Labour must overcome its innate conservatism and keep on modernising

by David Talbot

Settling into the settee at the Labour leader’s house in Frognal Gardens, Hampstead, in the aftermath of a disastrous general election defeat, the friends mused about the future of their party.

There was little or no concrete thread to the discussions that flowed that night, though clause IV and changes to the party name were indeed discussed, amongst many more beside.

The Labour leader privately rejected most of the more radical suggestions, but was convinced yet further that Labour needed to adapt. The only action agreed was that a member present would put the thoughts expressed down on paper and duly, on the Sunday following the defeat, an article appeared.

The piece created a furore. The party should abandon its historic commitment to nationalisation, rebrand its image beyond its working class base and should consider changing its name to “Labour and Radical” or “Labour and Reform”. However, this was not a cosy bunch of Blairites writing abstract policy pamphlets in the 1990s, but the triumvirate surrounding Hugh Gaitskell, the then Labour leader, in 1959.

Gaitskell recognised that the party was creeping towards irrelevance as a political force. The high tide of Labourism had seemly passed with the Attlee governments of 1945-51; inertia, infighting and tradition had taken hold of the party. Gaitskell saw the manifest dangers in refusing to change the party, which could lead to electoral disaster, if not outright extinction.

The day after polling Gaitskell privately remarked to Richard Crossman, a prominent socialist intellectual and former editor of the New Statesman, that another defeat would be final for the Labour party. The inevitability of Labour’s decline began to be predicted.

Four decades before the emergence of the personnel most synonymous with the revival and modernisation of the Labour party, Gaitskell and his cohorts first recognised that modernisation had to be front and centre – and accelerated. They openly recognised what has, truth be told, been at the heart of Labour since its formation – its innate conservatism.

This is most vividly illustrated by Philip Gould, the seminal Labour pollster, in his work “The Unfinished Revolution” which charts his involvement, and struggles with, Labour from the mid-1980s to his untimely death.

Gould describes, in quite the most excruciating detail, how Labour had abandoned the very people it had formed to represent. The Conservatives, he argued, dominated the last century because they continually modernised – whilst Labour did not. In their brutal lust for power the British Conservatives had become the most successful political force in the democratic world. This highlights the central paradox of British politics; namely, the party of conservatism held power for much of the twentieth century because of its ceaseless modernisation.

The party of supposed radicalism succumbed to its conservatism, surely no more exemplified then the deification of clause IV, originally written in 1892, and was thus systematically overlooked at the ballot box by the British electorate.

Gould details how the party’s conservatism dragged the party to the brink. The party became intrinsically, and violently, resistant to change. This conservatism is the ultimate explanation for Labour’s failure to dominate the British political landscape.

The myriad of failures of the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s was due in large measure to the party’s inability, or unwillingness, to modernise the party. But the ultimate encapsulation was the 1980s, which Gould chillingly describes:

“To millions of voters Labour became a shiver in the fear of the night, some unsafe, buried deep in the psyche, not just for the 1983 election campaign or the period immediately afterwards but for years to come.. Labour looked downwards; ‘Clawing back; turning the clock back; for Militant; anti-home ownership; strife; strikes; inflation. Not for me.’”

Gould, like Gaitskell, would spend his political life attempting to forge a new consensus in the Labour party; one of unremitting modernisation.

In his opening speech as Labour leader, Ed Miliband declared that “the era of New Labour has passed”. This is self evident. If his first conference speech was one of surprise, his second was a seminar. For the third, we need sustenance. But whatever words tumble from the leader’s podium in Manchester, Miliband cannot, and must not, reach for the party’s comfort in conservatism. The modernising zeal that Gaitskell started, and Gould sculpted, Miliband must now strive for.

David Talbot is a political consultant

Tags: , , , ,

10 Responses to “Labour must overcome its innate conservatism and keep on modernising”

  1. Steven says:

    There’s something awfully peculiar going on with this analysis – Labour had to ‘modernise’ to win power yet after thirteen years of relentless ‘modernisation’ guess what? Labour achieved one of its worst ever defeats.

    Time to emerge from your mythologised comfort zone, David.

