Harold Wilson’s daily gamble with defeat

Blair Fraser April 3 1965

Harold Wilson’s daily gamble with defeat

Blair Fraser April 3 1965

Harold Wilson’s daily gamble with defeat

Blair Fraser

Labor’s chances of winning an early election are dimming, but it’s trapped with a program and a legacy of troubles that could bring one on. The Conservatives and Liberals aren’t prepared. But ironically, all three are behaving as if they couldn’t wait — and they may not have to wait long

AMONG A FORTNIGHT of political conversations in Britain, two episodes stand out in the memory — partly because they seem to contradict each other.

One took place in the tiny cluttered office of the Liberal whip, Eric Lubbock. the young “Orpington Man” whose victory in a by-election four years ago set off premature dreams of a Liberal revival in Britain. As we talked, one of the Labor government whips poked his head in at the door, unannounced.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, but this is urgent,” he said. “One of our chaps is in Wales, in bed with a stinking cold, and the Tories won’t offer us a pair for the vote tonight. Could you people let us have one? I’ve got to know by half past five — that's the latest he can catch a flight to London.”

It was then five fifteen. Lubbock made a quick check to see if any of

his nine MPs would be away, found that they were all on hand for the vote, and told the Labor whip, “Sorry.”

The vote in question was on no great issue of principle. Indeed, the Liberal group had not even decided which side to take, and would not decide until later in the evening after the government spokesman had answered some of the Liberals’ questions. As it turned out, they decided in the end to vote with the government on this particular bill, which therefore passed second reading by a comfortable majority of twenty-four.

Nevertheless, even on a question of such marginal importance, the Liberals were ready to risk defeat for the Wilson government and a general election which, for them in particular, would have been politically futile and financially disastrous. They were not bluffing when they said they might vote the other way. In fact, they

have done so approximately forty times since Labor’s squeak-in victory last October, often on critical issues of confidence when the government’s life hung by a hair. As for the Conservative opposition, it has neglected no opportunity to force such major confrontations as often as possible, for all the world as if British Tories really wanted another election now.

That’s what made the second of my two episodes so memorable. It was a talk with a former Conservative minister, and it was remarkable for the amiable, sympathetic tone in which he spoke of the Labor Party “enemy” which he was doing his best to overthrow. It was quite clear, in fact he said quite candidly, that he didn’t really want to do this at all.

“The people decided it was time for a change,” he said, “and let’s face it, they were right. Thirteen years is too long to be in office continuously. We were all simply fagged out. For years we'd had no time to catch our breath, no time to get new ideas. Even now, after only three months, we can feel ideas bubbling again and energy coming back, and it’s a wonderful feeling.

“And the Labor chaps, of course, had the opposite trouble. They’d been too long out of office, too long without the experience of governing the country. That’s why they did so many clumsy things when they first took over. Frankly, I blame the civil service. The officials should have stopped them from making some of the unnecessary mistakes of their first few weeks.”

On the Labor side the prevailing tone is equally relaxed and friendly. One junior minister, frankly delighting in the new experience of power, said, “It’s odd, but I have never been so out of touch with the ordinary run of politics as I am now. I’m too busy to find out, or care about, what the

people in my constituency are thinking. I have a new set of difficult problems every day, none of them political in any partisan sense.

“In fact, of course,” he continued, “I’m just carrying out policy decisions that were made by the Conservatives several years ago. Sometimes, in debates in the House, I feel like crying out, ‘Listen, you silly asses, these are your policies that you’re attacking and I’m defending!’ But I suppose that’s how the parliamentary system has to work.”

In one of the comfortable lounges of the House of Commons I had a chat with two young MPs. They were about the same age and of similar background — born into middle-class families of moderate means, scholarship students at Oxford a dozen years or so ago, men of conventionally liberal views and lively intelligence. In a half - hour talk that ranged over most political topics of the moment, not one difference of opinion emerged between them. I’d have defied any eavesdropper to guess which one was the Conservative back-bencher, and which the parliamentary private secretary to a Labor minister.

But if the political atmosphere is so calm, and both sides so content with the 1964 election result, why don’t they just relax and enjoy it? Why all these attempts by opposition parties to turn the Wilson government out? And why the government’s equally persistent defiance of the opposition, and its resolve to bring in measures it knows will force a united vote against it?

The answer can be seen in the arithmetic of party standings in the British House of Commons. The Labor government has an over-all majority of three (assuming no changes in the by-elections for three existing vacancies). One defeat in a Labor constituency would cut the majority to

How British cartoonists see Wilson’s dilemma

one; (wo defeats would make Prime Minister Wilson the leader of a minority government. In an average year through death, retirement or other cause Britain has eight to ten by-elections, at least two or three of them in marginal seats where any party has a chance to win.

