Labour needs another Wilsonian ‘white heat of technology’ moment  

Radicalism and realism will help the party to win the next general election, argues Tom Bewick

In October 1963, the Labour leader Harold Wilson delivered one of the most memorable political interventions of the 20th century.

Historians refer to it as the “white heat of technology” – a memorable phrase in the text, characterised by the opposition leader’s focus on education and science as the means to higher living standards.

The expansion of FE and the creation of the Open University (Wilson originally called it a “university of the air”) is a direct legacy of this period.

His speech at Scarborough also coincided with a turbulent decade for the country. The “swinging sixties” were about more than mini-skirts and the Beatles.

It was a new age of automation. 

Britain and the west were locked in an ideological and economic race with the Soviet Union, as one bloc tried to outdo the other, believing it had the best answers for progress.

We all know how the story ends. The west eventually won the Cold War. And economic growth of 5.7 per cent in 1964to  helped unleash a new Britannia.

To put this in historical perspective, average annual productivity growth in the UK since 2010 has been a sluggish 0.7 per cent. On this measure, the country is second from bottom in the G7.

What is perhaps most striking about Wilson’s speech was its clear-eyed honesty. It was a brutal lecture in both radicalism and realism.

Like the party today, Labour in 1963 had been in the political wilderness for 12 years.

It was genius of Wilson to tell the party faithful “there is no more dangerous illusion than the comfortable doctrine that the world owes us a living”.

He had a sobering vision for Britain – “that we will have just as much influence in the world as we can earn, as we can deserve”.

The following year, in 1964, Labour returned to government with a majority of four seats.

Fast forward to the present and Sir Keir Starmer faces a similar set of challenges. His task is not helped by Russian aggression in Ukraine that is once again upending the global order.

The temptation in Liverpool next week will be to tell the party faithful what they want to hear.

Starmer must inspire with a tough love message

Instead what the Labour leader must do like his election-winning predecessors, Wilson and Blair, is to inspire them with a tough-love message.

The tough part is to tell them that statism, practised under Labour and the Conservatives over the past decades, has failed this country.

If the trade unions think Labour back in power equates to a fresh round of top-down Whitehall-driven schemes, they should think again.

The debt-overhang of the pandemic and energy insecurity will constrain public spending for years to come.

Starmer’s more conciliatory tone should be that – with voter support – everyday working people can wrestle back control of society from an out-of-touch elite. Giving people, as equal citizens, real agency back in their lives.

In FE, we need to move beyond sterile arguments about whether colleges should be nationalised or privatised.

The Labour response should be to implement an ambitious programme of mutualisation of the sector.

In policy terms, that’s three things:

1. Devolve all post-18 funding to the individual, truly creating a lifetime skills guarantee, with no restrictions on what courses or qualifications learners can take.

2. Remove bureaucracy entirely from the skills system via a war on administrative duplication and waste. Inevitably, that means some quangos may have to disappear from the landscape altogether.

3. Every FE provider should be invited to become a mutual, where FE staff can become co-owners of the enterprise alongside the local community. Like the John Lewis partnership, FE mutuals would have complete control over how they are run.

And finally, Starmer can echo Wilson.

The latter said: “We shall need a totally new attitude to the problems of apprenticeship, training and re-training for skill”.

Latest education roles from

Student Engagement and Enrichment Lead

Student Engagement and Enrichment Lead

Bournemouth and Poole College

Tutorial Learning Mentor

Tutorial Learning Mentor

Barnsley College

School Liaison Admissions Tutor

School Liaison Admissions Tutor

Riverside College

Study Coach

Study Coach

Heart of Yorkshire Education Group

Lecturer in Maths

Lecturer in Maths

Heart of Yorkshire Education Group

Apprentice Development Leader

Apprentice Development Leader

GP Strategies

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *