Labour's ahead in the polls, but could still learn from Harold Wilson 60 years ago – Ian Swanson

Labour party’s victory in 1964 was hard won and very narrow
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It sounds more like fantasy politics than a serious prospect, but a poll last week suggested Labour could end up with a Commons majority of over 400 at the next general election, with the SNP as the official opposition and the Tories humiliated in third place with just 45 MPs. This wasn't a self-ridiculing extrapolation of a fluke result from some obscure by-election. It was a 28,000-strong MRP poll, which uses age, income and other data of respondents to make seat-by-seat predictions.

It has got some past election outcomes right when other polls have been wrong. But even if a win on that scale is difficult to believe, other polls also show Labour with a large lead and most political commentators expect Keir Starmer to be the next occupant of Number Ten.

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But Labour cannot afford to be complacent. Many of the party's supporters remember the sense of hope and expectation that surrounded Neil Kinnock in 1992 when the polls predicted a small Labour majority or a hung parliament, but the result saw John Major return to Downing Street with an overall majority of 21.

Harold Wilson led Labour to victory in the 1964 general election, but their Commons majority was just four seats.Harold Wilson led Labour to victory in the 1964 general election, but their Commons majority was just four seats.
Harold Wilson led Labour to victory in the 1964 general election, but their Commons majority was just four seats.

And if they want a lesson in adopting a positive approach while not taking things for granted, Labour strategists could look back 60 years to Harold Wilson's Labour victory in 1964. Then, as now, the Tories were coming to the end of their term of office with a new leader who had failed to make much impact. Sir Alec Douglas Home was a Scottish aristocrat widely seen as out of touch and more at home on the grouse moors than anywhere else.

Then, as now, the government had been mired in scandal – Harold Macmillan resigned as prime minister in the wake of Defence Secretary John Profumo's lies to the Commons about his affair with Christine Keeler, who also had a relationship with a Soviet spy. The affair had led to a series of stories about the sex lives of various establishment figures and there was a general sense of the old order disintegrating.

Like today, Labour had lost the previous election badly but now had a new leader and was ahead in the polls. In 1963, Harold Wilson symbolised an important shift away from privilege towards a more egalitarian society – he had been educated at a grammar school rather than a public school, he spoke with a Yorkshire accent and smoked a pipe. He also represented modernity, eager to embrace the possibilities opened up by technology and harness scientific development to improve the lives of ordinary people.

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Wilson worked hard to keep the party united despite its fractious tendencies and campaigned in the election with an air of confidence and a down-to-earth message. Labour had been ahead in the polls for most of 1962 and 1963, but as the election neared the gap narrowed and during the campaign one poll even put the Tories ahead. When the votes were all counted, Labour won by just four seats. Despite all the scandal, their long spell in power and their aristocratic leader, the Tories had nearly repelled Labour’s challenge.

Wilson went on to win more comfortably in 1966 and stay in power until 1970, but that first victory took hard work, a positive message and a disciplined campaign – and they only just made it.