John Carson argues that Keir Starmer has echoed the leadership of Hugh Gaitskell in his address to the nation, but for Keir to really succeed he must follow Gaitskell’s example even further.

John Carson is a postman and Political Officer for the Communication Workers Union in Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity.

On Sunday 4th November 1956 at 10pm, Hugh Gaitskell as Leader of the Opposition delivered these words in a TV broadcast to the British nation:

“This is not a Labour Party matter – it touches the whole nation … we undertake to support a new [Conservative] Prime Minister, in halting the invasion of Egypt”

After a series of arguments with the BBC for the right to reply to an earlier broadcast by Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden, this address – composed alongside Tony Benn – was said to represent ‘England’s real and best self’.

Gaitskell was a leader characterised by honesty, integrity and a superbly sharp intellect. His approach to the work of opposition was marked by a forensic scrutiny and propelled by a real sense of national duty. His sad and untimely death in 1963 cost Labour one of its greatest leaders, and the nation was deprived of a potentially great Prime Minister.

Sixty-four years later, and the new Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer, had his own ‘Gaitskell’ moment when he addressed the nation on Tuesday 11th May 2020 in response to an earlier broadcast made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson:

“Labour will always put the national interest first … I remain committed to working constructively with the Government in the national interest.”

Starmer’s words echoed those of Gaitskell in their calm, composed and statesmanlike nature; putting public interest above party interest and offering to work with all necessary parties to achieve results. By appeals to doing things ‘better’ and working in the ‘national interest’, Starmer has laid out a path to pursue universalist values and common interests that would engage and reassure the public; so that we might shift our party narrative back toward the reasonable pursuit of aspiration, equality and justice – and away from destructive and divisive narratives of ‘class-war’.

Such a consensual and statesmanlike approach has not found universal appreciation: factional sniping dressed up as ‘constructive commentary’ is still prevalent across ‘left’ media. Whilst such media may well be said to merely propagate the narrow reflections and petty ideological obsessions of the Labour Party’s internal opposition, such obsessions can be disproportionately influential in such a mass-membership social democratic party.

Rightly, Starmer has eschewed the factional approach, and has developed a balanced team in his office and in the Shadow Cabinet that symbolises his pursuit of unity within the party. And while he is already echoing Gaitskell in many ways, there is more Starmer could learn from Gaitskell’s legacy if he truly wants to move the party into government, and into the future.

In 1955 Gaitskell inherited a party that had been corroded by internal factional strife, especially surrounding the final years of the preceding Attlee leadership. Driven by Gaitskell’s commitment to party unity and led by the example of Nye Bevan – reconciled by his appointment as Shadow Foreign Secretary in 1956 – the Labour ‘left’ eventually came to an accommodation with Gaitskell.

But the public are eternally suspicious of parties who can bury deep differences under a shroud of unity, especially when running for election. In 1959, fears remained that the puritanical predilections of the Labour ‘left’ could threaten simple lives of material comfort, especially if in a position of power. ‘Don’t Let Labour Ruin It’ was a key slogan to nurture those suspicions. MacMillan won a clear victory in the general election. Afterward, the lesson for Gaitskell was clear: unity was not enough.

This lesson led Gaitskell into his battles with Labour conference over Clause 4 and unilateralism. Though initially losing on both counts, his courageous stand to ‘fight, fight and fight again’ eventually overturned the unilateralist policy. This displayed to the public his independence from his party whilst maintaining his leadership of it – it is a necessary prerequisite for any prospective Labour Prime Minister.

After four successive election defeats, Starmer will need all the passion and courage that Gaitskell displayed. Labour has no right to exist; we must continually adapt and modernise if we are to survive and thrive. When reviewing the persistently damaging behaviour of the oppositional ‘left’ – and the need for Labour to break old social narratives in order to win the next election – Starmer will need to make tough decisions that will lead us to new ground with policies that are directed toward national priorities and realities, not just party ideology. Unity alone will not be enough.

Our movement faces a dark moment in its history, but we equally face an opportunity for advocating real change and building a better society. We cannot let this moment pass and fall into the despair of a fifth election defeat. With Gaitskell as our guide and Starmer as our leader, let us also be ready to ‘fight, fight and fight again’ so that we may save the party – and the country – we love.

