In the previously safe Labour seat of Heywood and Middleton, UKIP came within 600 odd votes of beating Labour. It was very poor result from a Labour perspective- and ironically came on the 40th anniversary of one of the party's most impressive victories- in the October 1974 general election. As Labour licked its wounds in Greater Manchester, BBC Parliament was showing a replay of the election night coverage from forty years ago. I hope Ed Miliband was watching- as there’s lots that Labour could learn from the stance his party took in 1974.

In 1974 British politics, as now, was in a state of flux. The Conservatives and Labour faced a renewed challenge not only from a revitalised Liberal Party, but from a growing Nationalist movement in Scotland. An election in February 1974 had resulted in a photo finish – with Labour winning just four more seats than the Conservatives, who had been in power since June 1970. Labour leader Harold Wilson returned to 10 Downing Street at the head of a minority government, but in October he went to the country again, to try to get a workable majority. He knew that the election was once again going to be a close run thing- and realised that his party’s promise of a referendum on EEC membership could be the decisive factor. It was the Conservatives, under Edward Heath, who had taken Britain into the then Common Market in 1973, but a majority of Wilson’s party- and in the country at large, were for staying out. There was also a wing of the Conservative party which opposed membership too.

Harold Wilson and Enoch Powell in 'urinal exchanges' 

The shrewdest of political operators, Wilson knew that Euro-scepticism, or rather EEC-scepticism, was where the votes were in 1974. The leading Conservative opponent of Britain‘s entry into the Common Market, and the flag-bearer of the Tory right was Enoch Powell, a charismatic, if controversial political figure, who had a sizeable public following. Wilson had some informal discussions with Powell, in 1973, in the toilets of the House of Commons. ‘Some rather crucial encounters took place in the gentlemen’s loo in the Commons’, revealed Powell’s Parliamentary Secretary Peter Clarke many years later. ‘I remember Mr Powell coming from one of these urinal exchanges very pleased that Harold Wilson had understood his allusions that we wanted to see the Conservative Party defeated.’

The result of these ‘urinal exchanges’ between Powell and Wilson were hugely beneficial to Labour.

Powell caused a sensation in February 1974 by resigning from the Tories and urging people to vote Labour, because of their pledge to consult the British public directly on Europe.

The issue of the EU referendum "has been raised at every public meeting I’ve attended", the Labour peer Lord Shinwell told the BBC on election night in October 1974. "At a meeting I went to last night in North Ealing, the predominant issue was the Common Market and the issue of a referendum", he said.

"Politicians ... denying to the electorate the right to decide"

The elections expert and professor of government, Vernon Bognador wrote that Labour's commitment to a referendum on Europe "may have contributed to their two election victories in 1974: certainly it defused what could have been a deep popular resentment against politicians who were denying to the electorate the right to decide so central an issue".

Have a read of the last part of the Bognador quote again. Labour’s referendum pledge was important because it showed the public that there were some politicians who were prepared to give them the right to decide on an extremely important issue. The referendum commitment, together with other populist economic policies, such as the extension of public ownership and higher taxes on the wealthy, enabled Labour to legitimately claim in 1974 to be the ‘people’s party’- a mantle which UKIP are claiming for themselves in 2014. Labour’s unashamedly populist programme, with a pledge to hold a public vote on Europe at its heart, would appal leader writers on posh newspapers today- but it helped return Harold Wilson to Downing Street.

Ed Miliband ought to adopt a similar position today- and stop taking his cue from elite commentators whose views are laughably out of touch with the man and woman in the street. Labour’s current refusal to commit to a referendum on Europe, is clearly playing into UKIP’s hands- as last week’s by-election result showed.. The party has only got a few months to change its position- and take a more EU-sceptic line, (along with the adoption of other populist economic policies, such as re-nationalisation of the railways), or else it faces the very real possibility of losing seats to UKIP in its heartlands- which could very well prevent it from returning to power in 2015. Harold Wilson, the cleverest political operator of the post-war era, won four elections out of five, but if Ed Miliband doesn’t change tack on Europe, he might not even win one.

(VoR)