To go forward, Labour can look back

30 Aug 2016

Once more, the Labour Party stands at cross-roads, divided politically, ideologically and socially, with unity but a distant dream. Whether Jeremy Corbyn continues as leader or gives way to Owen Smith, Labour must be prepared to brave the political wilderness once more, such a wilderness that could very well be comparable to the 1980s or worse.


Regardless of who is selected, neither represents a quick fix and the rift between members and the Parliamentary Party will need to be healed and healed quickly in time for the next election. If not, the United Kingdom could very easily become a One-Party state under Theresa May and the Conservatives, threatening the union with Scotland once more. Labour are duty-bound to act as an opposition to the government, scrutinising, questioning and holding the government to account on important issues such as the economy, the National Health Service and the European Union. It is clear Labour has been neglecting this duty for some time.


We are a democratically governed country, yet this concept is under threat if the biggest opposition party decides to consume itself. Such political suicide on Labour’s part comes at perhaps the most significant time in British politics in the wake of the EU referendum. Debate and compromise are intrinsic to our political system, yet such checks and balances are under threat.

The possibility of a political split to match the existing ideological one has been touted as a solution to the crisis of the Labour Party. Yet let the old Liberal Party serve as a warning against such a manoeuvre.


The Liberals in 1906 were returned to government under Henry Campbell-Bannerman winning 400 seats; in comparison the Conservatives won just 129 seats. Their political triumph was absolute, and their majority commanding. Just nine years later however, the Liberals split and from 1915 would never again govern as a united party.


The rift between the leaders Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George was caused by disagreements regarding the First World War; Lloyd George opposed Asquith’s ‘Business as usual approach’ arguing for a total war. The party reunited a decade later, but into a different world entirely, a world of social and economic turmoil where the dominant political parties were the Conservatives and the new Labour Party. This once great political party ceased to be a political force, falling into decay and decline.


Political splits have of course littered British history in lesser degrees of severity than that of the Liberals.  For example, the split in the Conservative Party in the 1840s over the issue of free trade and the Corn Laws, which saw supporters of Sir Robert Peel, known as Peelites, eventually join the Liberals.  


The age of Victorian politics was however one in which the electorate and society at large had a very limited political role and influence; splits were ideological and over interests-little thought was given to the effect this would have on the voters. For a detailed and enjoyable read on the splits in Victorian politics I wholeheartedly recommend Richard Aldous’ The Lion and the Unicorn- Gladstone and Disraeli. Unlike in times past, today the electorate matters, the party members matter and have the power to influence the parliamentary party in ways unthinkable in the world of William Gladstone or even under Lloyd George. The people will punish the Labour Party if the battle for its soul continues for much longer; the vision of an election victory in 2020 seems hopelessly unlikely.


One more parallel can be drawn between the Liberal Party and the Labour Party which is the failure to effectively respond to changes in society. The old working-class ‘core’ of Labour support, is neither as visible or as easily defined as once was; indeed, Labour is no longer seen as the natural home of these voters.


It is not being hyperbolic to suggest that Labour is facing a crisis of representation; the threat of UKIP looms large and the Nationalists in Scotland appear to enjoy supremacy north of the border. Founded at the dawn of the twentieth century, Labour was the party of and for the ordinary working-class people and designed to ameliorate from within. As the twentieth century progressed, the working-class evolved and the Labour Party to a large extent simply did not evolve with it. The claims to represent the workers are for the most part based on words and tradition rather than material reality.


The Conservatives, UKIP and the SNP in the past decade have encroached upon Labour’s old core and have in many ways stolen their mantle as a party of ordinary working people. The working-class vote can best be described as fragmented. Troubled times lie ahead for the party, the assumption that they will receive the votes of the workers and those disadvantaged in society is a seriously misplaced one.


The Liberals in the election of 1922 faced many of the problems now facing Labour in 2016, they were out of power and their old support base was dwindling in favour of other parties. Radical and new working-class votes were lost to the new Labour Party and the leadership was split politically and ideologically between followers of Herbert Asquith and that of Lloyd George. Britain in the 1920s was unfamiliar to the old Liberals, a world wracked with economic and social instability and a turbulent political climate.


Times are comparatively kinder to the Labour Party, although the full implications of the decision to leave the EU are yet to be realised. Nevertheless Labour would do well to learn the lessons of the past, the decline of the Liberals should serve as a very real warning. Unity and cohesion are paramount in the years to come, for inter-party co-operation is wholly necessary as the UK attempts to re-shape its place in the world. Labour must contribute and be central to this debate.





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