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10 thoughts on “Starmer’s Gaitskell moment

  1. John I agree with all of it .Its early days but in the commons I think Starmer is up to it .
    His questioning at PMQS gone so far is the petty political point scoring he has asked questions heard the reply.
    And in the followup produced the paperwork usually the governments to reinforce his point ,
    The shadow cabinet so far look united in a way they never did under Jeremy not all of it Jeremys fault .
    We the ordinary party members have a huge part to play .
    No public bickering no heading for the nearest tv camera to complain .It was not just Jeremy cost us the last election .
    For me years of infighting poor leadership non existent party organization trying to be all things to all people on Brexit .People did not understand what we stood for .And Brexit has not gone away nor has the so called American trade deal .
    Its the job of all of us not just Keir to hold the government to account.
    Big questions are coming up NHS PPE a probable world recession we need to ask people what they think be relevant not a wasted vote big job but if we pull together I think we can do it.

  2. I read this article with concern – is the author arguing for a war against those in the party who believe that socialism provides the answers to the issues that our society faces? If not, it sounded like it. I joined the party because I believe in a number of the policies that Labour has adopted – I do not intend to sit back and allow these to be ditched without fighting back with every ounce of strength I have. To those who don’t like Labour’s socialist positions I say ‘if you don’t believe in socialism, you will find a number of non- socialist alternative parties are available – but don’t think you are going to change Labour into that non-socialist alternative you seek’.

    1. I agree with you as well .
      In 1983 was not working saw Michael Foot then leader on the telly I decided stop moaning do something about it so I joined never regretted it still moaning haha

  3. I see from the weekend news Boris approval ratings have plunged Starmer has a big lead when was the last time that happened to a labour leader .
    But we now need to see if it becomes a sustained labour party lead .

  4. When Gaitskell was around, it was a very different time. Certainly he had a running feud with Bevan and others, but that was partly to do with substantial spending on re-armament and the consequent skimping on NHS spending. He also introduced prescription charging, a “temporary” thing still with us till this day. He promised to support the Tories over military intervention in Suez, then reneged (rightly): was pro-American when the Americans had started to look away from Europe. In those days, the right of Labour was not very different from the left of the Tory party—this was the case right up till the end of the 60’s (Gaitskell and Rab Butler considered as interchangeable on economics, politics etc), and Gaitskell was thought of as too soft on the Tory government of Macmillan leading to the loss in 1959 when expected to win.
    Agreed with Gaitskell on Clause 4 (we only need public utilities in the public sector): disagree on Europe (I’m pro) and unilateralism (why on earth do we need a nuclear armament?).
    Cannot see any reason to look back at his era to compare with modern times.

  5. We need a strong united Labour and trade union movement now more than ever to deal with Brexit remember that the recession UK US trade talks Virus and companies either going bust or like Rolls Royce laying off 9 thousand workers

  6. David, Starmers first task is an enquiry into the leaking of the anti-sematism report—a report which alleges Labour back office staff conspired to lose Corbyn the election. Whatever the truth, it shows how poisonous things are behind the scenes. The era of mass membership of trades unions is gone. Capital is now international in nature, and seeks the lowest cost environment( including workers). Capitalists/Cartels/Industriallists/Manufacturers all moved to China decades ago, and can lift and shift whole industries when they want. The Workers International was/is a myth, and Brexit dilutes workers cohesion still further.
    The only workers with leverage are those in emergency services, healthcare or teaching–the very people you would never want to strike.

  7. Thank you for your comment Gavin I don’t know what happened with the leaking of the report or what is supposed to be in it .But I do know the Labour party has united in a way we did not under Jeremy not all his fault next election we wont have him to blame .
    Starmer appears to be running a professional operation Shadow cabinet looks a lot more competent and united
    The UK level often chaotic response to the virus has shown the futility of Brexit we need to be united with the EU now more than ever not as I think will happen strike a deal on Trumps terms with America first for the UK to survive
    post Brexit
    Stay well and safe.

  8. Monday 25 May Dominics performance took precedence over the UK daily virus briefing a disgrace

  9. Monday 25 got a phone call a computer told me my Amazon prime account was being renewed to speak to a manager press option 1 .I don’t have an Amazon account .
    I phoned BT scam I have not had a scam call for months BT said with lockdown being eased scammers are going back to work

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