  2. Jim says:

    The problem with 13 years of new labour was that instead of modernising itself, it tried to modernise everything and everyone in this country. Folks were fed up of labour interference in their lives, a new law every week which had a detrimental effect on many and were largely media driven. Alas, we still see the same today, nothing changes, the working class are scroungers, workshy and lazy, politicians are more likely to argue about lord’s reform than the decimation of the welfare state.

  3. David Talbot says:


    Thanks. Your comment reminds me of a conversation Philip Gould describes with the Shadow Cabinet, when presented with the plans for a mid 1980s ‘re-launch’. Modernisation, for what it is, said Tony Benn, had “failed” and was just a bunch of “spivs in suits”.

    I actually think, to take your response seriously for a minute, that Labour’s capacity to renew itself actually shut down at some point during their time in office. I’d put it at around 2007, wouldn’t you?

  4. I agree david our new labour Modernisation died in 2007 around the time GB took over. Philip Gould, “The Unfinished Revolution” is a must read book !!!

  5. Roger McCarthy says:

    ‘clause IV, originally written in 1892’.

    Really? – Sidney Webb wrote clause 4 of the constitution of the Labour Party, 8 years before the formation of the LRC, 15 years before it described itself as the Labour Party and 26 years before it actually adopted a constitution?


  6. David Talbot says:


    Hugh Dalton, Labour Chancellor ’45-47, pointed out to Gaitskell that Arthur Henderson, co-author of the 1918 document, had remarked in 1927 that the wording of Clause IV was in need of reconsideration – since it dated from 1892.


    And if that doesn’t work, page 551 of Philip Williams’ Hugh Gaitskell: A Political Biography.

    How tiresome.

  7. Steven says:

    Hi David – thanks for reply.

    “at around 2007” – Coinciding, of course, with T.B.s departure, I feared as much.

    The narrative you develop points to approval of a particular form of renewal – I’d say that’s the wrong sort and the electorate reached the same verdict in 2010 (Brown was New Labour continuity – there were no electorally crucial policy deviations from the New Labour ‘reform’ orthodoxy).

    And don’t forget, of the 5 million votes lost by Labour during the New Labour era most were lost before T.B. departed.

    Certainly Blair got it wrong, hence the fall precipitous fall and his own premature departure from elected office. Just consider the time-scale set in the 1994 conference speech, when Blair voiced his trajectory: “one thousand days in opposition for a thousand years.” In 2007 there were still nine hundred and ninety years to go.

  8. Robert says:

    Left of centre parties should modernise but this should not mean that they stop being left of centre, which happened to Labour from about 2003 to 2007. Miliband, like Gaitskell in the 1950s and Kinnock in the 1980s, is moving Labour to a modern left of centre position. We need more details but I am reasonably happy with Labour at the moment.

  9. Ray_North says:

    Though, I can see the force in David Talbot’s piece here – as a non-party member, who would describe himself as being on the left, it comes across as another rather inward thinking analysis – at the moment, we are in a unique period where the nation is coming to the conclusion that the economic and political consensus of the last twenty years has failed – it is crying out for Labour to provide something better, but, Labour is often too reticent or too divided to provide it. I don’t know if this will come about through increased ‘modernisation’ or not, but, I am yet to hear the Labour leadership speak for me, and that worries me.
    I consider this further in the following article on the Allthatsleft website:

  10. Jordan says:

    Whilst 2006/7 is about the cut off point where Labour stopped modernising, that’s not suggesting that the Blair era is the definition of modernisation – he doesn’t have a monopoly on that afterall. Gordon’s government was characterised by policy stasis and preoccupation with the economic crisis so can’t be described as a modernising force. But to an extent Blair stopped being a moderniser when he lost focus on the public and pursued his own vision. As Robert says modernisation is good as long as it stays true to the party’s values. Unfortunately in the latter half of our 13 years in government we drifted from that.

    I think that the definition of modernisation that Ed should (and is to an extent) following, is to not take a particular policy or method for granted. Predistribution is an example of that, Ed has recognised we can’t rely on having significant financial resources to achieve social justice. Adjusting to present times is by definition modernising as Labour did in the 90s.

    To ignore the reasons we lost in 2010 is one mistake but to suggest that defeat disproves the case for modernisation would be another.

Leave a Reply