Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Collapse of stout party

So, what really did kill the old Liberal Party? The aforementioned Dangerfield concentrates on the years 1910-1914, and looks principally at matters of high politics - Ireland, emancipation and taxation. But this doesn't fully explain the party's terminal collapse from a position in 1906 where they won damn near 400 seats, to 1918 where, even counting both the Lloyd George Coalition Liberals and the Asquith Liberals, they were down to 160. By 1922 they were reduced to a split total of 115.

So what killed them? The most immediately obvious factor is that they were split into two factions, driven by mutual loathing, led by David Lloyd George and HH Asquith. The split had its basis in the coalition politics of WWI, but was sustained at least as much by mutual antipathy as by real policy division. When the party was united again in 1923 (after the eclipse of Lloyd George) they managed 30% of the vote, and nearly 160 seats.

But in the intervening years, the Liberals' position as pre-eminent party of the left had been supplanted by Labour. The widening of the franchise, and the growing power of the Trade Union movement, coupled with the death of Edwardian deference, killed the idea of the paternalist Liberal Party as speaking for the working class - the working class wanted a party that would be of the working classes, not merely for them. The split in the Liberal Party accelerated its supplanting by Labour - and it's failure to form a Government when asked in 1923 confirmed that Labour had become the sole effective opposition to the Conservatives. In the 1924 election that followed Ramsay MacDonald's short-lived administration, the Liberals won only 40 seats. Irrelevance and obscurity were to be the fate of the Liberals for much of the rest of the 20th century.

Linked to this was the collapse of Liberal finances. Two elections in swift succession gutted their parlous accounts, leaving them unable even to contest many seats in 1924. Their former strongholds in the Welsh valleys and Scotland fell to the Labour Party, their sole identifier - as the Free Trade party - became irrelevant once the Tories dropped their Imperial Preference idea. They were bankrupt, both financially and intellectually.

Is there anything here that could be seen as foreboding for today's Labour Party? The financial question must certainly be a concern - especially if a new Tory Government acts to sever the intravenous drip supplied by the Unions. But the situation is not yet as black as all that. First and foremost, and despite the squabblings between Brownites and Blairites, the party is not ruinously split. There is no question that the Labour (Miliband) Party will contest the Labour (Brown/Balls) Party at the next election. That alone should be a comfort.

Related to that point is that there is no obvious successor as principal opposition from the left. The Liberal Democrats are still stuck in a push-me-pull-you struggle over whether they are a party of the soft-right, or of the centre-left. They are uncertain whether to risk their southern seats in an attempt to supplant Labour in the north, or to turn their fire on the Tories.

The big area of worry for Labour, however, is that they now look vulnerable everywhere. With Wales and Scotland turning increasingly to the nationalist parties, and England becoming overwhelmingly Conservative, where will Labour win their seats? What is a safe Labour seat these days? But then, whether the nationalists can continue to consolidate popularity if Labour join them in opposition must surely be another matter - there must at least be a chance that Labour can rally those who are opposed to 'London' Government, but don't quite want to go as far as full independence.

The immediate prospects for Labour look pretty bleak, but I wouldn't have thought that it was time to call the end of the Labour Party just yet. When a credible contender for leftist opposition makes its presence felt - whether that contender is the Liberal Democrats or not - that is when Labour should have existential worries. For now, they should focus their attention on whether the next General Election is a defeat or a humiliation.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Letters From A Tory said...

I'm not sure who killed the Liberal Party, but Clegg sure as hell isn't having any success in trying to resurrect it.

9:14 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funnily enough I think you capture the reason for the Labour collapse in your comment about their rise: the working class wanted a party that would be of the working classes, not merely for them. That hasn't been true for at least a generation. The gap between Labour party activists' concerns and the ordinary labour party voter has never been greater. The party is running on empty.

9:46 am  
Blogger Tim J said...

There's definitely a point about the capture of the Labour Party by middle-class activists - teachers, social workers, think-tankers and so on. It's debatable whether the 'working class' as such is nearly as strong a force as it was even thirty years ago though.

9:54 am  

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