Labour’s new revisionists will lead the revival

by Alex White

The Labour Party is ‘travelling in strange country, exposed to climatic rigours it had not anticipated and against which its traditional equipment gave little protection’.

It is a damning indictment of Labour’s comfort zone tendency that Richard Crossman’s contribution to the 1952 New Fabian Essays, which he edited, would make a good summary of the party’s current situation.

Crossman was not a revisionist, but the essays he edited are home to the first serious collection of modern revisionist thought; the tradition which would – by way of a titanic struggle between Hugh Gaitskell and Aneurin Bevan – find its strongest voice in Anthony Crosland and its strongest actor in Tony Blair.

Labour Kremlinologists and historians with an eye on the symbolism of Gaitskell versus Bevan may attempt to see something similar in the battle between Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall. It is no coincidence that Kendall’s ‘what matters is what works’ line is the most articulate understanding of revisionism since Crosland’s writing on the distinction between ends and means.

A revisionist has one purpose: rethink the role of the state (the means) to build a more equal society (the ends).

To call this Tory-lite is a lazy attack with an even lazier understanding of Labour history, with the disastrous consequence of surrendering ground to the Conservatives. As Adrian McMenamin highlighted recently on Uncut, revisionism is a movement far wider and richer in history than those who use the Blairite label as an insult understand. It found its way to the 21st century from Eduard Bernstein’s repudiation of Karl Marx and R.H Tawney’s seminal text on equality, via the brave but unfulfilled leaderships of Gaitskell and Neil Kinnock.

But by the 1980s, with Crosland gone and facing the Thatcherite championing of the individual, the revisionist old guard fell away. Roy Jenkins jumped ship to the SDP, and Roy Hattersley – who wrote Choose Freedom, still the best argument for a socialism rooted in liberty and equality since Crosland – would go on to become a critic of New Labour.

Where does that leave revisionism today? Clearly neither Crosland nor Blair have the answers in an era of fiscal responsibility, deepening crises of identity, and distrust in politics.

Much like the New Fabian Essays in the 1950s, Labour’s new revisionism found a home in the 2011 Purple Book. The individual policy ideas, some of which made it to Labour’s manifesto, are less important than the central themes of decentralisation and tackling not just inequality of wealth but inequality of power; something that requires a desire for a state which goes beyond a few levers in Whitehall being pulled.

The new revisionist agenda is increasingly coalescing around the idea that Labour can no longer tell people what is good for them, and then do it to them or for them. For the first time in Labour’s history, it left two separate communities alienated: Middle England went to the Tories and our heartlands went to the SNP and UKIP.

Kendall gets this, but she is not the only revisionist in the party. Tristram Hunt’s speech to Demos, where he announced his endorsement of her, was rich in its understanding of the need to give away power. Others who are boxed in as either left or right candidates, like Lisa Nandy and Chuka Umunna, quite often transcend political positioning when they have written extensively on Labour’s need to decentralise power.

This is the potential new revisionist movement in the Labour party. It is no longer about Blair, just as his revisionism was not really about Crosland. This leadership contest will be a unique and defining moment in Labour’s history for the party’s revisionists – if they have the courage to embrace it.

Alex White is a Labour campaigner

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7 Responses to “Labour’s new revisionists will lead the revival”

  1. John P Reid says:

    It’s worth pointing out that one Laobur MP said Had Bevan lived,When Gaitskell died,and Bevan lead Labour to the 1964 election he would have lost, something Gaitskell wouldn’t have, as Wilson didn’t,

  2. Blairite says:

    Does Lisa Nandy really believe it? She was critical of plans to devolve to Greater Manchester, opposes public service reform and need for academies and free schools (which free local institutions from control of the centre) and she backs Andy Burnham for leader (who may suffer from a political identity crisis but is opposed to devolution). It will be left to the Blairites and Blue Labour to make the case for greater decentralisation.

  3. John. P Reid says:

    Quite Blairite, funny blue Labour and New, were from different spectrums, and Nandy had previously supported blue Labour and Burham according to Philip Collins a few years ago could have mixed the two, wings, with reforms, he’s just appeasing Union central control,
    For someone who wanted him leader last time, at this rate I’d sooner back Yvette for my second choice,

  4. It’s worth pointing out that one Laobur MP said Had Bevan lived,When Gaitskell died,and Bevan lead Labour to the 1964 election he would have lost, something Gaitskell wouldn’t have, as Wilson didn’t,

    Not that I want to detract from your Gaitskell worship John, but wasn’t Wilson a Bevan follower? Of course I probably shouldn’t also point out that Gaitskell lost the 1959 election and managed to make Macmillan look charismatic.

  5. John P Reid says:

    Yes And Wilson got less votes if 1964 when he won than when Gaiskell lost,

    Gaitskell junked most of the 55 manifesto for his in in 59
    Wilson junked most of Gaistkells 59 manifesto for the 64 one, Hattersley and Smith,didn’t agree much of the 83 manifesto when they canvassed for the 83 leadership,
    Cameron wrote the Tories 2005 manifesto junked most of it,

    After Eden portrayed himself as a dashing man in a Bentley and McMillan as the statesman by the log fire, and labour under Antony Wedgewood benns direction, tried unsuccessfully to have cartoons and a rotating chair in labours 1959 election,
    Labour was always suspicious of advertising to win elections,as we’d failed twice in the 50’s ,Wilson had been successful but by 1970 he was unpopular and was clever enough in the 1974 elections to take a back seat let Williams, Healey and Jenkins appear more in the media(something Blair did in 2005) as Wilson has Been out of fashion ever since,the way he was a media star, hasn’t been well received by labour,when foot was advised to be more media friendly he would dismiss it as a case of he hadn’t tried for 50 years ,it was too late to start now,it wasn’t till the GLC being dismantled that labour started to use the media,

  6. Landless Peasant says:

    Labour don’t get my vote until they pledge to abolish Benefit Sanctions. Simple as that.

  7. Mike Homfray says:

    No, these are faddish nonsense and we should steer well clear

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