Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A natural hero

Luke Akehurst on the lessons Hugh Gaitksell’s career offers to today’s Labour moderates

I hope that Hugh Gaitskell would be proud to know that, as we approach the 50th anniversary of his death in 1963, there are still people in the Labour party debating his legacy and even some who have badged themselves as ‘neo-Gaitskellites’.

Although I am not sure how useful it is to label oneself as affiliated to any former leader of the Labour party – none of them need our support any longer and it sends a signal of nostalgia for lost golden eras which does not help win arguments in the present – if you are going to affiliate yourself with a historic figure in the party, then Gaitskell deserves it.

The initiative for celebrating Gaitskell’s memory has not come from grizzled veterans of his era, but from students in some cases too young to have even been party members under Tony Blair. By choosing to focus discussion not on the much-ploughed territory of recent times, but on an earlier hero for Labour moderates, the neo-Gaitskellites have done us all a favour. They have enabled us to have a discussion about what it means to be a Labour moderate that transcends, and is wider than, definitions around ‘Blairite’ and ‘New Labour’. And in doing so they have also put New Labour in its proper context as an expression of a deeply rooted historical moderate tradition in the Labour party.

Contrary both to its own nomenclature and public mythology (designed for electoral consumption by voters who wanted conclusive evidence of a break with the 1980s hard left, not necessarily with Labour governments before that) and the smears put about by those on the hard left who wanted to portray it as an alien force that had infiltrated the Labour party, much about New Labour was not that new. There was no Blairite Year Zero in 1994 representing a complete break with Labour’s past. ‘Restoration Labour’ might have been a more accurate name.

There has always been a battle in Labour’s ranks between proponents of unelectable socialist purity and revisionist social democrats who accept the grimy compromises with reality inherent in winning elections and governing. In the 1950s, this was fought between Gaitskell’s followers and those of Nye Bevan. Every decade of the party’s history has seen such a struggle. This has ranged from mere tension and bickering over strategy and policy to all-out internecine warfare, usually after election defeats.

To get a flavour of the intensity of the battles between the Gaitskellites and Bevanites, one only has to look at Gaitskell’s own magnificent 1952 rant in Stalybridge in response to a leftwing purge of former Attlee cabinet ministers from the National Executive Committee. This speech, according to Denis Healey, convinced the parliamentary party that Gaitskell should be their next leader: ‘There will be no unity on the terms dictated by Tribune [the newspaper/faction of the Bevanite left]. Indeed its … vitriolic abuse of the party leaders is an invitation to disloyalty and disunity. It is time to end the attempt to mob rule by a group of frustrated journalists and restore the authority and leadership of the solid, sound, sensible majority of the movement.’

Fortunately, today we are generally debating how to respond to our 2010 defeat with rather less acrimony than in the wake of 1951, or indeed 1970 or 1979. But Gaitskell was not afraid to take a leading role in the factional warfare in the party. Just months before his election as leader in 1955 he even led efforts to have Bevan expelled from the parliamentary party for voting against a Tory defence white paper on the H-bomb (which Clement Attlee supported). Gaitskell recorded in his diary: ‘Most of my friends think I was very foolish to allow myself to be carried on by the “right wing” … My own position is no doubt weaker … but I cannot regard that as the only thing that matters. One would get no fun out of politics if one spent all one’s life thinking in terms of the single object of one’s own political success.’

Clearly, Gaitskell considered trying to get Bevan expelled both ‘fun’ and more important than his career, though in the end it actually seemed to help him become leader.

The context in which Gaitskell was operating was radically different both politically and organisationally from that which confronts current Labour leaders. However, one battle has repeatedly been fought – in the 1930s, the 1950s, the 1980s, and perhaps in the near future if we are foolish enough to reopen the debate on Trident renewal – in the struggle to make Labour electable. This is the one over whether Labour takes an essentially pacifist and disarmament-orientated line or shows the public it can be trusted in government with the defence of the nation. Since 1945 that debate has been about whether Labour supports Nato and our alliance with the United States and maintains an independent UK strategic nuclear deterrent. On this, Gaitskell was absolutely uncompromising, stating: ‘There is only one thing we have to do in the next few years, and that is to keep the Labour party behind the Anglo-American alliance.’

