Like Wilson, Miliband has the vision thing
Shortly after Harold Wilson made his genuinely historic speech on the ‘White Heat of Technology’ to the Labour Party conference in Scarborough in 1963, he faced his first general election as leader of the Labour Party. He won that 1964 election, albeit with only a tiny majority – despite his commanding performance during the election campaign.
Every argument Wilson used against an assumed less attractive opponent (Alec Douglas-Home) seemed to expand the swell of his supporters. Especially that famed rallying cry that the Labour Party ‘is a moral crusade or it is nothing’.
Wilson, brilliantly, combined his ‘White Heat’ concept of a future technological revolution – in which he was well ahead of his time – with the pledge that Labour was, by definition, the party of moral crusading. And the only political force capable of changing Britain’s deeply class-ridden, unequal and unjust society.
So why do I raise these issues now, half a century later, and put them to a generation—perhaps several generations—to whom Harold Wilson is mere history, if he exists at all in modern young minds?
I do so because there has never been a greater need for radical visionary political leadership – probably at no time since Lloyd George made his famed declaration for fundamental social and economic changes before the First World War.
The pathetic, mean-minded, prejudiced and cynical Budget we have just experienced from George Osborne is a further example of the bankruptcy of government thinking, and policies.
Yet the event had one redeeming feature: it lifted Ed Miliband from an uncertain, often nervously self-conscious Labour leader to a new level. His performance in response to Osborne’s Budget speech has become the talk of Parliament and the media; it reminded me of some of Wilson’s star performances as shadow chancellor before the 1964 General election. It was, in my view, a major precursor of his ultimate replacement of David Cameron as Britain’s prime minister.
Of course, the young Miliband comes from a different background to Wilson – and a different generation. He was born into the ‘White Heat’ of technological change long after Wilson delivered his historic prophecy.
But he understands, as Harold Wilson was unable to envisage, the fundamental changes brought to the entire global economic, and political scene by the results of what Wilson predicted in 1963. Changes that have enabled global capital to take advantage of the extraordinary electronic facilities available to bankers and finance houses (good and bad), who have become obsessed by their own irresponsible powers across the planet; and which led sovereign governments to lose control, or even awareness, of what was happening. This culminated in the collapse of the entire market system from which no country (not even China) has been able to escape. If there was one absolute truth engraved across Osborne’s abject Budget, it was that neither the Chancellor nor his colleagues have found a formula for political and economic recovery; but the signs increasingly suggest that Ed Miliband has.
He is a modern socialist with deep radical instincts, yet at the same time conscious of practical realities. He has made a number of highly significant speeches – mostly without receiving any publicity – outlining a new form of capitalism in which the market system would be held responsible by the state for its efficiency, its morality and its effectiveness. It will be, as he has already outlined, subject to regulations that will bring shop-floor workers into closer links with how private companies are managed, and above all it will be subject to the priorities of national interest as against private greed. In different language in a different age this is precisely what Harold Wilson was trying to design as a plan for the future when he described his vision of ‘White Heat.’
In fact he planned to establish a National Investment Bank to direct a modern technologically driven industrial revolution; it was to be the centre-piece of his economic strategy after winning a big overall majority in his second general election in 1966. It didn’t happen because the Labour government ran into an international economic crisis which threatened sterling. But the concept remained close to his heart and is now being revived by economic experts across the board. It is almost certain to be revived and established by a new Miliband-led Labour government.
Such an institution would be an important component within a strategy of restoring Britain’s reputation as a modern industrial power, to fill the appalling gap left by the destruction of our manufacturing base during the Thatcher years.
A future Miliband government offers a vision of Britain that has genuine promise. It could directly provide help to stimulate business and industry, small and large; organise a national housing programme; restore the NHS to the great institution it was when Aneurin Bevan launched it in 1948 in the face of bitter Conservative opposition. This could be Miliband’s modern White Heat of social revolution. And it could also help fill the huge gap that is now so evident in socialist thinking about how to tackle the collapse of market capitalism.
Geoffrey Goodman is a former industrial and assistant editor of the Daily Mirror, and was the founding editor of the British Journalism Review. His books include The Awkward Warrior, a biography of Frank Cousins, and From Bevan to Blair: Fifty Years Reporting from the Political Frontline, a memoir.