Campaigning to become Labour leader last year, Keir Starmer said Harold Wilson was his favourite party leader of the last fifty years because he had unified the party. This was hardly a coincidence as putting an end to ‘factionalism’ was then one of Starmer’s main promises to Labour members. Subsequently Starmer has name checked Wilson in various speeches, especially noting his predecessor’s electoral success – and repeating his 1962 claim that Labour was ‘a moral crusade or it is nothing.’
From these references, Wilson who died in 1995 emerges (and so, presumably was the intention, also Starmer) as a man of principle and an election winner: what’s not to like? But what’s the evidence that Starmer can – or indeed should – emulate his hero?
When he resigned as leader in 1976, Wilson was actually reviled across the party: by the right for being unwilling to confront the left and by the left for pursuing the policies of the right. No wonder that as leader he was apt to mistrust those outside his tightly closed circle of advisors within which, over a late-night whiskey and cigar, he would spin paranoid fantasies. But Wilson was right to be paranoid: sometimes they really were out to get him.
Keeping the Labour party together came at considerable personal cost therefore, something with which Starmer can now probably empathise. And it didn’t even work: a few years after Wilson’s resignation, the left had taken control of most of the party machine while leading figures on the right exited to form the SDP. In retrospect, Wilson’s achievement was to delay what was in all likelihood an inevitable civil war. And that bitter conflict having broken out, during the party’s long, hard slog back to electoral relevance in the later 1980s and 1990s few spoke favourably of their former leader.