As leader, he made the greatest speech of his career when faced in 1960 with a hostile conference he knew was about to vote for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Asking delegates whether they wanted Labour MPs to become overnight ‘the pacifists, unilateralists, and fellow-travellers that other people are?’ he went on to pledge to ‘fight, and fight, and fight again, to save the party we love’. Gaitskell came back to reverse the unilateralist position in 1961, aided by the creation of a vigorous moderate grassroots organisation in the constituency parties and trade unions, the Campaign for Democratic Socialism. If the party opts to debate the renewal of Trident, it will need similarly courageous voices to speak up for a strong defence policy.

Of course, not everything Gaitskell stood for is music to the ears of modern-day modernisers. His hostility to Europe and the threat the Common Market posed to ‘a thousand years of British history’ sounds backward-looking and insular today. Even at the time Gaitskell’s wife responded to his delighted remark ‘Look how many are clapping, dear!’ by replying ‘Yes, dear. But it’s the wrong people who are clapping.’

Gaitskell’s sharp-elbowed decision to stand as leader in 1955 denied Herbert Morrison, an even earlier Labour moderniser, the final big job in his career, and one which he was eminently qualified to do. But that is politics. Sometimes Gaitskell was simply ahead of his time. His attempt to change Clause IV of the party’s constitution makes sense now because Tony Blair actually achieved it, but at the time it was a reform too far.

But Gaitskell, aided by Tony Crosland’s intellectual heavy-lifting, understood the challenge Labour faced in winning elections with an increasingly middle-class and prosperous electorate. He was resolutely focused on what voters wanted, even if that involved being unpopular with his own party. His motto was a simple one: ‘Let us not forget that we can never go farther than we can persuade at least half of the people to go.’

While the one general election Gaitskell did get to fight, in 1959, came too soon in his leadership for him to have licked the party into election-winning form, it precipitated the more radical steps he then took. Tragically, his premature death means we do not know what Gaitskell would have achieved as prime minister. But we can speculate that he might have provided more resolute leadership than his successor, and the electoral beneficiary of his labours, Harold Wilson. Certainly Gaitskell’s courage in taking on the worst self-indulgences of the Labour left might have left the party in better shape than Wilson did, who, in seeking to avoid conflict in the party, let the Bennite hard left begin its long march to the destructive era of the early 1980s unarrested.

The need to continue to honour Gaitskell’s contribution and to maintain his values of a moderate, electable Labour party is captured by his biographer, Philip Williams: ‘The standard-bearer of Attlee’s postwar consensus, labelled and misinterpreted as Butskellism: the mixed economy, the Keynesian strategy, full employment, strong but not overweening trade unions, the welfare state, the Atlantic alliance, decolonisation, and a tacit understanding that governments, whether moderate Conservative or democratic socialist, would not strain the tolerance of the other side too violently. That legacy makes him a natural hero for social democrats.’


Luke Akehurst is a councillor in the London borough of Hackney and columnist for ProgressOnline. He served on the National Executive Committee from 2010-12

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Luke Akehurst

is director of We Believe in Israel and a former member of Labour's National Executive Committee


  • I’m of the ‘call a spade a spade’ camp. Wear the badge of ‘Blairite’ with honour, if that’s what you are.

    I’m a Blairite. A Third Way-er. Who just so happened to be against Iraq war.

  • Good post, and I think Luke has a very fair point on the heritage of at least some of Blairism.

    But some Blairites aren’t interested in moderation as a path to social democracy. Some aren’t interested in social democracy at all.

    I do think Luke could have clarified something a bit. He paints Gaitskell as a moderate centre-leftist and Bevan as an extremism-monger, but it’s more complicated than that – and to describe someone who “stuffed the BMA’s mouths with gold” to create the NHS as a doctrinaire non-compromiser is not fair. The man simply did not like exchanging dentures for bombs.