For the first three months of the Wilson government’s existence this seemingly grim picture roused little fear in Labor hearts and little hope in Conservative. New governments can normally rely on a honeymoon period. The urge to “give the new boys a chance,” which in Canada boosted the Diefenbaker government’s popular vote from 38.9 percent in June 1957 to 53.6 percent in March 1958, was taken as a virtual guarantee that the British Labor Party could count on winning any early by-election in a Labor or a marginal seat. Both parties also assumed that if the Wilson government were to call another general election within its first six months, its chances of returning with a working majority were excellent.

These illusions were shattered just at the end of the “Hundred Days of Decision” that Harold Wilson had promised from campaign platforms.

Future historians may well be baffled at the hypnotic power, over politicians in other countries, of that unlucky phrase from President John Kennedy’s 1960 campaign. In fact, the Kennedy campaign came nearer to failure than any victory in American history (Kennedy’s popular vote was only 50.6 percent) and his own Hundred Days ended with the ignominious catastrophe of the Bay of Pigs. Canada’s L. B. Pearson shortened the formula to “Sixty Days of Decision,” which concluded very neatly with the first Walter Gordon budget. In Harold Wilson’s case, the Waterloo that ended his Hundred Days came at the by-elections of

Leyton and Nuneaton in January. Foreign Secretary Patrick Gordon Walker was defeated and Frank Cousins, the trade union leader who’d been appointed miinster of technology, was elected with only half of Labor’s usual majority.

Labor spokesmen argue, and Conservatives don’t deny, that LeyJ ton and Nuneaton were rather special cases, not necessarily typical of the present political climate in Britain. Both vacancies had been created for the ministers by the “promotion” to the House of Lords of popular elderly Labor MPs, neither of whom wanted to go. Voters apparently resented this cavalier treatment of their representatives, and also disliked being used themselves as chattels for the ministers’ convenience. Gordon Walker and Cousins are both able men with distinguished records, but neither is a very good political campaigner. Moreover, Gordon Walker had been defeated at the general election last October, in his own constituency of Smethwick, Birmingham, mainly on the issue of colored immigration. Color prejudice is lively in Smethwick, and Gordon Walker had been the chief Labor Party spokesman against the Conservative measure, a few years ago, which limited Commonwealth immigration into Britain (and which, quietly and rather sheepishly, the Labor government has already reenacted). Color therefore became an issue in Leyton, too.

Probably most important of all, though, was the fact that Leyton had a high concentration of old-age pensioners among its electorate. British pensioners are indignant at the Wilson government, and so are many others on their behalf. Labor had promised to raise pensions, in speeches that seemed to imply instant action. In office Labor ministers discovered, as they could have learned by inquiry,

that it would take six months to make the changes in computers and printing machines that produce the pension cheques, so the new pension rates could not take effect before April. Meanwhile, though. Labor and Conservatives had made a solemn pact that MPs’ salaries were to be increased after the election, no matter which party won. and the new pay rate would apply for the entire life of the new parliament. Thus the Wilson government appeared to have given A-l priority to raising its own salaries, while letting the poor pensioners wait.

To say that this has impaired the Labor government's image is not mere speculation. Public-opinion polls have shown a sharp drop in the Labor vote since Christmas, and the delay in raising pensions was the reason most often given. But this seems to be part of a general disenchantment: here's a Labor government in office and yet the cost of living is still rising, housing is still scarce, rents and taxes are still high, and the government talks about “wage restraint” in its “incomes policy” just like the nasty old Tories.

These are powerful reasons against the move that many Labor MPs were urging and expecting a few months ago — an early dissolution and a new appeal to the electorate. Many observers still think Labor could win a 1965 election, but it’s far from being the foregone conclusion that it seemed to be in December, when Labor was still enjoying the honeymoon bulge in its support. On the other hand, Britain’s economic outlook is not particularly bright (trade deficit up instead of down, exports faltering while imports rise) and the measures that must be taken to improve this situation will not be popular. This rather clouds the prospect of clinging to office until by-election losses (two would be enough) bring defeat in the

House of Commons and no choice but an immediate general election.

Is there no way out of this dismal dilemma?

There is, but it’s one that Labor MPs are strangely reluctant to consider. It is, of course, some sort of understanding with the nine-man Liberal group — not necessarily a coalition, but some kind of mutual nonaggression pact that would keep the Liberals either voting with the Wilson government, to give it a majority of twenty-one in a full House, or at worst abstaining and letting the government use its margin of twelve over the Conservative opposition.

Liberals are shy about proclaiming their willingness to make such a deal, but there is no serious doubt that they would do it if reasonable terms were proposed. They consider themselves a “radical” though not a “socialist” party, and they see no reason why they could not get together with Labor on a radical, nonsocialist program.

