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