The website of Progress, the main right-wing pressure group in the Labour Party, has been running a fascinating series of articles on Hugh Gaitskell and what they term “neo-Gaitskellism”. It is an attempt to provide an intellectual justification for accepting austerity, rehabilitate the reputation of a largely (and in my opinion deservedly) forgotten Labour leader whilst simultaneously finding a new label for Blairites who don’t want to call themselves Blairites; they are aware of the term’s now-overwhelmingly negative connotations.
Gaitskell, if you don’t know him, was leader of the party from 1955 until his death in 1963 and was of the opinion that Labour should move firmly to the right, dropping Clause IV, in order to be ‘electable’.
Of course one of the writers lets the cat out of the bag somewhat when they point out:
“His influence truly has spanned and crossed into the new millennium. Although his sole general election campaign was a humiliation, he had crushed Bevan as a rival leadership candidate in 1955 and, in 1960”
So crushing humiliation at an election is ok as long as the left gets beaten decisively. Even though electoral success was supposed to be the whole raison d’être of Gaitskell and his policies. Hmm. Could it be that this has less to do with electoral credibility and more to do with ideology?
That said, the pieces are definitely worth a read, and leaving aside the usual tedious left-bashing (for example the words “Most people don’t want radical change; this is not false consciousness, it is common sense” could have appeared in any Conservative manifesto in the last 150 years…….) one finds in these apologias for unreconstructed right-wingery (is it really the fault of the left that the right have such a poverty of ambition and imagination? No……) there are certainly a few points of interest, as Mr Holmes would have said. Some of the history is interesting and it’s always good to read an account of historical events from a different perspective.
I think the first thing I observed reading them is the defensiveness of the tone. The writers are all very keen to stress that the ideas of Gaitskell, and by extension Progress and Tony Blair, are ‘firmly within the Labour tradition’. There have always been those in the labour movement who believe that managing the free market is the job of a Labour government and its ambitions shouldn’t, and cannot stretch further.
This touchiness is obviously a response to the recent controversy around the moves by certain unions to try and get Progress proscribed. Much of the animosity to them has centred on the idea that Progress and the ideas they represent are right-wing cuckoos in the labour movement’s lefty nest.
Whilst I have no time for Progress and am firmly of the opinion that their ideas are craven but also illogical I am not in favour of witch-hunts (even though many members of Progress normally are, ironically, but they don’t like it when the boot is on the other foot of course…..)
It’s also worth pointing out that the argument that right-wingers have always existed in the labour movement is a perfectly reasonable one. One of the great deceits of 20th century British politics was that there was anything ‘new’ about New Labour. Blair was repeating a trick that had been attempted many times before, but he was able to make it stick in a way that many of his predecessors had not. New Labour was for many on the right of the party the natural and reasonable conclusion of the Kinnock years and the defeats that the unions suffered in the 80s.
The piece I mentioned earlier also reveals another truth:
“Bevan was – and still is – a natural figurehead for the left. It is ironic, therefore, that his primary political opponent, Gaitskell, who ultimately emerged victorious from their struggle, occupies far less space in political discourse, and much less warmth among the very people he strove for in his leadership of the Labour party between 1955 and 1963.”
Victory is measured here by winning votes in a leadership contest and not winning the intellectual argument, which is what Aneurin Bevan, whatever his flaws, certainly did. It’s his analysis of the world that is more valuable in 2012. It was Bevan who was one of the main architects of the NHS. Can Gaitskell lay claim to a similarly significant legacy?
The right often accuse the left of being naively idealistic. And yet it is they who think that we can just carry on with the same policy prescriptions that may have been enormously popular 15 years ago as if nothing has happened and as if there have been no game-changing events in contemporary economic discourse and politics. Even a cursory examination of the world around us would indicate that radical change, something that supposedly fills the Progress crowd with horror (of course it’s only certain types of drastic change they are uncomfortable with…….) should be under consideration.
I can appreciate the Labour right are pissing in the wind now that a lot of the props they used to rest their arguments on have come crashing down but clinging to the crude political calculations of a failed Labour leader from 60+ years ago is eerily similar to the obsession that the ‘Trots’ that they hate so much have with the Russian Revolution. Neither have any contemporary resonance.