    In the same way that Gaitskell is a father to Blairites, the traditional union right (i.e. ‘Labour First’), and the social-liberal SDP, Bevan is the father of a moderate party left as well as a ‘hard’ left of Benn and GLC era Ken.

    This ‘pragmatic left’ ranges from from Robin Cook, through Kinnock, leftwards to Foot, Mikardo and Castle. See for example the differences in voting record between Foot and Benn here:

    Further, there have been times when there has at least been a ‘party centre’ alliance around the moderate left and right of the party.

    Anyway, both wings have split down into more precise factions as time greeted them with questions.

  • I’m not convinced Hugh Gaitskell would still maintain his position(s) on nationalisation, the Common Market or the Bomb if he were still alive today, so i don’t see the comparison as terribly helpful.
    Gaitskell’s legacy is all too easily overrated – particularly by former followers with an interest in undermining Wilson. In fact he was not an inspiring or innovative communicator and Nye Bevan’s “dessicated calculating machine” swipe hurt precisely because it was so apt. Similarly Gaitskell bore awful grudes and failed to understand his Party. His determination to smash the ‘Bevanites’ won him the Party Leadership, but went a long way to losing him the 1959 election (as it turned out the only one he was to fight). I do not contest for a second Gaitskell’s obvious democratic socialist values, ability or occasional public eloquence, but he was little better a national leader than Clem. From Labour’s perspective it is unkind, but not entirerly unfair to suggest that the single most important thing Hugh Gaitskell did to help us win power was to expire in time for Harold Wilson to present just about enough of a moderniser campaign, with class overtones that resonate powerfully today; to just pip Alec Douglas Home to a majority. As with John Smith it’s impossible to say what might have been, but 1964 was MUCH closer than ’97, and I fear Gaitskell was damaged goods.
    People who are pro Market and anti (re) nationalisation of basic monopoly services want to be a bit cautious about championing Hugh Gaitskell.

  • Dave Collins can’t see how the taking on the Bevanites lost gaitskell the 59 election ,he increased teh vote laobur go tin 1995 and it was more than in 1964, remember the You’ve never had it so good, regarding the Bevanites’ Bevan was on side by 1957, Wilson a one time bevanite was Shadow chacellor when the trouble aobut tax that Haunted the ’59 election was happening, and Foot was unknown ,he din’t return to beign an M.P till after Bevans death a few months later, rgarind Wilson as amoderniser ,that’s the irony he may have presented himslef as one, but he wasn’t a put laobur back to a time worse than the post 51 squablle, Regarding Gatiskell as damaged goods as he’d been leader of the Oppostion for so long, he’d gained alot of respect over the time as oppostion leader, even if the Public had not been to bothered about Suez, by the time of Philby and the 3rd Etonian on the trot, Im sure he would have won had he lived, Which is something I’m afraid I can’t say about John Smith,

  • Kinnock would identify more with Gaitskell than with Bevan despite his Welsh Labour roots. You are being far too unfair on Blairites. Blairism/New Labour is about social democratic constant renewal not a detachment from that.

  • Renie, glad to come across a fellow-traveller. So to speak.

    Never understood how almost all (can’t think of any voices of protest) Blairites backed Iraq war. Don’t see the logical continuation from Third Way to ‘liberal interventionist’ foreign policy. Suspect support for intervention more a case of Blairites backing the man, over policy.

    Are there any more of us knocking around? If so, what are we called?

  • Progress and the so-called Neo-Gaitskellites do not seem to understand that New Labour horrified many Labour Party moderates like me. It might have been worse for us than the hard left of the Labour Party, because their position did not change. They are always opposed to the leader of the Labour Party, while I strongly supported Kinnock and Smith in the 1980s and 1990s. Fortunately, Ed Miliband seems to have returned to the social democratic policies of Kinnock, Smith and, yes, Gaitskell.

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