Who are Labour’s most successful leaders? The question is purely subjective, wrought with personal prejudices and riddled with rhetoric. There is, truly, no one right answer. It depends ultimately, as Luke Akehurst rightly observes, on which measure you lay weight to. Luke chose electoral success, which is naturally the benchmark for any leader. On this, the Labour party has some true greats. The obvious candidate is one Tony Blair who took the party of serial opposition to a thrice-winning electoral movement that consigned the Conservatives to their longest period of opposition since the Corn Law reforms in the 1840s. Harold Wilson of course won four out of the five general elections he contested, though his fortunes swang between a crushing 96 majority to majority of just three. Nobody, rightly, tries to make a case for James Callaghan, Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock as candidates for the pantheon and some of the devotion to the late John Smith derives, no doubt, from a desperate endeavour to find a leader of note that wasn’t Blair. But what of an oft-forgotten Labour leader whose sole general election campaign consigned Labour to a third straight defeat, and a 100-seat Conservative majority?
In Nick Thomas-Symonds’ authoritative account from Labour’s pioneers right up until Gordon Brown’s doomed three years he, perhaps unsurprisingly for an author of his life, chose Clement Attlee as Labour’s most successful leader. Many do, and for many reasons. He swept to power in 1945, the first majoritarian Labour government. In the immediate aftermath of this crushing victory, Labour might have established a new electoral dominance in British politics, but within five years the chance had been duly squandered. By 1948, the government had lost its capacity for creative thinking having implemented its manifesto. Attlee’s failure to reignite his governing élan intellectually bankrupted the party for a decade to come and dogged the party with the ‘what next?’ question. But there was someone who slipped in almost unnoticed in the 1945 landslide as the member for Leeds South. By 1950 he was chancellor, and by 1955 party leader. His surname would coin the phrase synonymous with the postwar consensus and he in many respects laid the foundations for a Labour recovery at the end of the 20th century.
Hugh Gaitskell attempted to redefine the party’s socialist goals in detail that no other Labour leader would until Blair’s election to the leadership in 1994. At the forefront of his leadership was his revisionist zeal: a desire to haul the party of persistent small ‘c’ conservatism to reformulate socialist principles and adopt a new programme that was relevant to the rapidly and radically changing social and economic circumstances.
The traditional association with socialism and the public ownership of the means of production, embodied in the original Clause IV of the party constitution, was both obsolete and inadequate even in Gaitskell’s time. His battle over Clause IV represented the culmination of the revisionist attempt not just to demote the role of public ownership in Labour party policy and ideology – but also to demythologise it as the dominant idea. The original Clause IV text was written in 1892. Only the Labour party would deify a text so old and on which successive party leaders had no intention of implementing.
It is tempting to view Gaitskell as just another 20th century Labour leader who joined the substantial number who never became prime minister. Throughout the last century, seven Labour leaders in all never reached the highest office. He could thus become a partial footnote in political history, rather than a chapter. But in spite of Gaitskell’s weak electoral record he had the determination to prevent the Labour party, after its third successive defeat, from retiring resentfully into electoral insignificance, and the resilience, against appalling short term Bevanite pressure, from caving in and retreating from a substantial examination of the contentious issue of public ownership.
His revisionism was a commitment to the future of the Labour party as an independent entity. He advocated, in his attempt to remove Clause IV, the modernisation of the Labour party. His legacy, and thereby success, is of an alternative model to the one’s examined by Akehurst and Symonds. But he was the original Labour moderniser and, like many visionaries, was decades ahead of his time.
David Talbot is a political consultant, tweets @_davetalbot and writes the weekly The Week Ahead column on Progress
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