When I was asked why I used the term ‘Neo-Gaitskellite’ to describe myself in my Twitter profile, I had to stop and think. The origins of the term as I used it aren’t too hard to recount. My good friend – and fellow Progress member – Matthew Forrest was the first to use it in an offhand way, as a replacement for ‘Blairite’. I became curious when he said it: why not, after all, just use ‘Blairite’ if the meaning were the same?
The truth, though, is that Matt was actually alluding to a crucial point which is often missed in the incessant debate over the legacy of Labour’s only two-and-a-half-term prime minister. Critics of the modernising wing of the Labour party like to repeat again and again that ‘Blairism’ has no place within the Labour party’s tradition. It is, we are told, an alien force imported in by some smooth-talking PR men; it may have helped win electoral success but it did so by being grafted over the history of the Labour movement, rather than emerging from it. And the eloquence of ‘Neo-Gaitskellite’ (okay, I grant you that ‘eloquent’ may not be what most people think when they see it) is that it demonstrates, subtly but clearly, that this argument is just wrong.
Hugh Gaitskell’s tenure as Labour party leader is frequently overlooked, in large part because he lost to a Conservative government presiding over an economic boom in 1959 and sadly died before he would have a chance to fight the far more winnable election of 1964. In it, however, he sowed many of the seeds that would take root in the 1990s. He attempted to bring the Labour party to the centre-ground, fighting off efforts to subscribe to electorally suicidal nuclear disarmament and recognising that some charges in the NHS were necessary to ensure its entrenchment and survival. In the 1959 election, he even tried to commit the party to no new tax rises, although this was undermined by Labour’s spending commitments. Most famously, he attempted to amend Clause IV decades before the party would finally be ready for this step. For this, he was accused by contemporaries of selling out Labour’s tradition and betraying its origins.
A Labour leader determined to move the party to the centre, whose aims included modernising the young NHS to ensure it survived, abandoning Clause IV and trying to leave behind the image of ‘tax and spend’ – and who was thus accused of being a traitor and outside the Labour tradition? Well, quite.
History is not quite so neat, of course. It would be a disservice to the man to pretend that Gaitskell would slot neatly into New Labour. Obviously there were differences, most notably in attitudes to Europe. This is not exactly a surprise given that Gaitskell was to die over 30 years before Tony Blair assumed the role he had once held. However, there is little doubt that, intellectually and spiritually, Blair was the heir to Gaitskell.
So in summary, why ‘Neo-Gaitskellite’ rather than ‘Blairite’ or ‘moderniser’? Partly to avoid the same old tired arguments, sure, but mostly because ‘Neo-Gaitskellite’, however unwieldy, is a good way of reminding both ourselves and our opponents that ‘Blairism’, ‘Modernisation’, ‘New Labour’ and all the rest have as rich and as proud a history within the Labour movement as their fellow traditions, despite what the critics say.
That’s okay, though: misguided and hyperbolic criticisms of Gaitskellism and its successors as being ‘outside the Labour tradition’ have a rich history too.
Also in the Neo-Gaitskellism series …
Reintroducing Gaitskell by David Butler
Continuing the Gaitskellite tradition by Matthew Forrest
Kevin Feeney is a student, a Labour party member and self-confessed Neo-Gaitskellite. He tweets @LabourKevin
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