office in 1974 was more fraught, and had different similarities with today. The Yom Kippur war in 1973 had led to Arab countries cutting oil exports, pushing up prices and giving the National Union of Mineworkers leverage, which it used by going on strike. Ted Heath called an election, expecting the people to reject being held to ransom, but they decided by the narrowest margin of seats in parliament (the Conservatives won more votes) that Wilson, as leader of the party of labour, would be better able to manage the unions.

As I say, the parallels are inexact. The oil price shock was trivial until January 1974, the month before the election, and Starmer’s plan to deal with the current crisis owes nothing to any claim to being better at managing industrial relations.

But the subtext of Thomas-Symonds’s book is that Starmer’s careful leadership style is similar to Wilson’s, in that he is pragmatic – often concealing his own view until it is too late for his opponents to mobilise – and a good judge of public opinion.

The section on how Wilson handled the 1975 referendum to confirm Britain’s membership of the common market is an excellent, crisp account of how he defended what he saw as the national interest while leading a party that was swinging against Europe. Again, the parallels with the present day are limited, except that the question of our relations with the EU has not been settled, and it will require considerable Wilsonian skills to manage it if Starmer does become prime minister.

It is in the manner of his entering No 10, however, that the Wilson parallels are most likely to be relevant. The scale of the energy crisis is now so great that market expectations are that Starmer will be prime minister after the next election.

The betting market even thinks that there is a 30 per cent chance that Labour will win a majority. I think this is based on imperfect knowledge of electoral mechanics: it would take a swing to Labour greater than that achieved by Tony Blair in 1997 for that to happen, because the party starts from such a low base. It may be that the energy crisis will be so severe that it will have an equivalent effect on voting behaviour, but the safer assumption would be that if Starmer forms a government, it will be a minority administration relying on other parties not to vote it down.

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Thus Starmer would be in a similar position to Wilson in February 1974, when he governed with some skill, settling the miners’ strike and bringing little legislation to parliament, before going back to the country in October, when he secured another narrow majority, very like 10 years previously, of just three seats.

Thomas-Symonds makes the case for Wilson as a different kind of winner from the warrior Blair or the flash-in-the-pan prime ministers who followed him. He argues that Wilson was more consistent than his public image allowed. He won four elections – even if only one of them, in 1966, was by a sustainable majority – but he governed for eight years altogether, and presided over a better record of liberal reform and low unemployment than his critics recognise. The message of this book is that if Starmer could match Wilson, he would deserve a significant place in history.

Harold Wilson: The Winner, by Nick Thomas-Symonds, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25