Keir Hardie or Harold Wilson?
In the last week, following David Miliband’s Keir Hardie lecture a debate has sprung up in the Labour blogosphere about the Party’s early history. In particular Keir Hardie’s views on liberalism and co-operation with the Liberal Party.
This is all very interesting and I’d highly recommend the posts over at the Fabian’s Next Left blog. Sunder, who knows his history, opened with a post on how far Keir Hardie actually rejected Lib-Labbery. There have also been posts on Jon Cruddas’s views as expressed in his own Keir Hardie lecture and guest post from historian and newly elected MP Greg McClymont.
But are we debating the wrong period? I agree with Sunder that the rise of Labour and the political strategies utilised by Keir Hardie may be worthy of detailed study by Caroline Lucas and the Greens, but is this the period, broadly put the 1890s to the 1920s, the right period for Labour to be looking back to now? And era of fluid politics, hung parliaments and changing allegiances certainly looks, at one level, to be very relevant.
Much of this debate seems to be harking back to earlier works by David Marquand and Peter Clarke, we’re back with a progressive dilemma and how to work with/deal with the Lib Dems. Anthony Painter writes that:
It would be a tragedy if the conclusion of this exercise was that Labour should pursue a majoritarian path. The UK is an increasingly pluralistic society and a majoritarian politics sits increasingly uneasily with that. At the very least, the future for the party means finding ways of building a centre-left dialogue that is open and forward-looking. Across the political spectrum there will be increasing unease at the impact of the fiscal strategy pursued by the Coalition. If Labour’s response is ‘we told you so, now make the Vichyist Lib Dems pay’ then that won’t be convincing at all. This is not to suggest that the Coalition’s policies should not be critiqued and in the strongest terms when they get it wrong.
The thing is, I’m not sure this is right at all. I don’t think we are heading back to a fluid three party system, I think we are more likely to see the Lib Dems squeezed out of contention as a prominent Parliamentary force, the clock is turning back – but only 40 years, not 90. The polling evidence so far, would seem to back this up. I agree with The Old Politics that:
It became clearer to me while listening [to Nick Clegg], though I was already thinking that way, that his colours are now so firmly pinned to the coalition mast – developing arguments within an ideological and historical framework of the right even if denying that the cuts agenda is driven by pure ideology – that if the next election also results in a hung Parliament then unless the Conservatives are roundly rejected within it, there’s no way the Liberal Democrats can swing back into a coalition of the left, or at least if they do it will have to be under a different leader.
If we are heading back to an essentially two party system, then the leadership contenders could do worse than look to the record of Wilson, Labour’s second most electorally successful leader with four wins out of five. (I know Paul will grimace at this). What is perhaps most interesting about Wilson is that, in the 1960s at least, he oversaw a period of broad ideological truce in the Party, certainly when compared to the decade before or afterwards.
This is certainly a period worthy of study and with all of the leadership contenders broadly committed to some form of industrial activism it may be the time to study what went wrong with the DEA.
EDIT: 20.40, to remove three crazy typos. I’m not aware of any party led by a Mr Cledd.