Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

British Liberal Leaders

This book is the third in an impressive series on political leadership in Britain’s mainstream parties which we owe to an imaginative initiative of Charles Clarke’s. Though the books make good reading for anyone interested in politics, this sustained reflection by historians, political scientists and practising politicians is particularly timely for Labour as the party embarks on an experiment in political leadership, unprecedented in its turbulent and eventful history.

The books on Labour and Conservative leadership have won plaudits from reviewers, including Progress’ own. However, I fear that Progress readers faced with two substantial hardbacks may balk at attempting the third on the Liberals. This would be a pity.

First, all the books contain easily digestible but substantive content. The chapters on each individual leader mix succinct accounts of the greatest figures in our history with fascinating reminders of the walk-on parts played by the obscure and forgotten. These are the ‘tail end Charlies’, as Roy Jenkins cuttingly categorised a succession of prime ministers from Lord Rosebery to James Callaghan, John Major and Gordon Brown, whose misfortune was to succeed a figure that had dominated the political scene. (George Osborne had better watch out!). Or they are the ‘quiet men’ who ended up in leadership by political accident and proved unsuited for the role like Iain Duncan Smith or Menzies Campbell (though the latter has many other distinguished attributes). These pen portraits make ideal bedtime reading for those with sleepy attention spans.

Second, no one can understand the progressive tradition in British politics without appreciating the contribution of the giants of British liberalism to it. For the Independent Labour party’s principal founders – Keir Hardie, Arthur Henderson and Ramsay MacDonald – Gladstone was as big an influence as any socialist scribbler. In the creation of the British welfare state, the Edwardian reforms of Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George have an equal claim to the 1940s settlement of William Beveridge, John Maynard Keynes (both Liberals, of course) Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan.

Third, the Liberal Democrats still matter. Many of my Labour friends seem to regard the present-day Liberal Democrats as irrelevant pariahs who can only look forward to many years of isolated repentance for the sins of the coalition! Yet Liberal Leaders reminds us that the history of the party since 1945 is of repeated bounceback from seeming oblivion. When Jo Grimond took over the Liberal leadership in November 1956, as Peter Barberis tell us in his chapter, there were only six Liberals in the Commons, two of whom depended for their survival on local electoral pacts with the Conservatives in Bolton and Huddersfield, and another was the chairman of ways and means who sat for Carmarthenshire. This gentleman, one Rhys Hopkin Morris, died within three months: in a by-election which must have seemed confirmation of the Liberals’ decline and fall, the seat was lost to the Labour candidate, none other than David Lloyd George’s daughter, Megan. Yet within six years Grimond, with Eric Lubbock as his candidate, pulled off at Orpington the biggest by-election sensation British politics had ever seen.

The Grimond revival faded away as Harold Wilson won a commanding overall majority in 1966. The first round of post war Lib-Lab speculation bit the dust. But in February 1974, Jeremy Thorpe brought back the Liberals to nearly a fifth of the vote and within a whisker of a coalition with Edward Heath, except the party would not then contemplate it. The party faded once again as his personal problems mounted.

In the early years of David Steel’s leadership in the late 1970s the pollsters were predicting that the Liberals would only hold on to two seats in the forthcoming general election. In fact, David Torrance records how in a ‘spirited campaign’ in 1979 Steel won nine seats and nine per cent of the votes, a base that rose to 25 per cent in alliance with the Social Democratic party in 1983, slipping back to 23 per cent in 1987.

In the debacle of the SDP-Liberal merger in 1988, the Liberal Democrats stared into oblivion, pushed into a humiliating third place by David Owen’s ‘continuing SDP’ in a by-election at Richmond in Yorkshire (where William Hague comfortably held the seat vacated by Leon Brittan’s departure for Brussels). As Paddy Ashdown is fond of reminding us, the Liberal Democrats became briefly in the late 1980s an asterisk in the opinion polls because the pollsters could not identify any reliable base of support. Yet in 1992 the Liberal Democrats bounced back to win 18 per cent. In the general elections from 1997 to 2010, initially with much tacit Labour endorsement of tactical voting, the Liberal Democrats won a solid phalanx of MPs (46 in 1997, 52 in 2001, 62 in 2005 and 57 in 2010). What is the basis for the view that their complete humiliation in 2015 presages their disappearance as anything worth bothering about?

A common Labour view is that the electorate will never forgive the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Really? A Liberal Democrat might say in response that the electorate will never forgive Labour for all the debts we built up! Labour needs to bring some balance to its critique of the coalition. I was in favour of Gordon Brown’s attempts to form a coalition with Nick Clegg in 2010, but the opposition of senior members of the Labour party killed any prospect of it. I believe the pace of austerity the coalition adopted was initially too severe, but if Labour had been elected, there would still have been drastic cuts in current public spending. Labour would have done a better job at protecting poor families and avoiding pieces of legislation such as the ‘bedroom tax’, but to afford this would either have had to restrain benefits for better off over 60-year-olds, or increased taxes somewhat on middle and upper earners. More could and should have been done by the coalition to protect public investment, build new social housing, and pursue ‘smart’ industrial policy. The Liberal Democrats made a huge mistake in allowing Andrew Lansley’s NHS reorganisation. Politically, though, as Chris Bowers’ chapter describes, Clegg performed well as deputy prime minister except for a major political miscalculation on tuition fees which scuppered the Liberal Democrats’ chances of winning AV in the May 2011 referendum. The reader may disagree, but we should bring the same balance to a judgement on the Liberal Democrat record in government as we hope others (including in our own party) will begin to bring to our own. It is a balance of judgement the electorate is capable of making.

