White Heat: The Wilson Era – Labour’s Lost Leader Poll

Harold Wilson Era 1963-1976

In October 1964 Labour finally returned to power under Harold Wilson. Wilson benefited from the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell and was able to focus the party’s efforts on winning the election.

In that 1963 leadership contest George Brown, James Callaghan and Harold Wilson stood, and in the run off Wilson beat Brown by 144 to 103 – with the support of the Bevanite wing of the left.

Despite being heavy favourites, Labour only won the subsequent 1964 Election with a majority of four. Yet the new government was seen as representative of a new Britain, one ready to embrace modern technological  and social developments.

Wilson was able to put together a government committed to many social reforms . They included the 1965 Race Relations Act, 1965 Abolition of Death Penalty Act, 1967 Sexual Offences Act ,1967 Abortion Act, 1968 Theatres Act and the 1969 Divorce Reform Act

Growing economic and industrial difficulties resulted in a series of political and financial crises, culminating in the 1967 devaluation of the pound. An increased left wing opposed Wilson’s stance on Vietnam and called for greater control of industry.

Most people, still believed Labour would win the 1970 election. The polls were consistently in Labour’s favour. The economy was showing distinct signs of improvement under Roy Jenkins. Yet they lost the election – in one of the greatest shocks of all time – which i have written about here Will you be up for Corbyn? Your guide to the biggest shocks in General Election history


Again, against all the odds in March 1974, Wilson became Prime Minister as the head of a minority government. Incidentally, Roy Jenkins had been preparing a leadership bid and Wilson had already written his resignation speech.

In his memoirs Denis Healey lamented ‘Unfortunately, since Wilson had neither political principle nor much government experience to guide him, he did not give Cabinet the degree of leadership which even a less ambitious prime minister should provide’

The leadership election in 1976, following his resignation would arguably  see the strongest field in political history battle it out; Jim Callaghan, Michael Foot, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, Tony Crosland and Denis Healey.

Wilson had manged the big beasts within the party well, but the divisions that would emerge would split the party for a generation. What if it had been someone else in charge?

The Candidates

Roy Jenkins

Jenkins Relaxes At Home

One of Labour’s most successful Chancellor’s and the most radical Home Secretary since WW1, Jenkins oversaw the abolition of the death penalty and the decriminalisation of homosexuality

Roy Jenkins was born in South Wales to Arthur Jenkins, the MP for Pontypool and PPS to Clement Attlee.  Jenkins himself  was elected in the 1948 Central Southwark by-election before moving to Stretford, Birmingham in 1950. Jenkins became a key Gaitskellite in opposition,

His book, Pursuit of Progress, published in 1953, was one of the first attempts to develop a revisionist case for Labour reform. When Labour won the 1964 election Jenkins he entered cabinet as minister for aviation

The following year, Jenkins became Home Secretary, overseeing the most radical changes of the 20th century and caught the mood of the swinging sixties. This included support for bills to liberate the race, homosexuality and abortion laws as well as abolishing theatre censorship.

He has been dubbed the ‘father of permissiveness’ and depending on your viewpoint, responsible for the success or failure of liberalising British values. Denis Healey later argued “he succeeded in stamping his liberal humanism on a department not notorious for that quality”.

In 1967 Jenkins became the Chancellor of the Exchequer, after the devaluation crisis. His unenviable task was to restore a balance of payments surplus and maintain a stable pound. He did this through cuts in public spending – particularly to defence.

By the 1970  election, public finances and the balance of payments were both in surplus, to the point he acquired the nickname of “Surplus Jenkins”. In 1974 he returned as home secretary and was responsible for the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) and the Race Relations Act (1976). He then led the successful “yes” campaign in the referendum on membership of the EEC

When Wilson resigned in 1976 Jenkins stood for the leadership of the party. However, he came only third behind James Callaghan and Michael Foot. In 1977 Jenkins left the House of Commons to become president of the European Commission in Brussels – the first and probably last British president.

In 1981 he joined Shirley Williams, David Owen and Will Rodgers in the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and provided advice to Tony Blair when he became Labour leader.

Roy Mason


Roy Mason was coal miner who became a Labour MP for Barnsley from 1953 to 1987. During this time he held several ministerial positions, including Defence Secretary and Northern Ireland Secretary.

Born in 1924, like many Labour MPs he finished school at 14 to become a miner, working his way up to become a union official with the NUM. His father was disabled by a pit accident in 1944 and he himself was injured three times. He then gained a trade union scholarship to study at the LSE before standing at the 1953 Barnsley by-election.

A tenacious working-class MP -the type  no longer seen in the party, he would go on to experience a distinguished career under Wilson and Callaghan. He  joined the cabinet at Home Affairs, Defence and Post Office, 1960-1964. Minister of State at the Board of Trade, 1964-1967. Minister of Defence (Equipment), 1967-1968. Minister of Power, 1968-1969. President of the Board of Trade, 1969-1970. Defence, 1974-1976.

