Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Continuing the Gaitskellite tradition

When I decided to identify as a Neo-Gaitskellite on Twitter I had two purposes in mind. The first was to wind up my friend Kevin Feeney, who thought the phrase was insufficiently catchy. The second, and the original reason for its conception, was to find a term for moderate Labour which situated today’s Blairites firmly in the Labour tradition (where, of course, we belong). In other words, to respond to the familiar claim that New Labour is, in fact, not Labour at all; the implication, for instance, of Owen Jones’ remark in the Independent on 1 June that current Conservative policy is merely ‘Blairism liberated from the shackles of the Labour party’.

However, the choice of Gaitskell has a specific importance. Prior to the calamity of the 1980s, most Labour people saw themselves as either Gaitskellites or Bevanites (no need for the ‘Neo-’ back then). The conflict between Aneurin Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell embodies two central sets of antitheses at the heart of conflicts within the Labour movement: revolutionary versus reformist socialism, and ideological purity versus popular appeal. They are actually common to any essentially Utopian ideology; Thatcherism, for instance, suffers the same fissures. The idea that state action can create a better society unites the Labour movement; if you don’t believe that then you really aren’t Labour. But we immediately run into disagreements.

Arguing with a Marxist I was once accused of ‘blatant electoralism’. Forgive me, but given that the function of a political party is to win power in order to enact its policies, and that in a democracy power is achieved through regular elections, I would say that ‘electoralism’, whatever it is, sounds like a jolly good idea. Most people don’t want radical change; this is not false consciousness, it is common sense. By itself, though, this ‘electoralism’ is rather stultifying. Gaitskell argued for the nuclear deterrent and the abolition of Clause IV because they would be electoral advantages. However, he also believed that they were part of the road to a workable socialism.

The real split within Labour is not about winning elections, it is about the distinction between means and ends. Do we push immediately for the theoretical Utopia, or do we go carefully, guided by empiricism rather than dogma, seeing no particular reason to overthrow what works? Gaitskellism embodied the latter position. In his book The Future of Socialism, Anthony Crosland, the leading Gaitskellite thinker, pointed out that actually private ownership of industry worked quite well, and was certainly not a barrier to ethical socialism. But isn’t there a problem here? Crosland was, policy for policy, substantially to the left of New Labour, for instance advocating massive redistribution of wealth and being rather blind to the virtues of markets and competition.

The point, though, is that the model advocated by the original Gaitskellites failed empirically. They came to their conclusions by observing what worked and what did not. Tony Blair, in reflecting on the positive aspects of the Thatcher revolution (itself an example, in its excesses, of the dangers of dogma over empiricism) did the same: what worked was a more or less free economy, what didn’t was chronic underinvestment in public services and depressed regions. We could hardly be said to embody this tradition if we did not make the same empirical analysis of the New Labour years (perhaps certain markets ought not to have been quite so deregulated?). So, ultimately, I am a Neo-Gaitskellite because I believe that we should change things responsibly and never value our prejudices over the evidence.

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Also in the Neo-Gaitskellism series …

Reintroducing Gaitskell by David Butler

Confessions of a Neo-Gaitskellite by Kevin Feeney

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Matthew Forrest is a student, Labour party member and tweets @mhforrest

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Matthew Forrest

5 comments

  • ‘The conflict between Aneurin Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell embodies two central sets of antitheses at the heart of conflicts within the Labour movement: revolutionary versus reformist socialism, and ideological purity versus popular appeal’.
    Your political historyand understanding of socialist ideology are wrong. Bevan was an anti-capitalist who believed in the Command economy. Gaitskell was not a socialist, but a social-democrat who believed in ‘markets where possible, the state where necessary’.Both were reformists who were prepared to compromise to establish reforms – Bevan, you should recall, was more successful than Gaitskell and established the NHS before disavowing unilaterlism.
    It’s impossible to understand either one of these people without putting them in a Cold War context. On the other hand, Blair and Blairism are only understandable as a post-Soviet attempt to develop a reformist narrative in a neo-liberal setting – which didn’t foresee or protect people from the consequences of the failure of capital in 2008. Arguably, that’s because the voice of the anti-capitalist Labour was so weak.
    That’s why Blair’s narrative will be very difficult to revive. Furthermore, until Labour thorougly confronts the failures of the 1997 – 2010 government, people will not trust the party.
    Crosland btw was a much more substantial figure intellectually and politically than Blair. There’s a good article in Fabian News about him and his book, ‘Socialism Now’. Unlike Blair, his thought remains relevant.

  • And I thought it was the Tories who wanted us to go back to the fifties! You’ll be wittering, as opposed to twittering, on about the lost Labour vote who are forever going on about nobody ever doing anything for them, next. Do you have a job, by the way? You know, a proper job?

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