Forgotten Lessons From a Forgotten Leader

Hal Hooberman writes about Hugh Gaitskell and the lessons we can learn from his political career.

By too many, Hugh Gaitskell is forgotten, ranking as the second most unknown Labour leader amongst party members. Sandwiched between Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson, Gaitskell led the Labour Party from 1955 to 1963. Following the party’s third consecutive defeat, in 1959, Gaitskell forged a Labour Party that had “overcome its obsessional complex about its inner-self”, revitalising Labour’s brand, reputation, and credibility. For this, Gaitskell’s approach must be revisited, reexamined and, even, redeployed.
Firstly, Gaitskell held the Labour Party to be beholden with a sacrosanct responsibility, as a major party, to seek to govern. Engaging in fringe debates, shouting from the sidelines, or espousing pipeline fantasises must remain an occupation of self-serving dogmatists, a state indecorous for a party that was “either in power or on the verge of it”. Gaitskell condemned those urging the party to proselytise like a “pioneer hoping to convert people to a general point of view”, heralding a focus on material immediacies. Serving as an apt reminder of the realties we face, Gaitskell’s electoral realism is negated at great expense, to the party as well as the country.
A changed, modernised society necessitated, for Gaitskell, a changed, modernised Labour Party. Gaitskell’s commitment to modernising the party was epitomised by his battles to bring the party’s constitution, written and ratified in 1918, in line with the demands of the day. For Gaitskell, the now-infamous Clause IV was symbolic of the “party’s reluctance to adapt to the modern world”, as put by historian Vernon Bognador, urging his drive to reform it. Modernising, as a movement, to reflect contemporary societal realities was vitally important in the then ‘age of affluence’, as it will be going forward.
Critically, Gaitskell prized the electorate over the movement’s own. Warning the party against embodying a “small clique of isolated doctrine-ridden fanatics”, he was determined to speak to the country, not just his party, willing to “forego the cheers now”, at the 1959 Blackpool conference, “in the hope that we shall get more votes later on”. Labour governments would not be magicked up by the loudest few, as “in an election these people are peanuts”. The “easy line” may produce a few rally-based roars, but Gaitskell understood that merry-making at a gathering of the clan would be insufficient, even counterproductive, in alleviating the hardships of millions, the party’s ultimate end.
Poignantly, for our times, Gaitskell, a leading progressive, understood the need to steer clear of unabashed, crusading social liberalism. With every social media spat, CLP shout, and banner wave, Gaitskell offers a sound note of advice, warning against “imposing our own middle-class and intellectual concepts” on others. Of late, there are those amongst us dead set on dictating at, not listening to, the country. The change we seek can come, but not at the breakneck speed some demand. Labour MP-turned-journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, put it succinctly, “earnestness” was, as it often remains to be, the “disease of the left”, yet it “only afflicted Gaitskell as a rash, never as a fever”.
Finally, Gaitskell understood the necessity of closing time-long open goals so luxuriated in by our opponents. Labour’s electoral sensitivities, dubbed by senior Conservative Iain Macleod as “a mine so inexhaustible”, were symbolised by the party’s constitutional marriage to public ownership, leaving Labour, for Gaitskell, vulnerable to being painted as committed to nationalising “every little pub and garage”. Understanding that deeply-held perceptions are easily rekindled, Gaitskell sought to strip our opponents of such golden gifts. Overcoming such ruts often required drastic, symbolic action, Gaitskell rightfully held this as a perquisite of any electorally relevant Labour Party.
Ultimately, Gaitskell’s post-1959 forging of a credible Labour Party aptly serves as a handbook for Sir Keir Starmer as he embarks on his quest to salvage the party’s brand. Moving forward, Starmer must redeploy Gaitskell’s understanding of Labour’s ultimate end, target audience, sensitivities, responsibilities, and realities if the party is to stand any chance of meeting Clause I of its constitution, to, amongst other things, “promote the election of Labour Party representatives” and form a Labour government. He could do much worse than by giving his forgotten predecessor the hearing he deserves. 
Hal Hooberman is an undergraduate, Young Fabian and member of Somerton and Frome CLP. 
He tweets at @halhooberman
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