Posts Tagged ‘Hugh Gaitskell’

The big winner in last week’s reshuffle was Labour’s old right, not Tony Blair

10/09/2023, 10:57:09 PM

by Atul Hatwal

Most media reports of last week’s Labour reshuffle described a scene of Blairite triumph: the old master’s grip on the party was being reasserted, his policies and personnel were to the fore, Keir Starmer his willing proxy. It’s an easy story to write, one with familiar beats, but a story that is quite wrong.

It is a symptom of the simplified, bipolar frame through which Labour’s internal politics is viewed: Corbynite left or Blairite right, where all developments are reduced to a zero-sum game of one side winning and the other losing.

What this approach misses is the divide among party centrists between Blairites and the old Labour right, dating back to the early 1990s. There’s certainly much commonality between the two groups across large swathes of policy and on the importance of fighting the hard left, but as that latter threat recedes and the choices of government heave into view, the differences from thirty years ago will become more evident. Last week’s reshuffle marked the clearest possible ascendancy of the old Labour right rather than a move to full throttle Blairism.

Blairites are revolutionaries. Many of the original generation, including Tony Blair, started their political lives on the radical left and moved to the centre; what they retained on their political journey was their restless dissatisfaction with the status quo; social democratic incrementalism wasn’t enough, Britain needed fundamental reform. The focus of this reforming zeal was typically old Labour sacred cows–Labour’s internal structures, the party’s relationship with the unions and public service reform.

The old right is the embodiment of incrementalism. A bit more redistribution, increased public spending and support to bolster the position of unions. This isn’t a faction temperamentally suited to radical upheaval, least of all when it comes to the ceremonies of Labour’s traditions which are intertwined with the union movement and wreathed in emotion and sentimentality.

Think of the contrast between John Smith and Tony Blair.


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Corbyn’s a disaster but we must fight, fight and fight again to save the party we love

19/04/2017, 10:11:48 PM

by Rob Marchant

It all seems so obvious now. But none of us was predicting it over breakfast yesterday, partly because Theresa May had several times denied it was a possibility. In some ways, it might have paid her to let Jeremy Corbyn stay in a few more years and hurt Labour’s polling more.

But the combination of the lack of a decent majority and the lack of legitimacy of a prime minister who has never gone to the polls, combined with Labour’s unprecedentedly awful polling made it a very modest gamble indeed. And leaders, to be a success, need to learn how to gamble when the odds are good.

News correspondents, bless them, for the purposes of unbiased reporting need to now pretend for the next seven weeks that Labour has a chance of winning. But no serious commentator is predicting any such thing. It is simply impossible. The party is in damage limitation in a way it is difficult to imagine it has ever been before. It is fighting for its life.

Its problems can be summarised in four points.

One: this is the Brexit election and Labour has no answers. Its leader pretended to be anti-Brexit but was really pro. He has now even stopped any pretence otherwise and the party’s message is therefore utterly confused. With the result that Labour is now mistrusted by many in both pro- and anti- camps. Worse, current polls show that voters care more about Brexit than they do political colours. So Labour can effortlessly be squeezed by UKIP and the Tories in some constituencies and the Lib Dems or Greens in others.

Two: the snap election means that Labour’s ground war will be its worst ever. This is the first snap election in forty-three years. There are very few staffers, if any, who even remember the last one.

Given the point in the parliamentary cycle, Labour has few new candidates selected, and had to endure hours yesterday of the prospect of the Leader’s office suicidally attempting to enforce mandatory reselections on the sitting MPs. Fortunately this was ultimately abandoned but not before souring relations at the top of the party even further.

The Tories won’t be much more advanced in terms of candidate selection, but in the marginals they should easily be able to find candidates who fancy a spell in Westminster and have a really very good chance of arriving there.

Although Labour has a little more from the influx of new members, it is still strapped for cash and will be easily outspent by the Tories.

Electoral data is two years out of date already and there is no time to update it. Their new, Corbyn-supporting activists will largely not door-knock and their old ones will struggle to motivate themselves.

In short, the party would have been poorly placed for street campaigning if it had the normal five years to prepare. This time it has seven weeks. (more…)

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Labour is not a museum. It should be a movement for the future

10/08/2015, 07:00:07 AM

by Pat McFadden

It was back in 1959 that some in Labour first though the old Clause IV was out of date.  1959, before the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the same year the German SPD renounced its Marxist heritage with the adoption of the Bad Godesberg programme.  Gaitskill’s attempt to change Clause IV was a response to Labour’s third defeat on the trot.  He failed.  The party would not give up its statement of aims and values dating from 1918 and the original Clause IV survived until the 1990s.

