Are we witnessing the Strange Death of Socialist England?

Back in 1935 Anglo-American historian, George Dangerfield, described in his book ‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’ how the Liberal Party of Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George, succumbed between 1906 and 1914 to the multiple assaults of Irish Home Rule, the reform of the House of Lords, Women’s Suffrage and the militancy of the Trades Unions. I would, with hindsight, add to that the rise of the Labour Party, which, after being shielded under the liberal wing, eventually took flight and replaced its sponsor as the main rival to the Conservative Party.

Well, I wonder whether, following this latest Labour debacle, a future George Dangerfield will be writing about the ‘Strange Death of Socialist England’, or at least the Labour Party variety? After all, in parliamentary terms, Labour has been virtually wiped out in Scotland already and is just clinging on in Wales.

However, haven’t we been here before? Back in 1982, my old friend and later SDP PPC for Lincoln, Peter Zentner, published a book called ‘Social Democracy in Britain – Must Labour lose?’. Written when the surge in support for the SDP was topping 50% and the sky seemed the limit, and when an alliance with David Steel’s Liberal Party threatened to sweep all before it, Peter still asked the question “Was it really all over for Labour?”

It clearly wasn’t. Despite what the late Gerald Kaufman described “the longest suicide note in history” the Labour Party survived thanks to the vagaries of First Past the Post (FPTP) and later, thanks to the efforts of Kinnock, Smith and Blair, it was dragged back to the centre ground, so much so that the first Blair government actually stuck to the Major government’s spending plans for the first two years of its existence .

Born in 1943, I grew up in an age when there really did appear to be only two choices to vote for. Leicester, which had given James Ramsay Macdonald his first parliamentary seat (Labour and the Liberal Party in the first decade of the 20th century did one of many deals around the country for the town’s two seats to keep the Tories out), offered four constituencies, three with Labour MPs, the most famous of whom was Herbert Bowden, later Lord Aylestone. Ours had a Tory MP, one Captain Charles Waterhouse, whose posters competed with his Labour opponents even on our new council estate in Evington village. Yes, as the 1950s rambled on into the 1960s there would be the occasional reference at election time to “the Liberals”, but more in fun than with serious intent. It was only really when I entered the 6th Form, when local Quaker, Ivor Glenton, won a Council seat for the Liberals and Eric Lubbock won Orpington, that I began to realise that there was another party out there.

Despite this third choice, we baby boomers have largely been indoctrinated into thinking that general more than local elections are usually a contest between Blue and Red. Even though founder Sir Robert Peel supported the name ‘CONSERVative Party’, indicating a desire to oppose radical change, the Blue has a habit of rolling with the punches and adapting to change. No wonder it has survived for so long. The Red, on the other hand, seems to be wedded to the past, when its existence had a purpose.

In the Blair/Brown era, Labour could rely on its core vote in the north of England, Wales and Scotland, while being taken over by the metropolitan elites, who were able to sweet talk the middle classes into lending them their vote (sounds familiar?) – but not today. Giveaways of the kind that the party offered this time, were comprehensively rejected by the very people, whom Labour claimed to want to help. You would have thought that, following the experience of the 1970s and early 1980s, some lessons might have been learned.

What is clearly needed now, if the Tory hegemony in England is to be broken under the present voting system, is a progressive alliance between the opposition parties, where no one party should be allowed to dictate terms. As Sir Vince Cable has said, the so called centre left parties have much in common. They need to work together in what could be a difficult next five years. Alternatively, another SDP type party could emerge, only possibly to endure the same fate as its predecessor and be sacrificed on the altar of FPTP. However, while the Labour Party continues to believe that it alone can run the opposition show at Westminster, hubris will continue to triumph over reality.

* John Marriott is a former Liberal Democrat councillor from Lincolnshire.

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38 Comments

  • With Labour attracting the votes of a majority of ages 18-34 and a plurality of 35-44, while the Conservatives only had a majority in 65+ and a plurality in 45-64 … I don’t think it’s Labour that’s on the way out. Putting forward its manifesto 10 years too early, perhaps?

    Even if no-one changes their mind in the next decade, if every existing voter continues as before unless they die, and new 18-year-old voters have similar voting patterns to the current ones, the Conservatives will lose 2029 to Labour, and 2024 will probably be a hung parliament or very narrow Con majority.

    Of course that’s not going to be what actually happens – some people will change their minds in the next five years, and that might not benefit Labour! – but if the Lib Dems are hoping for one of the other parties to collapse so that they can take their place, over that sort of multi-decade timescale the Conservatives look worse.

    This does I think give the Lib Dems quite a problem, which I don’t have a good answer to. If you go for the voters currently for Labour, this is just shuffling around Opposition votes and by FPTP will probably just increase the Conservative majority in the short term. On the other hand, if you go for the voters currently for the Conservatives, not only will this be uncomfortable for a lot of activists, but it’s not a good long-term basis for the Lib Dems either. The current strategy of “get about 11% of everyone” clearly has its own downsides too, of course.

