Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Reintroducing Gaitskell

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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David Butler


  • Sorry David but CDS was formed in 1960 before Gaitskell died in 1963. It was set up to win support for him and the party he loved after the conference voted for CND in 1960. In the next year because of the work of CDS he won. Progressives should follow CDS to combat the left, whose antics in the recent NEC elections show lefties are still conspiring to take over the party and make it unelectable.

  • So that’s what it’s all about for Progress then, “Making the party electable”?

    If you stopped pandering to the centre and right and spent a little time trying to re-engage with the real disenfranchised in this country, you might just find that Labour is electable, without the need to dump all of the policies that helped for the party in the first place.

    You speak like a true PPE graduate, attempting to formulate policies that would guarantee at least five years of sitting on the green benches, to further your own ends.

    How about formulating policies that would drive back the privatisation of public services and make sure that the needs of the vulnerable were funded by the taxes of the rich?

  • A rather predictable, and boring, response.

    Labour party politics in the 1950s was completely dominated by the bitter and prolonged struggle between Gaitskell and Bevan. At times the actual cause of contention was lost in the midst of the desire to win the struggle for the direction of the post 1951 Labour party. But by 1957 it was clear that Gaitskell had won.

    Bevanites have tended to be vastly overestimated, at the time and since, because of their symbolic value of resisting change and their journalistic expertise. The Labour Left was in no position to offer a challenge to the revisionist case; their intellectual poverty was apparent by the early 1950s. This was to be an important factor in the success of Gaitskell’s revisionism, for revisionist thinkers possessed a monopoly in the field of detailed policy making. In contrast, the Bevanite Left shared little or no interest in the complexities of policy making but rather just polemical discourses.

    The resistance from Bevan can be described as a combination of sheer petulance and ideological hostility. He was annoyed Clement Attlee had promoted Gaitskell to Chancellor in October 1950 and, from an ideological aspect, he was convinced that Gaitskell was steeped in the tradition of Fabian gradualism and simply did not belong in the Labour movement. Goodness, where have we heard that before?

    Bevan himself had accepted much of Gaitskell’s premises in his 1952 book ‘In Place of Fear’. But hey, Zorro, what’s a glib two-liner against historical fact huh?

  • Unfortunately, the Gang of Four and their supporters went a tad to far and they knew it. They thought that they could change the Party by forming a new one and such blistering bourgeois arrogance fooled some of the people for some of the time. The outcome can be seen quite clearly in the current Lib Dems. Ugh! Some of those “traitors” that defected and I knew are, now, back in the fold but shunned, still, and distrusted by some who will never ever forgive them for perpetuating, as they see it, the Thatcher minority Government!

  • There’s nothing to be ashamed of in winning people’s votes and getting the chance to improve things. Hating the rich and taking their money can only work for a short while. Anyway, we want them to have financial success then we can tax them and help build a better Britain. Perhaps you imagine someone else is going to come up with the resources.

  • I have absolutely no problem with people making money, none whatsoever, so don’t try the jealous line with me. My problem starts with Blairites cosying up to the rich and allowing them to offshore not only corporation taxes but also personal income tax.

    If you lot wanted to improve things, you’d never have lost Bradford West. You thought it was “in the bag” and did buggerall canvassing. The Bradford West constituents and millions more like them are the disenfranchised who New Labour abandoned, in favour of the middle class and the neo-liberals. Some of you lot make Portillo look left-wing.

    At least we’ve now got CLASS as an alternative to your claptrap

  • a) Yes we have to make sure they pay their tax, but it’s not easy.

    b) New Labour: created jobs; spent money on NHS and schools; brought in
    Sure Start. Do those things not count? As a school governor for ten
    years I saw a huge change for the better.

    c) Middle class taxes pay for the resources you want to distribute.
    Should we not support them to do that? Many of them struggle too.

    d) Instead of “CLASS”, maybe “SHARED VALUES” is a better model. I feel
    more kindly to people of any age/colour/religion/class when they care
    about others too. Class doesn’t classify people along the right lines
    for me. I have more in common with people that care about the planet
    than with those who don’t. What has class got to do with that? Lager
    louts, from any class, I dislike; caring people, from any class, I like.

    e) By disenfranchised, presumably you mean their opinions don’t matter.
    We know what they want, and to pay for it we had better get those middle
    classes on our side too. Although I have been a member of the party for
    36 years I feel the party doesn’t listen to me either, but I do have
    faith that most of them care about the things I care about. They have to
    get the tax paying majority on their side. Fact.

  • I’ll take your last point first. Anyone who ends a statement with “Fact!” tends towards the lecturer type, is that what you are?

    New Labour are to be congratulated on the improvements made in healthcare and education although some of the PFI inititives were amateurish in the extreme, hence some schools and PCT haemorrhaging money to line the pockets of the likes of Michael Ashcroft.

    What New Labour failed to do was to make any inroads into the housing crisis in this country. All they did was continue to line the pockets of buy-to-let landlords through ever-spiralling housing benefits. There are simple means of getting private money into funding the building of social housing but unfortunately social housing doesn’t ring with New Labour, they want aspirational people who are home-owners.

    New Labour are also to be congratulated for introducing the minimum wage but there was a great downside to that too. The government ended up subsidising employers to continue paying an unrealistically low wage, by topping it up with Working Tax Credits.

    The curent incumbents are making a great job of setting the working poor against the non-working poor and I’ve seen nothing from Progress that offers any form of criticism. In fact, apart from the Health & Social Care Bill, you right-wingers have stayed pretty much schtum on most of this coalitions proposals. You may say “we wouldn’t do it like that” but you’re bloody short on just how you would do it.

    One thing’s for certain, if Progress gets its way and influences Labour policy in the run-up to 2015, you’ll lose far more votes than you’ll gain. You need a radical message and policies, unfortunately from the evidence I’ve seen so far, you’re all content with those who failed the party in the past.

  • Sorry about the language, but I am glad you didn’t dispute it.

    Some PFIs have gone wrong, but we wouldn’t have new schools and hospitals without them. Experience and hindsight.

    You know more about housing than me. I don’t know the answers. I do know that the more people provide for themselves the better. Councils can’t afford repairs and tenants often don’t care. I lived on a council estate and saw that. Housing has to be affordable.

    As a recipient of Working Tax Credit I was very grateful. You talk about employers as if it was an easy ride for them. I part owned business that failed and know how hard it can be for them. They need support too.

    Many of the working poor voted Tory in the past, that won’t change until their values change. Thus shared values is what I want to see.

    The left and right are both “schtum” because there are no easy answers. We can’t just buy our way out of our situation. We have to be more competitive to make our way in the world. Sounds trite? When you consider that for every person in the UK there are 20 Chinese people and that when they get a fair share of the world’s resources we are going to have 20 times as many cars on the planet. What will happen to the price of fuel then? How can we afford to transport food around the country? That question assumes we can afford to buy the food. There is not even enough water and land to grow the bio-fuel required. Competition is not an option. We need to earn those resources to provide for the poor. Can you not agree with that?

    If Progress gets its way we will be better informed, win the arguments and the election and be able to provide for all. That’s the way I see it.

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