For some the commitment to “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” was a serious statement of intent, a yardstick by which to judge Labour Governments who would inevitably be found wanting when it came to implementation.  That’s the thing about leaders, they will always sell you out goes the argument.  For others its value was more as heritage, not a statement they expected to be implemented but of value as a kind of holy text.

Before Tony Blair attempted to change Clause IV Jack Straw had raised the issue.  If memory serves me right he quoted his constituency chairman citing Yeats’s plea to “tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.”  For Clause IV was not only about content.  It was part of Labour’s religion.  It had a poetic appeal and its very longevity lent it symbolic weight.  So when Tony Blair set about changing it both he and the opponents of change understood the importance of the change.

Blair wanted a statement of Labour’s aims that a Labour government could seriously attempt to abide by.  No Labour Government was going to nationalise the means of production, distribution and exchange.  Secondly, he wanted to communicate to the public, most of whom of course hadn’t read Clause IV, that Labour had changed and was modernising to meet new times.  He knew Labour had a problem appealing to voters who believed Labour was wedded to high taxes, dominated by the unions and weak on defence.  Many of these voters had parents or grandparents who were Labour but they felt they had moved on from a Labour party that seemed locked in the past.


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Labour’s new revisionists will lead the revival

31/05/2015, 12:15:20 PM

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.


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Back to the future with GDH Cole

07/02/2013, 04:44:58 PM

by Jonathan Todd

How much left the room when GDH Cole stormed out of a Fabian executive meeting in 1915? More than you might imagine.

James M. Buchanan was born a few years prior to Cole’s exit and died last month. He tends to be celebrated by right-wingers, enamoured with a small-state, as his work on public choice theory supports scepticism in big government. Unlike Cole, such right-wingers have never been inspired to socialism by reading William Morris. Yet Cole’s doubts about the central state were as vehement as Buchanan’s.

Cole’s was a socialism with as small a central state as possible. Subsequent perceptions have tended to see socialism and the state as so synonymous as to make Cole’s minimal state socialism oxymoronic.

Those who remained in the Fabian executive meeting after Cole had left it would be relaxed about this association. Their aim was to capture the commanding heights of the state through democratic elections and have socialist politicians use the organs of the state to gradually transform society to socialism.

Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism (1956), the great revisionist text of post-war Britain, contained some caustic lines about Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the leading exponents of this dominant Fabian view. He mocked them for spending their honeymoon investigating Trade Societies in Dublin. It was their austere methods that he had in mind when he warned that: “Total abstinence and a good filing-system are not now the right signposts to the socialist Utopia: or at least, if they are, some of us will fall by the wayside.”

Crosland liked a drink and was right to put more emphasis on relaxation, fun and culture than the Webbs did: quality of life, in contemporary parlance. And right also to assert that in the blood of the socialist “there should always run a trace of the anarchist and the libertarian, and not too much of the prig and the prude”. This liberalism justified the reforms enacted by Roy Jenkins, another protégé of Hugh Gaitskell, as Home Secretary in the 1960s and distanced Crosland from the Webbs.

But the break made by Crosland with the Webbs was not as decisive as he thought. While being socially much more liberal than the Webbs, his dominant pre-occupation was equality and creating a more equal society through a comprehensive school system. The Bevanites with whom Gaitskellites, like Crosland, quarrelled in the 1950s put more emphasis on nationalisation, rather than equality, as the end of socialism. In so doing, the Bevanites were as attached to the central state and public ownership as the Webbs were.


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Labour must overcome its innate conservatism and keep on modernising

10/09/2012, 07:00:13 AM

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

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Kevin Meagher looks at the new leader’s in-tray

28/09/2010, 09:23:37 AM

THIS week, of all weeks, Ed Miliband will not find himself short of advice. Whatever his critics, myself among them, have said about his campaign, he has executed his strategy expertly. Quite simply, he intuitively understood the centre of gravity in the modern Labour party far better than any of the other candidates.

His appeal to the Guardian-reading, soft left, public-sector urbanites who comprise so much of the party’s grassroots, was perfectly pitched. These are principled, decent people who can be swayed by pragmatic arguments, as they were (initially) by Tony Blair; but ultimately they retain their original, earnestly held views. They saw many of their cherished beliefs battered and bruised during Labour’s years in office and were grateful to have a candidate to vote for in this contest who actually chimed with how they see the world.

The trouble is that their views are not necessarily the views of the broader electorate. Or, indeed, our lost Labour voters. Both Gordon Brown’s former pollster, David Muir and the Open Left team at Demos have made this point in recent days.

So the balance between idealism and hard-nosed electoral reality needs to be better calibrated. And our new leader will not have long to do so. He has to adapt to a fast-changing political landscape with firmness and quickness or risk being on the back foot from the off. To his right-wing media critics he is already “Red Ed” – a rollback to Labour’s Jurassic period.  I am sure we can expect some subtle but firm rebranding in this afternoon’s speech.


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