2017 · Labour's Lost Leader · Uncategorized

Civil War: The Gaitskell Era – Labour’s Lost Leader Poll

1955-1963 – Nationalisation, Unilateralism, Europe


The period following Attlee’s resignation would be a pivotal one for the party, and see a battle for the party’s soul emerge,  as the old-guard made way for the new.  During this period key figures such as Harold Wilson, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Woodrow Wyatt, Dick Crossman, Tony Benn and Tony Crosland rose to prominence.

The  13 years in opposition from 1951, would eventually pave the way for Harold Wilson, to unify the different factions of the party and lead Labour to victory in 1964. But there were bitter recriminations on the way.  The Gaitskell era consisted of division over three key areas  – Clause IV, Unilateralism and the Common Market – each played out at the party conference’s of 1959, 1960 and 1962 respectively.

New Labour


Hugh Gaitskell can be classed as the original ‘Social Democrat’ and acquired a cult like following on the right wing of the Labour party.  This following included a young Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers – who eventually formed the breakaway SDP in 1981, dismayed at the leftward direction the party had traveled.

30 years after Gaitskell’s death, pundits claimed Tony Blair was finishing the groundwork (and in relation to the dropping of Clause IV, they were right). Like Blair, Gaitskell encouraged a challenge with his own party, and was determined to ditch ideology for ‘what works’. Gaitskell provoked three great debates in this period – over nuclear disarmament, nationalisation  and Europe, and in all three he risked his leadership, and a split within the party.

Initially Gaitskell had supported entry to the EEC but was unable to persuade the trade unions to agree to this stance. He, like many within the party, dramatically shifted his position, arguing European integration would mean ‘the end of a thousand years of history’.

After a poor performance in the 1959 election, he looked to ditch the Labour commitment to nationalisation, as a means of gaining power and neutralising the right wing press.  He then had the tenacity to make the pro-nuclear case at the height of the CND’s influence within the party

Following his sudden death in 1963, The Guardian wrote in his obituary;

Whoever follows him as Labour leader will have to continue along the course he has set – a non-doctrinaire approach to economic and industrial policy, a firm commitment to collective defence and multilateral disarmament and a readiness to see gradual reform of the Labour Party’s structure from within. Any other course will reopen old wounds and drive away sympathetic voters. To follow him cannot be easy; but he has left the Labour Party in its best form since 1950.

But could it have been different?

The Candidates

George Brown


George Brown rose through the trade union movement to become one of the most popular politicians in Britain throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but alcholism stopped him from hitting the top of the party.

Born in 1914, Brown became a full-time union official in 1936 where he worked under Ernie Bevin at the Transport and General Workers Union. The influence of Bevin would enable him to become a key figure on the right wing of the party.

Brown made his first impression on the party at the Labour Conference of 1939, were he impressed Attlee with a passionate speech attacking Stafford Cripps, in an attempt to combat the growing left-wing within the party.

He was elected as an MP in 1945, and was soon appointed as a Parliamentary secretary to the Chancellor Hugh Dalton. In 1947 it was discovered that Brown had been organising support for  Bevin, in the hope of mounting a challenge to Attlee’s leadership. It was a mark of his standing within the party that Attlee he did not sack Brown but actually rewarded him with a promotion to the Minister of Works.

When Gaitskell became leader of the party in 1955, Brown was appointed shadow spokesman on Agriculture (1955-56) before moving to Supply (1955-59), Defence (1956-61) and the Home Office (1961-64).


When Nye Bevan died in the summer of 1960, the deputy leadership of the party became vacant. This was at a critical point, when Labour were severely divided by the attempts at reform of party constitution – Clause VI.  Brown was subsequently elected, beating Frederick Lee by 146 votes to 83.  However, Gaitskell as leader and Brown as deputy alienated the left. He was challenged for the job in 1961, by Barbara Castle, and 1962, by his arch rival Harold Wilson – seeing them both off.

