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.