Tribune of Labour's Left

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Review of 'Bevan', Clare Beckett and Francis Beckett, Haus Books £9.99

Nye Bevan (1897-1960) was perhaps the best known figure of the Labour left in the 20th century. Born in South Wales, Bevan became a miner, and then a miners' union official before being elected as MP for Ebbw Vale (now Blaenau Gwent) in 1929. When Bevan died in 1960 Michael Foot took the seat. He was replaced in turn by Llew Smith, and on 5 May 2005 Peter Law won the constituency against the official Labour machine, with the help of some activists who had remained from Bevan's time.

Bevan's history is one of a left winger who faced the constant dilemma of how to relate to a right wing Labour machine and to be able to make effective reforms while doing so. In the 1930s Bevan was constantly at odds with the Labour leadership, over the Spanish Civil War, and over opposition to the rise of fascism in Germany. No friend of the Communist Party, which he saw as being ineffectual in making real change, Bevan was still prepared to work with those to the left of Labour. For this he was constantly censured by Labour's leadership and expelled on one occasion. He was one of those responsible for starting the left wing Labour magazine Tribune in 1937.

Bevan was a critical voice against Churchill's war leadership in the Commons. When Labour won a landslide victory in 1945, Labour leader Attlee gave Bevan the task of introducing the NHS and expanding council housing. On both counts Bevan did brilliantly, and the health service and the post-1945 council house building programme, under local authority control, are above all his monuments.

At 47 Bevan was the youngest cabinet member in 1945 and he continued, when Labour lost the 1951 election, to be the standard bearer for Labour's left through the 1950s. The left wing grouping known as the Bevanites attracted a young Harold Wilson, Michael Foot and many others who were to be central to Labour politics in the pre-Blair era. Again Bevan was nearly expelled over opposition to nuclear weapons. However, in the late 1950s Bevan as shadow foreign secretary was prepared to agree with the right wing leader Gaitskell that Labour had to live with the bomb. Bevan, as Beckett points out, had sat in the 1945 cabinet that had backed the development of the British bomb in the first place.

Although there is no shortage of works about Bevan, from Michael Foot's classic two-volume biography to more recent accounts, Clare and Francis Beckett have written a short, thoroughly readable and affordable introduction to Bevan's life and politics. In general their own views are clearly separated from the narrative.

It is, however, the Beckett's own position which adds a wider interest to the book. It is interesting for socialists to look back at the dilemmas that a left winger in the Labour Party had in the middle of the 20th century. There is much to consider there and there are some things to learn. But the issue is also, what is the significance of Bevan today? Were he around under Blair, would he have stayed in the party or left it? After all, he did work under Hugh Gaitskell, arguably as right wing as Blair is now, but at the same time he was expelled in the 1930s and nearly expelled again in the 1950s.

Francis Beckett himself wrote in the Guardian just before the election that as a Labour Party member since the late 1960s and a press officer for the party he had left it over Iraq and because he thought Blair had betrayed the party's principles. Would Bevan have done the same? We can't know, of course, but it is a debate still worth having.