When Gaitskell died in 1963, Brown emerged as the main contenders for the party leadership, as Deputy leader, he had held the title of leader for the intermittent period, However, allies on the right of the party such as Jenkins and Healey, had concerns about his alcoholism. Tony Crosland called the leadership election “A choice between a crook (Wilson) and a drunk (Brown)

Indeed, as Shadow Foreign Secretary a briefing note was prepared for President Kennedy, which drew attention to Brown’s ‘character defects such as irascibility, impulsiveness and heavy drinking’ . The Times assessed his suitability in 1967 as  ‘No one has ever been met who behaves like Mr Brown . . . he is impossible: he is ‘too much.. but he is a remarkable man with some of the qualities and all the courage of a great statesman.’

He resigned as Foreign Secretary in 1968,  after Wilson had failed to consult him on the gold crisis, and lost his seat in Parliament two years later.

In 1976, when  he quit the the party, but as The Times acknowledged   ‘George Brown drunk is a better man than the Prime Minister (Harold Wilson) sober.’

Barbara Castle

Labour Heavyweights

Labour’s ‘Red Queen’ rose from humble origins to become a key figure in Labour’s history, a champion of women’s rights and the architect of the 1974 Equal Pay Act.

Barbara Betts  was born in Bradford in 1910 to a family involved within the politics of the Independent Labour Party. As a result, she became involved with the party at an early age. She went on to become the head girl of her school, and gained a place at Oxford University.

By 1943 she had made her first speech at party conference in which she  attacked the leadership of the party, for not campaigning hard enough  to force Churchill to implement the findings of the Beveridge Report. During this time, Castle worked as a housing journalist for the Daily Mirror where she would meet Michael Foot – another young and ambitious left wing writer.

In 1945 she was elected to the commons as one of 24 female MPs, and  was shocked when she discovered the size of her income. The salary for an MP was £600 – (Equivalent of £18,000 today) and immediately experienced the sexism she would forever battle in the commons. On her first day as an MP, she walked to the entrance gates with her new colleague Michael Foot, were they were stopped by security, and Foot was told he could not bring in any guests. Foot then introduced her as the new member for Blackburn, to the astonishment of the security guard.

Soon afterwards Stafford Cripps, the Minister of Trade, appointed Castle as one of his key aides. Over the next few years she was associated with the left-wing of the party, a key Bevanite and after the death of Bevan in 1960, Castle and Wilson became the leaders of the left movement within the party.


Castle was Chairperson of the Labour Party (1958-59) and would do much to encourage other women into work and into politics. She wanted to prove to the male-dominated Labour Party that women could hold the big offices of state. She became only the fourth woman to become a Cabinet Minister, in October 1964 as Minister for Overseas Development. She later became Minister of Transport (1965–68); Secretary of State for Employment and First Secretary of State (1968–70); and Secretary of State for Social Services (1974–76).

In 1968 Castle became Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity and attempted to introduce the government’s controversial prices and incomes policy. This would prove to be a costly move for her career. The publication of the white paper, In Place of Strife, alienated her from the trade union movement and the left-wing of the party, which caused a deep split within the party.  Pundits believe Wilson gave her this unenviable task in order to hamper her growing leadership credentials.

By 1974, at the end of the Wilson government, she threatened to bring it down unless an ‘Equal Pay Act’ was passed. I’ve written about this episode in further detail here ‘Of course I am opposed to equal pay’ – How Barbara Castle bounced the Labour Party into Equal Pay.

She remained a popular figure within the party until her death, and at the 1999 conference she criticised the party over the measly 75p rise in pensions – to much applause.

Jim Griffiths


Jim Griffiths was the first ever Secretary of State for Wales, having been a fierce campaigner for Welsh devolution. He was a key architect of the welfare state in the 1945-50 Attlee administration. 

Born in Carmarthenshire in 1890, Griffiths left school to become a miner at the age of just 13. From here he would rise to become Secretary of the Ammanford Trades and Labour council. This enabled him to access the golden ticket of Labour education, at the Central Labour College in London in 1916.

From 1934 to 1936 he was president of the South Wales Miners’ Federation before becoming an was an MP in the Llanelli by-election of March 1936. He would serve as an MP there for the next 34 years.

