The two ideologies that once bore Hugh Gaitskell’s name are long dead, not used by anyone but historians. One of them, Butskellism, deserves to remain there, the days of import controls, capital restrictions, and fixed exchange rates are long gone. Gaitskellism, the political half-sister of Butskellism, is also no longer in vogue. Those who once used it and rallied around it have left the political stage, but the spirit lives on in the party today. As Vernon Bogdanor has noted ‘Gaitskell was a revisionist and a precursor of New Labour. He sought a party in thrall neither to ancient doctrines of public ownership nor to modern doctrines of unregulated markets’. This revisionist tradition, under new names, lives on in parts of our party (including in Progress), but it is worth remembering Gaitskell’s contribution and the lessons he left for our party.
Gaitskell was close to the group of early revisionists that emerged in the late 1930s and early 1940s within the party, a group that included Douglas Jay and Hugh Dalton. Gaitskell would serve with Dalton in the National Government, an experience which helped solidify their faith in the ability of the state to have a degree of control over elements of the economy. He became Dalton’s protégé and eventually rose to the position held by his patron, chancellor, in spite of Dalton’s scandalous resignation.
Gaitskell would only serve a year as chancellor before Labour slipped back into opposition. Yet his term, and his later fiscal policy decisions as leader (a post to which he rose in 1955), hold lessons crucial to the future of social democracy. He showed the need to make tough tax-and-spend decisions when in government to ensure the credibility of centre-left policies in times of budget constraint. His most controversial decision was to increase prescription charges for NHS supplied glasses and dentures. Painful but pragmatic, the same kind of difficult choices will have to be made in order to provide long term stability to both government finances and the institutions that we cherish. In the 1959 election campaign, the party failed to have credible fiscal policies. Labour’s manifesto promised a range of spending increases on housing and pensions, however, these combined with a promise to keep taxes low, presented a clear inconsistency. The Tories, as is their wont, ruthlessly exploited it. This, combined with a government riding a wave of growth, helped condemn the party to another five years of opposition. A fiscally credible set of policies will be crucial as a defensive and offensive tactic going into the next election to ensure that our party wins the trust of the voters to handle their money.
Under Gaitskell’s leadership, Labour was not afraid to use modern and innovative campaigning methods to reach new audiences. Tony Benn, then a moderate in the party, led an effective machine which used the emerging medium of television to reach out to voters. This first attempt, hampered by a lack of experience using the medium and facing a Tory party riding a wave of widespread prosperity and economic growth, failed. However, it did lay the foundations upon which Harold Wilson would later prosper, using the medium to project an image of himself as ‘the archetypal “New Man”’ as one commentary described him. No doubt, Gaitskell would have approved of the party’s attempts to utilise social media and the internet as mediums of political communication and more recent attempts to experiment with different formats of organising.
Throughout his leadership, there were constant intra-party battles between the right and left, the moderates and the fundamentalists. These battles were nothing new inside the party. They had been present since the messy birth of a coalition between radical liberal trade unionists, Fabians and independent socialists. Government, National then just Labour, helped hide the fault lines, but defeat caused the temporary peace to degenerate. Battles raged over the party’s potential commitment to Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament, with Gaitskell first losing the vote to prevent it in 1960 and then winning in 1961. These battles were a stern test of his leadership and each of these votes was followed by a leadership challenge, but Gaitskell held firm. He could have buckled and saved political capital within the party, but he knew how committing to such a policy would have reduced Labour’s credibility and weakened future foreign policy. After his death, former Gaitskellites went on to form the Campaign for Democratic Socialism, in an attempt to provide a rallying point for moderate in party.
Sadly, it was CDS members who were later in the vanguard of the SDP, helping to supply half the Gang of Four. The loss of a generation of moderates hurt the party and helped to condemn it to 18 years of opposition.
We will never know how good Gaitskell would have been as prime minister nor how he would have handled the emerging problems surrounding the fixed exchange rate which hampered the 1964-70 Labour government. Nor was he infallible, his opposition to Britain’s membership of the EEC being a stand out example. Despite this, there are many lessons to take from his political life and the party would do well to stay firm to the modernising path which Gaitskell trod his whole career. We, Labour’s moderates, should continue to avoid the path that the CDS took, and never give up fighting for the party that we love.
Also in the Neo-Gaitskellism series …
Confessions of a Neo-Gaitskellite by Kevin Feeney
Continuing the Gaitskellite tradition by Matthew Forrest
David Butler is a student, a Labour party member and self-confessed Neo-Gaitskellite. He tweets @davidbutler100
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