At Defence, he robustly defended Labour’s multilateral defence policy against the rising influence of the Tribune Group and CND – making him a hated figure on the left of the party.

In 1976.  His tough stance made him the perfect candidate for the role Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, at the very height of the troubles. His zero-tolerance approach to terrorism is still remembered in Ulster today.

He concentrated on improving the security situation and minimising the IRA’s bombing campaign. Mason’s period of office was marked by a number of significant initiatives. He introduced the SAS into Northern Ireland with a progressively increasing role..

He was an advocate at greater economic development to reduce tension, and initiated the De Lorean car factory in West Belfast. It was unsuccessful, but Martin McGuiness would later claim “the only one who impressed was Roy Mason. He impressed some of the Unionists because he beat the shit out of us”.

When Wilson resigned, Mason considered a leadership bid. His decision not to stand, and support Callaghan disappointed Wilson. He wrote him an outgoing note, stating that Mason should have ‘more confidence’ next time. He infuriated  Sinn Fein and the Nationalists and for the rest of his life he and his wife Marjorie would need endure special protection

After retirement from the Commons in 1987 he was created a life peer, taking the title Baron Mason of Barnsley.

Michael Stewart


Michael Stewart, served twice as Foreign Secretary in the first cabinet of Harold Wilson.

Born in 1906, Michael Stewart was educated at Christ’s Hospital and St. John’s College, Oxford, where he graduated with a first class BA in PPE  in 1929.

At university, Stewart became President of the Oxford Union before working for the League of Nations. Stewart had contested the Lewisham West constituency in 1931 and 1935, and Fulham East in 1936 before serving successfully in World War II. He rose to captain in the British Army Educational Corps in the war,  before being elected to Parliament in 1945. Over the  next 20 years came to be considered one of the best debaters in the Commons.

After his initial election, he was made a junior whip, then a junior minister, as Under-Secretary of State for War (1947–51) and later as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply (May–October 1951). Following Labour’s defeat in the 1951 election, Stewart was a rising figure on the shadow front bench, serving as Shadow Minister of Education (1955–59) and then as Shadow Minister of Housing and Local Government (1959–64).

When Wilson became Prime Minister in 1964, Stewart was appointed Secretary of State for Education and Science. He was promoted to Foreign Secretary  in January 1965. Here Stewart skillfully balanced a twofold policy on the war in Vietnam. He had to support American involvement, for which he was attacked by the left within the party. But Stewart also withstood pressure, from the Tories and the US, to commit British troops in Vietnam.

A committed pro-European, Stewart was Leader of the Labour Delegation to the Council of Europe in June 1970. Then he became joint president of the Labour Committee for Europe with George Brown and Roy Jenkins.

He served as a member of the European Parliament from 1975 to 1976. He retired from the Commons in 1979 and became a life peer with the title Baron Stewart of Fulham.

He died in 1990, aged 83.

Ian Mikado


Ian Mikardo was the Jeremy Corbyn of the 1960s. The left-wing backbencher He was a member of the NEC in 1950–59 and 1960–78, and was the chairman of the party in 1970.

Ian Mikardo, was born in 1908 to Russian parents who came to Britain during the early 1900s. He left school at fifteen and did a variety of different jobs before converting to socialism and joining the Labour party

During this period, he worked his way up as an administrator in the aircraft-building industry. In 1944 he published ‘Centralised Control of Industry’ advocating the continuation of the planned economy and wartime controls on industry that had served Britain well through the war.

In 1945 he was selected to contest the Tory stronghold of Reading. He introduced a new approach to canvassing, identifying the constituents who were ‘don’t knows’, and diverting his campaigning efforts into these. The ‘Reading system’, as it came to be known, was adopted by all the major parties.

At the Labour National Conference in December 1944, Mikardo proposed a resolution that undermine Attlee, which he called for the nationalisation of “the land, large-scale building, heavy industry and all forms of banking as well as transport, fuel and power”

From the hard left of the party he formed the Keep left group which included Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman. In 1948 he published ‘The Second Five Years’ in which he proposed  that the government needed to “nationalise the joint stock banks and industrial assurance companies, shipbuilding, aircraft construction, aero-engines, machine tools, and the assembly branch of mass-produced motor vehicles’

In 1959 Mikardo lost his seat, before returning at the 1964, when he won the safe seat of Poplar.  He was also a member of the NEC  during this period.  Harold Wilson was advised to appoint Ian Mikardo to his cabinet but he was concerned he would undermine his leadership too much.

Through the 1970s. Mikardo strongly disapproved of Denis Healey and his cuts to public spending. This led to Healey accusing Mikardo of being “out of his tiny Chinese mind”. After this Mikardo worked to elect Michael Foot as leader in 1983, before retiring from the Commons in 1987


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