In 1945 he was given a huge responsibility as the Minister for National Insurance, ensuring he would become one of the key architects of Britain’s modern welfare state, alongside Nye Bevan. His work here included the introduction of the The National Insurance Act which enforced the radical postwar social security provisions in Britain.

The Act introduced compulsory NI contributions and a guaranteed state pension, as well as sickness benefit; and unemployment benefit.He also introduced the Family Allowances Act and a new Industrial Injuries Act, giving more protection to workers.


In 1950, Griffiths was promoted to the position of Colonial Secretary and would go on to defeat Aneurin Bevan for the deputy leadership election in 1956, by 141 votes to 111. He used his power to commit the Labour Party to a form of devolution, and many argue he started the process which led to the in 1997 Welsh Assembly referendum under Blair.

During the Suez Crisis of 1956, he made a passioate speech ‘speaking for the nation’ in supporting Gaitskell’s opposition to  Eden. He declared it a  ‘a black and tragic week… an unjustifiable and wicked war’

Having campaigned for a Secretary of State for Wales since the 1930s, Wilson persuaded him to delay retirement and serve as the first secretary  in 1964 following the creation of the position.

After establishing the Welsh Office, he returned to the backbenches in 1966 before stepping down as an MP in 1970.

Anthony Crosland

Anthony Crosland became a key Labour ‘revisionist’ in the 1950s with his key book ‘The Future of Socialism’, It had a lasting impact on the party, and would propel Crosland to become Education, Environment and Foreign Secretary. 

Tony Crosland

Anthony Crosland was born in Sussex in 1918. Unlike the other candidates, Crosland did not rise through the traditional ranks of the  Labour movement. Instead he was educated privately, before gaining a first class honors degree in PPE from Oxford University – were he would later become an economics tutor. Tony Benn was one of his pupils.

Hugh Dalton spotted his talent, and convinced him to stand for Labour in the 1950 General Election, in South Gloucestershire, were he was returned as an MP. He would however go on to lose the seat in the 1955 General Election. This defeat would be a blessing in disguise for Crosland, as he put pen to paper on his new book project ‘The Future Of Socialism’

Published in 1956, it proved to be a seminal text for the next generation of moderate left MP’s who treated it as their bible. It  outlined the need for traditional socialism to adapt to modern circumstances – a process later defined as ‘revisionism’. The book attempted to move away from traditional concepts such as the state controlling the means of production, and on to welfare provision and effective public services. He argued that the broad aims of socialism could be achieved by controlling industry without having to own it. This caused much debate within the party at the time.


In 1959, Crosland returned to the Commons as MP for Grimsby. Alongside people such as Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey, he was groomed to be Gaitskell’s protégé, a key moderniser within the party. In the 1963 Election he was disillusioned with the choice on offer and detested Brown and Wilson equally.

In 1965 he was appointed as Minister for Education and looked to move Britain away from the grammar school system towards a comprehensive one. In Susan Crosland’s autobiography, she said her husband had told her ‘If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England’. 

In 1967 Crosland had expected to become Chancellor, but was overlooked in favour of his friendly rival (and apparent ex-lover) Roy Jenkins. After returning to power in 1974, Crosland became Environment Secretary and eventually contested for leadership in 1976 following Wilson’s resignation. He finished last, polling only 17 votes. He switched his support to Callaghan, and was rewarded with the position of Foreign Secretary when Callaghan won the leadership contest .

He died in office on 19 February 1977 – aged just 58.




4 thoughts on “Civil War: The Gaitskell Era – Labour’s Lost Leader Poll

  1. An amazing blog which sheds light on periods of history which I’m unfamiliar with. It’s genuinely the only e-mail which I get excited about when it arrives!


  2. Being picky: “Tony Blair was finishing the groundwork (and in relation to the dropping of Clause VI…” finger trouble I think; “Clause IV”?.

    But many thanks for the post and the blog. It’s always interesting anyway, but with an upsurge of involvement in politics – especially by younger people – it should be required reading.


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