“It is a very difficult country to move, Mr. Hynband, a very difficult country indeed, and one in which there is more disappointment to be looked for than success.”
the last General Election has had at least one beneficial result: it has shocked many more people into a recognition of the fact that the Labour Party is a sick party. And it has also helped many more people within it to realise that the sickness is not a surface ailment, a temporary indisposition, but a deep organic disorder, of which repeated electoral defeats are not the cause but the symptom. What this means is that the sickness would have been as serious if Labour had won the last election. Victory at the polls, given Labour’s recent history, policies and leadership, would only have delayed the crisis, for a while, and given the Labour Party an altogether deceptive appearance of health. This is why a proper diagnosis must take electoral defeat into account, but only as one element of Labour’s condition.
One common diagnosis is that which identifies Labour’s sickness as that of ambiguity. This, it is worth remembering, is a very old story. “The Labour Party”, R. H. Tawney was writing in 1932, “is hesitant in action, because divided in mind. It does not achieve what it could because it does not know what it wants.” Much the same has been said periodically about the Labour Party from the earliest days of its existence, and it could easily be argued that it fits the present situation equally well.
In one sense, it certainly does. But in another, and no less important sense, such a diagnosis misses some important changes which have occurred in the Labour Party in recent years. For, if it is true that the Labour Party itself suffers from ambiguity, its leadership, and particularly its Leader, do not. At the risk of seeming to trivialise great issues, it is therefore with the leadership that one must begin.
Moving tributes have been paid to Mr. Gaitskell’s vigour and forcefulness during the last election campaign. And indeed, it would be ungenerous to deny that Mr. Gaitskell is capable of displaying these and other such virtues. This, however, is not the point. The real question is what Mr. Gaitskell is vigorous and forceful about, and what, more generally, he has been about ever since he became the leader of the Labour Party. The question would matter much less had not Mr. Gaitskell achieved, in a very short time, so real a measure of success in his set purpose of re-educating the Labour Party into his own view of “socialism”. As it is, what he is about matters a great deal. It is true that leaders reflect tendencies. But there are times when leaders can powerfully re-inforce tendencies and greatly help to give them sharp political content. To ignore this in relation to the recent history of the Labour Party is to fall into the crassest kind of determinism. Mr. Gaitskell’s contribution to the re-education of Labour is not, by any means, the whole story. But it is an important part of it.
There is, of course, much resemblance between Mr. Gaitskell’s approach to politics and that of his predecessors. Like him, they were always more concerned to reassure their opponents than to enthuse their supporters. Like him, they always deemed it essential to act, and to be seen to act, on the premise that the creation of a socialist society was an aim distant to the point of invisibility. Like him, they always found a more compelling attraction (to put it very mildly) in programmes and policies of modest social reform than in any policy or action that looked capable of pushing the Labour Party beyond the partial humanisation of capitalist society. (Anyone who has any doubt or illusion on this score should look back to the debates of the 1944 Annual Conference of the Labour Party, when rank and file pressure alone compelled a reluctant leadership to include any nationalisation proposals in the programme with which Labour won the 1945 election).