In 1977, an article by Anthony Arblaster declared the death of Labour’s revisionist movement. He made a case which looks obvious with hindsight (and with just a hint of familiarity today). The modernisers’ agenda was being hampered, he said; by political and personal differences between the movement’s protagonists, by the Labour government’s loss of credibility, and by the timidity of the intellectual voice coming from the party’s most prominent figures.
His conclusion was in the article’s title – was Tony Crosland Labour’s last revisionist? It was intended as both analysis and warning. After all, if Hugh Gaitskell had been the first political driver of the revisionist movement, Crosland was the intellectual engine.
It took the party nearly two decades to realise that, to continue the metaphor, driving around aimlessly rarely gets you to your destination. Revisionists themselves must revise. As Gordon Brown prepares to leave parliament, his legacy is one which should draw comparisons to Crosland’s.
While Crosland left his legacy in the form of enduring words and ideas, Brown will leave his as irreversible changes on British society. They were achievements made equally with Tony Blair, but it is Brown who will be judged as New Labour’s intellectual heavyweight; the Crosland to Blair’s Gaitskell.
In reality, New Labour did not loudly embrace equality as its central purpose, which Crosland had identified as the ultimate aim of socialism. But in absolute terms, it and Brown were committed to equality in a world that had changed far beyond the reach of Crosland’s work.
Brown’s career has been built on his belief that equality of opportunity is ‘the fundamental value that divides the Labour party from the Conservative party’. Here was a chancellor and prime minister who, in partnership with Blair, provided the arguments for – and delivered – Crosland’s values in a changed world. Increased spending on the NHS and education after years of Tory neglect, the national minimum wage, tax credits and Sure Start; nothing which would have been achieved without Brown’s relentless focus on providing better starts in life.
Along with Blair, Brown realised that the mistakes of the late 1970s and early 1980s were as much the fault of the modernisers as the fault of the far-left. Revisionists must themselves revise, but never lose sight of equality as a central political cause.
The Labour party today is in danger of losing that focus. With the Conservatives, United Kingdom Independence party and Scottish National party united by their desire to divide society, Labour cannot afford to set our historic mission aside for short-term political gain. Ed Miliband passionately believes in equality, and he has the political and intellectual ability to unite society under the banner passed through the party’s history; from Keir Hardie to RH Tawney, Crosland, Blair and Brown.
Brown departs the political stage having helped deliver an impressive social democratic agenda which irreversibly changed Britain for the better; but he also departs as Labour’s last revisionist heavyweight. Like Crosland before him, he leaves behind an unanswered question hanging over the party. Who now will speak for equality?
Alex White is a member of Progress. He tweets @AlexWhiteUK
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