Why Bevan’s political legacy is still relevant in the modern Labour Party


“Bevan and ‘Bevanism’ reflects a deeply ideological figure, firmly placed on the Left of the Labour party, whose actions were based around meeting both the needs of the day and, a core set of principles which made up his ideology.”

By Logan Williams

Keir Starmer at Labour’s National Policy Forum (NFP) this weekend utilised an Aneurin Bevan quote namely: “the language of priorities is our religion… only by the possession of power can you get the priorities right” to underpin his arguments on the need for the Labour Party to prioritise “economic stability” rather than policies which would actually seek to end the crisis facing Britain.

This attempt to utilise Bevan’s legacy was frequently utilised in the last two Labour leadership elections as a means, at times, to merely show support for the continuation of the National Health Service as a public body but, it would be a catastrophic mistake to suggest that Bevan’s political thinking was limited to the generation of the NHS in 1948 or to “politics based on actions, not just theories”. It is vital that those fighting within the contemporary Labour party for socialist solutions to the crises Britain faces seek to analyse and utilise Bevan’s political legacy as a touchstone for our cause within the party.

The bedrock of Bevan’s political perspective are the questions of Power and of Democracy. It was his commitment to democracy within broader society and contempt for the contemporary status quo that saw Bevan heavily critique parliament describing it upon entry into the House of Commons as a “shrine to the most conservative of all religions – ancestor worship” due to what he saw as outdated and archaic practices.

Despite his many criticisms of the current situation of Westminster’s politics through its various failures including its failure to update itself following the implementation of Universal Suffrage in 1928, Bevan did not seek to discard Parliament as an important part of the efforts to achieve a socialist Britain. Instead Bevan declared that Parliament “is not above the battle. It is a weapon, and the most formidable weapon of all, in the struggle… it is a sword pointed at the heart of property-power.”

Bevan’s ideals as a staunch supporter of democracy as a revolutionary tool within society to fundamentally transform our contemporary society and economic systems can be assessed to have added to the historic roots first laid by Keir Hardie. These are the roots that the Labour Left has sought to utilise and expand upon within its political platforms ever since – from Benn’s desire for democratic reforms within the party, in the workplace and in wider British society; to the Corbynite movement supporting the abolishment of the House of Lords and a move towards a federal Britain.

Bevan’s political ideology namely ‘Democratic Socialism’ was again born from his lived experiences within the south Wales coalfield and, from his studies within the Central Labour College and the Plebs League, as a vision for how society should be transformed.

Bevan’s political vision was built around his ideal of the use of modern democratic means to transform wider society and this led him to declare within his text ‘In Place of Fear’ that “democratic socialism is not a middle way between capitalism and Communism… It is based on the conviction that free men can use free institutions to solve the social and economic problems of the day, if they are given a chance to do so”.

Bevan further argues that his ideology of Democratic Socialism is based on the ideal of the universalisation of the consumption of the best that society can afford which ultimately led to Bevan and the ‘Bevanite’ grouping of MP’s; around 3 dozen MP’s, to campaign on the principles of public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy. These included comprehensive systems for health and education, full employment and, decent housing for all. All of which are issues the Left of the Labour Party still campaign around to this day as solutions to the multi crises facing the British people.

The third pillar of Bevan’s political thought can be found within his consistent and unwavering support for progressive movements abroad and efforts towards peace. This pillar of Bevan’s thought was first created in the 1917 when he joined countless others from the Independent Labour Party in their opposition to the First World War and to conscription. This saw Bevan declare that he could choose his own enemy and the battlefield with which he would fight them and that the Government could never do it for him.

Bevan’s commitment to progressive politics and peace later saw him and his wife, fellow socialist Labour MP Jennie Lee, support the Spanish Popular Front government in its fight against Franco’s rebellion. This support saw him regularly attack and deride the contemporary Conservative government’s failure to support the democratically elected government through arms and financial support.

 Bevan’s support for international causes and for peace did not waiver throughout his time in parliament, as can be seen by him leading a rebellion of 57 Labour MPs to abstaining to force a motion allowing the first hydrogen bomb tests to fall. This saw the Whip removed from the Ebbw Vale MP for the second time. Another example of his internationalism was his role in leading the contemporary Labour party protests against the Suez crisis stating that due to their support for military intervention the Tory government had “besmirched the name of Britain. They have made us ashamed of the things of which formerly we were proud. They have offended against every principle of decency”.

Bevan’s open and unwavering support for these causes, alongside much of the ‘Bevanite’ grouping of MP’s, again laid the roots for future Labour left parliamentarians and movements to support similar contemporary causes: his protégé Michael Foot’s leading role within the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; Anthony Greenwood’s support for the Movement for Colonial Freedom; Tony Benn’s support for the Anti-Apartheid movement; and Jeremy Corbyn’s support for the Stop the War movement in 2003.

An examination of each of these areas demonstrates how modern attempts to paint Bevan as a purely pragmatic figure devoid of strong ideological thought or as a ‘desiccated calculating machine’ are fictitious, instead the opposite is true. Bevan and ‘Bevanism’ reflects a deeply ideological figure, firmly placed on the Left of the Labour party, whose actions were based around meeting both the needs of the day and, a core set of principles which made up his ideology.

It is clear that key elements of Bevan’s central principles and, of the tenets of the Bevanite movement can still be found within the demands of the membership of the Labour party and the wider movement and, we must continue to campaign on these issues to fundamentally transform British society for the many.

  • Logan Williams is an National Education Union (NEU) activists, an organiser for Arise Festival and a regular contributor to Labour Outlook. You can follow him on Twitter here.
  • If you support Labour Outlook’s work amplifying the voices of left movements and struggles in the UK and internationally, please consider becoming a supporter on Patreon.

Featured image: ‘Aneurin Bevan with his eye on the Ball.’ Bevan statue photo taken on October 7, 2015. Photo credit: Jeremy Segrott under the Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License

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