We now know that four in 10 of the two-thirds of 2010 Liberal Democrat supporters who deserted the party in 2015 voted Conservative. Alongside the one in twenty 2010 Labour voters who actually voted Conservative in 2015, these Liberal Democrat and Labour switchers came to the view – many with great reluctance – that Labour was not to be trusted on the economy. They concluded, as Jon Cruddas has bravely pointed out, that Tory austerity was a better and safer bet than Labour incompetence. Ed Miliband’s electoral strategy had been built on what proved a largely false proposition – that disillusioned Liberal Democrats would carry him to No 10 on the back of 35 per cent of the vote.

Nor did Labour win anything near the remaining 60 per cent of 2010 Liberal Democrat deserters. In England and Wales many switched to the United Kingdom Independence party as the party representing the ‘none of the aboves’, the protest voters who always formed perhaps a third of the Liberal Democrat vote. In Scotland the Scottish National party dug deep into former Liberal Democrat support in its border, north-east coast and Highland heartlands that Labour had never conquered. Corbynites may think Labour can win over 2010 Liberal Democrats who voted Green in 2015. In post-industrial Britain, the appeal of the Greens has to be understood and taken into account in shaping new progressive alliances, but to focus on this narrow section of the electorate alone would simply underline how far Labour is moving away from an attempt to build a broad-based progressive majority.

Liberal Leaders reminds us of one simple fact: either Labour modernises and broadens its appeal so that it represents the social forces that led to successive Liberal revivals in the postwar era, or Labour accepts that a party based around the present Liberal Democrats will at some stage return as a force to be reckoned with on the British political scene.

Politics is always a complex mix of ‘structure’ and ‘agency’. The decline of the Liberals in the first half of the 20th century might arguably never have occurred if, in the Edwardian era, Liberal constituency associations had been more welcoming of working-class and trade union-sponsored candidates. The ‘progressive alliance’ that Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald were largely content to work within prior to 1914 might have evolved into some US-style Democratic party had not the Asquith-Lloyd George split fatally damaged the Liberals in the 1918 general election. The three general elections of 1922-24 then gave Labour the opportunity to establish itself as the governing alternative to the Conservatives.

In the same period, though, big structural changes were at work. The spectre of universal suffrage enfranchising the dispossessed, the sharp rise in class conflict and industrial strife, and bourgeois fears of British Bolshevism, drove much of the middle class (as well as an awful lot of the working classes) into the arms of the Conservatives. The old defining issues of politics seemed less relevant – the antagonisms between church and chapel faded; the long struggle for Irish Home Rule ended in independence and tragedy; and the tension between aristocrats and landowners (who ‘toil not neither do they spin’) on the one hand, and the productive classes on the other, gave way to constant strife between capital and labour. Liberal Leaders reminds us how the party was overwhelmed by these underlying forces.

Today, structural change in our society and politics suggests that the Liberal Democrats may be ‘down’, but it is wrong to think of them as ‘out’. It is now Labour that is threatened by structural change. The hold of ‘class’ politics continues to weaken. The last generation with even parental memories of ‘1945’ is fading away, while the generation that lived through the worst of Thatcherism is near retirement or beyond. The structural forces that once gave Labour a secure power base in society are in sharp decline – the number of public sector jobs, trade union membership, the size of the ‘social rented’ sector, the continuing shift away from manufacturing to a service economy where a majority of employees work in non-union small- and medium-sized companies. Also Labour’s one-time heartlands are under threat from a rise of identity politics in Scotland and Wales and Ukip in England.

What will eventually emerge from this ‘wide open space’, which is where I would now describe progressive politics, is a great unknown. No one should be frightened of dialogue within and between members of our weakened and much-divided Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. Talk of a ‘new SDP’ is totally fatuous; discussion of electoral pacts at best grossly premature. What progressives need is serious hard thinking about what they are in politics for. They need to define anew the non-Conservative common ground. And this is a task made both far more difficult and urgent by Cameron’s determination to position the Conservatives on the same territory – a problem supporters of a ‘progressive alliance’ in the 1980s and 1990s never had to grapple with.

The issue on which all the non-Conservative forces on the progressive wing of British politics are basically united is the need for a new constitutional settlement. The purpose, probably through a cross-party convention, would be to devise a coherent set of proposals for a thorough shake-up of the discredited ‘Westminster model’ of government. This involves radical devolution to the nations of the United Kingdom as well as the city- and county-regions of England, reform of the House of Lords, electoral reform, human rights protections, and a settled role for the United Kingdom as a committed member of the European Union. This new constitutional settlement cannot be viable except in the context of a shared economic and social vision where the present gross inequalities in individual opportunities and regional economic capabilities are addressed within a federal social union.

Alliances of opportunism in politics work far more rarely than most ‘political hacks’ understand. ‘Retail politics’ is disbelieved and discredited. What is needed is a new partnership of principle. That is a precondition of what Gladstone, as a very old man never giving up the battle for Irish Home Rule, urged as a ‘union of hearts’. In stepping towards that union and creating the cross-party dialogue necessary to build it, books like Liberal Leaders have much to teach us.


Roger Liddle is co-chair of Policy Network


British Liberal Leaders

Duncan Brack, Robert Ingham and Tony Little (Eds)

BiteBack Publishing | 528pp | £25

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Roger Liddle

is a peer, a former adviser on European affairs to Tony Blair, and chair of Policy Network

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