Duncan’s Economic Blog

Keir Hardie or Harold Wilson?

Posted in Uncategorized by duncanseconomicblog on July 16, 2010

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.


11 Responses

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  1. Anthony Painter said, on July 16, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    This is proving to be an engrossing discussion.

    I would say that there is less difference between ‘The Old Politics’ and myself than may at first seem. I would just say that what I advocate is ‘dialogue’ which seems like a good thing regardless of the political scenario. We don’t know how things will play out (we don’t even know what the electoral system will be in 2015) but we do know that we are in a more pluralistic social context which will have ramifications for our politics. It is legitimate to critique policies but once we enter into character critiques and ‘betrayal’ territory then we close down those lines of communication. Surely better to explore common ground and open lines of communication than deliberately close them down which could inflict some serious harm on the Labour cause.

    So I guess I’m advocating pluralism as a general mindset and instinct. A pluralism that is clear about our values for sure but then sees these values broad and outward looking rather than exclusive and rejectionist. Even if the Liberal Democrats leadership don’t respond, elements of their party could. So I guess I’m saying Attlee rather Wilson…..know who we are but also know that we don’t have a monopoly on good ideas and values so listen to others. Let’s worry about coalitions and pacts and the like another time. But for now, let’s pursue dialogue.

    • duncanseconomicblog said, on July 16, 2010 at 3:51 pm

      I’m all for trying to attract some of the LD left to join and certainly I’m in favour of people who voted LD in 2010 voting Labour in 2015 but I don’t think this means we can’t accuse the LD leadership of betrayal.

      As for pluralism as mindset – ofcourse, one problem of the last decade was a party leadership that became cut off from various sources of ideas and relied upon too small a circle for policy advice.

      • duncanseconomicblog said, on July 18, 2010 at 9:47 am


        On Attlee, I just came across this quote from 1937 –

        ” It is not the preaching of a feeble kind of Liberalism that is required, but a frank statement of the full Socialist faith in terms which will be understood”.

  2. CharliemcMenamin said, on July 16, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    Wilson oversaw a period of broad ideological truce in the Labour Party!?!

    Well , sort of , as long as one ignores the constant rows about nationalisation, Vietnam, in Place of Strife, Europe and so on.

    • duncanseconomicblog said, on July 16, 2010 at 5:24 pm

      Point taken, but compared to the 1950s or 1970s?

  3. CharlieMcMenamin said, on July 16, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    Well, I know of no objective measure of political disagreement within parties – even votes against the leadership line in parliament or at Conference don’t really work.

    The splits of the 1970s were, I think, more profound than those of the 1960s but it could fairly be argued they were more profound precisely because of all the frustration that had built up in the previous decade with the performance of the party in govt.

    In any event, I even as a Londoner, I can’t help thinking this whole discussion – which the Wilsonian analogue is supposed to illuminate – is weirdly English: there is certainly no possibility of three party politics disappearing in Wales or Scotland, and my money would be on four party politics continuing, perhaps even with the Greens establishing a minor presence as a fifth force.

    • duncanseconomicblog said, on July 16, 2010 at 6:19 pm


      I’m not arguing that things were perfect in the 1960s or that everyone agreed on everything! Obviously not by a long shot. But I would argue there was more agreement, esp pre 1967 in the party than in any other posy 45 period.

      On your England centric point – you’re right that the nationalist parties aren’t going away. Point conceded.

  4. James Doran said, on July 17, 2010 at 12:55 am

    On industrial policy, I’ve found it rewarding to read the 70s writings of Tony Crosland and Stuart Holland on this subject

    • duncanseconomicblog said, on July 17, 2010 at 10:39 am


      I’ve been reading some of Stuart Holland stuff recently, very interesting.

  5. CharlieMcMenamin said, on July 17, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    Stuart Holland? Planning Agreements and all that?

    I think this is where I came in, all those years ago.

    Just a stray thought, but isn’t the Green New Deal the closest thing currently on offer to a Alternative Economic Strategy for the 21st century ? I’m not well versed enough to compared and contrast the two in purely technical, economic terms, but I think the political functions of the two programmes bears pretty close comparison…

    • James Doran said, on July 18, 2010 at 4:26 am

      On planning agreements, etc. – what is of interest is not so much the proposals Holland offers, but the analysis of what he calls the “meso-economic power” of large firms.

      Yes, the political functions of the GND and the AES are similar, but there are some significant differences.

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