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Today's ALP leaders can learn much from Labour leaders of the past

By Mark Latham - posted Wednesday, 2 April 2003

Hugh Gaitskell was the greatest moderniser of British Labour before Tony Blair. Gaitskell led British Labour in Opposition from 1955 until his sudden death from illness in January 1963.

The 40th anniversary of Hugh Gaitskell's death passed with little attention in Australia. The enormous influence of American culture here means that even though our system of government and our political parties are much closer to the British than American model, a figure like Gaitskell has largely slipped from public memory while American politicians of equivalent stature, such as Adlai Stevenson or Bobby Kennedy, remain familiar names.

This is a shame, because contemporary Australian politicians have much more to learn from the challenges that Hugh Gaitskell met as British Labour leader than from American presidential politics.


Indeed his task of updating Labour's economic policy, articulating a distinctively Labour foreign and defence policy, and uniting a fractious political movement, is in many ways the task of Labour - and Labor - leadership today.

Gaitskell's political personality was very much that of his profession as a trained economist and former university lecturer. He spent much of his public career, from the 1930s until his death, trying to educate the British Labour Party. He saw the urgency of updating the Party's economic policies to reflect the rapidly changing British economy. In short, changing problems demand changing solutions; what matters is what works.

So through the Depression and slow recovery of the 1930s, at a time when public ownership was almost the only economic goal of the British Labour Party, Gaitskell arranged private seminars with like-minded private economists from the City of London to improve the economic literacy of Labour's politicians, advisers and activists. The seminars were known as the XYZ Club. It says something about the labour politics of the time that the secrecy involved was almost as much for the protection of the Labour members as the business economists.

As late as the early 1960s, Gaitskell was still updating. He emphasised the importance of consumer affairs, responded to the growth of suburbs and New Towns, and charted new policies to adapt to the improved living standards of the working class - the so-called kitchen-sink revolution.

As Chancellor in Clement Attlee's post-war Government, Gaitskell was responsible for the difficult decision to charge for dentures and eye-glasses in the National Health Service over the objections of the Labour Left, notably Aneurin Bevan and future Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Attlee's cabinet was split, and Gaitskell denounced as a "desiccated calculating machine" by Bevan. Yet the difficult decision surely preserved the NHS from what would otherwise have been fiscal collapse during Britain's post-war currency crisis.

After Attlee was defeated despite a swing to his Government (as much by the electoral system as the Conservative Party) Gaitskell took over the Labour leadership in 1955.


Early in his leadership, and against the advice of more cautious supporters, Gaitskell seized the moment and led arguably the first popular anti-war movement in Britain in opposition to the Conservative Government's adventure of Suez - under the banner "Law Not War". Tony Blair has much to learn from this approach.

Gaitskell was no pacifist. He had seen democracy fail in central Europe in the face of militarism in the 1930s and would fiercely resist unilateral disarmament as against the interests of Britain and peace. And his deep patriotism saw him reject entry into the European Economic Community at a time when the Conservative government had put all its eggs in that basket.

Yet he never accepted the Tory argument that Labour had to choose between love of country and the rule of international law. Gaitskell saw that Britain's security lay in a secure international order, not in unilateral action by great powers - and was prepared to argue his case.

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About the Author

Mark Latham is the former Leader of the Opposition and former federal Labor Member for Werriwa (NSW).

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