A few Labor MPs agree, but they are very few—right-wing intellectuals who used to be called Gaitskellites (until Hugh Gaitskell’s death in January 1963). They themselves admit that they have no support whatever among Labor's rank and file.

To the majority of Labor MPs a compromise agreement with the Liberals or anyone else is out of the question. In their eyes it would be positively immoral. They think the only course open to the government is to press on with the program it announced in its 1964 campaign, and take whatever consequences ensue. In any case, this is the proclaimed intention of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, one from which he could hardly retreat without a major loss of prestige. It is a perilous course, because some parts of the Labor program turn out to be more attractive as slogans

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Cries of, “Twerps,” silenced critics


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than as accomplished facts. “Cutting defense expenditure,” for example, has a fine ringing sound at a Labor campaign rally, but in practice the cuts in defense spending have meant cancellation of contracts for British military aircraft and the loss of several thousand jobs (just how many is a matter of heated dispute).

True, the aircraft workers have not been able to rouse much sympathy among the rest of the trade-union movement, which remains solidly behind the Labor government. Also, the Conservatives were effectively squelched on this issue when Sir Roy Dobson, the outspoken chairman of the aircraft company hardest hit, blamed the industry’s troubles on “twerps” in the former Conservative cabinet who, he said, couldn’t make up their minds about anything.

When the Conservative aviation critic asked a question in the House next day, he was greeted with a chorus of “twerps.” Emrys Hughes, an elder among Labor back - benchers, rose with mock solemnity on a point of order. “When the honorable member was asking questions about aviation,” he said, “I distinctly heard him called a ‘twerp.’ May I ask, Mr. Speaker, if this is an offensive parliamentary expression? Should the language of

the boardroom be allowed here?”

Mr. Speaker answered in the same vein: “In the context in which the

honorable member heard the word, 1 think it was a sort of technical term in the aviation industry.” After that, the Conservatives were glad to drop their further questions on aviation.

But there are other aspects of the Labor program that cannot be laughed off. Labor promised, for example, to repeal the Rent Act by which the Conservatives decontrolled rentals a few years ago. In making the promise, Labor speakers clearly implied that they would bring rents down. In fact, there is not the slightest doubt that whatever the Labor government does, rents in Britain will continue to go up.

Aside from its own promises, the Labor government has other problems and tasks which any British government would face in 1965, but which are particularly distasteful for Labor. British wages are rising faster than British industrial productivity, so British prices are rising, too. British exports are not rising as fast as imports, so British reserves of gold and dollars are in jeopardy. Labor spokesmen were contemptuous, while in opposition, of Conservative attempts to cure these ills by tinkering with interest rates and other palliatives, instead of making fundamental changes in the British economy. But the changes

that must be made will be highly unpalatable. not only (or even mainly) to management, but most of all to the craft unions in such sick industries as shipbuilding.

These are only the predictable difficulties. There are also the unpredictables. What would Britain have to do if, for example, there is a further escalation of the war in Vietnam? What if the same thing happens in Malaysia, where fifty thousand British troops are helping to stand off attacks from Indonesia? What if some Commonwealth governments in Africa get into trouble again and ask Britain for more help, military or financial?

For all these reasons the Labor government's popular support is more likely to sag than to rise in the months ahead. A general election would already be risky, and will probably become more so in the immediate future. But the same calculation applies to by-elections, which cannot be avoided and in which two defeats would wipe out Labor’s majority.

It's not surprising, therefore, that there are many different opinions of what the Wilson government can and should do. Some Laborites urge caution: avoid such controversial

measures as the renationalization of steel, which has become a symbol of conflict between socialist Labor and unitedly antisocialist opposition

(though there is no evidence that the average voter cares much about it. either way). Others think the right course is to be bold, put the whole Labor program before parliament and challenge Conservatives and Liberals to defeat the government if they can. and if they dare. It's common knowledge that neither opposition party wants an early election, even though both know they may get one anyway. Liberals have neither money nor heart for a 1965 campaign. Conservatives have a leadership problem which they are not yet ready to tackle —opinion has not crystallized behind any of the young contenders, but the party would rather not have another campaign led by Sir Alec DouglasHome.

According to the men closest to him. Prime Minister Wilson long ago decided on the second course and has never wavered from it. He will go on, they say, as if his majority were a hundred instead of three. He will probably bring in the most controversial measures early rather than late —partly as a demonstration of daring and confidence, partly to get them through while his tiny over-all majority still exists. He will stay in office until he is defeated in the House or until (perhaps for reasons known only to himself) he decides that defeat in the House has become inevitable. How long that will be, no one knows. ★