  • James Fowler 18th Dec '19 - 4:28pm

    Dear John, may I respectfully suggest the opposite? The overall result for Labour was of course terrible, but it differed from 1983 in some crucial respects. (1) In that election Labour returned 41 MPs in Scotland, 20 in Wales and 148 (71%) in England. Now there is one 1 MP in Scotland, 22 in Wales and there are 180 Labour MPs (89%) in England. It is a much more English Party now than at almost all times in its history. (2) The pattern of defeat is very different. In 1983 Labour was shoved into declining marginalised Britain. Now, even after a terrible defeat, it still controls the dynamic expanding urban areas. It doesn’t justify ‘the inevitability of gradualism’ for Labour but it’s food for thought for all the Parties. (3) This does give them some commonalities with us, but I would be very careful of closer affiliation given the still fairly precarious state of our own representation and its obvious very heavy dependence on moderate Conservatives of the Heseltine/Major mould.

  • There is a potential opening to work with Labour to get PR. As Labour support is packed in cities, they are not going to win power under FPTP in the near future, and they will eventually need PR or keep staying in Opposition. Once we get PR, our chance will be much better.

  • Tristan Ward 18th Dec '19 - 4:46pm

    If there is one lesson form last week’s eletion,It is that the current Labour party is toxic: association with it is a sure way to disaster. That is the flaw in the alliance model.

    When (if) the Labour party comes to its senses is the time for considering alliances. Yes that may not be on offer when (if) the time comes. Bit why the Liberal Democrats should associate itself with Labour’s manifest failure is beyond me. And that is before you consider that liberalism and socialism are fundamentally incompatable.

  • Interesting, John….. A lot depends on
    a) the calibre of the new Labour Leader,
    b) whether Scotland gets independence. Johnson might even go along with Scottish Independence…. to give the Tories a perpetual majority in the one place they are really interested in – England.

    As for Dangerfield, a lot of modern historians argue that the Libs weren’t doing that badly in by-elections up to 4 August, 1914. It was in the war, and just after, that they pressed the major self-destruct buttons of the Squiff/LLG split, widening the franchise, paying M.P.’s who no longer had to pay their own election expenses ….. and turning down PR in the 1918 Representation of the People Act. When Asquith put your chum Ramsay Mac in in 1924 it scared sections of the electorate into the arms of the Tories…. some of the most talented Libs joined the Labour Party in and after the war, and Churchill returned to his roots.

    Who knows, it might all have been different if they’d adopted Keir Hardie when he was a Liberal in North Lanarkshire in 1888 (instead of a silver tongued Welsh lawyer with money).

    As Squiff might have said, let’s”Wait and See” what Keir Starmer might do if he gets it.
    As for the Libs ????????

  • @ Tristan Ward “And that is before you consider that liberalism and socialism are fundamentally incompatable (sp)”.

    Errrr, no. Not quite.

    Time to read your Hobson, Hobhouse, Green and Keynes, Tristan.

  • Tony Greaves 18th Dec '19 - 5:38pm

    Yes, David Raw is basically right. Dangerfield was an arrogant American with a chip on his shoulder and a hatred of Liberals. His book is very readable but basically wrong. For a better view try The Downfall of the Liberal Party, 1914-1935 by Trevor Wilson, a very much better book.

  • John Marriott 18th Dec '19 - 5:44pm

    @David Raw
    I thought that my latest trip down memory lane might stimulate your taste buds. Your intimate knowledge of the history of the old Liberal Party is clearly far greater than mine. Having been wrong in wondering whether we might have been witnessing the ‘strange death’ of the Conservative Party in a previous article in LDV, at least according to recent results, I’m wondering whether my political antenna is clearly off target. Only time will tell.

    Paddy Ashdown thought he had a deal with Blair, particularly regarding voting reform. However the temptation of leaving things as they were proved too great for the latter when his party achieved a landslide victory in 1997. Very few of the electorate seem to be bothered by the fact that the Tory vote share hardly increased, compared, at least, to the Lib Dems’, nor by the fact that the percentage breakdown between Leave supporting and Remain supporting parties was roughly 47/53. The Tories can now do more or less what they want and the present debate on Brexit seems effectively to be over, with the implosion of the People’s Vote campaign. So, can we now really move on?

    I have always been a pragmatist, having managed to work with Tories as part of the Administration Group between 2013 and 2017. The one group I have always had trouble with was the Labour Group. Therein lies the problem and the challenge for any potential opposition.

  • John Marriott 18th Dec '19 - 5:49pm

    @Tony Greaves
    I thought that Dangerfield spent his formative years in England. He may indeed have hated the liberals. He didn’t think much of ladies meddling in politics either, at least certainly not the Pankhursts and their associates.

  • Hopefully. Can’t come soon enough.

  • @David Raw ““And that is before you consider that liberalism and socialism are fundamentally incompatable (sp)”.

    Errrr, no. Not quite.

    Time to read your Hobson, Hobhouse, Green and Keynes, Tristan.”

    Time to read your Churchill, David:

    “Liberalism has its own history and its own tradition. Socialism has its own formulas and its own aims. Socialism seeks to pull down wealth; Liberalism seeks to raise up poverty. [Loud cheers.] Socialism would destroy private interests; Liberalism would preserve private interests in the only way in which they can be safely and justly preserved, namely, by reconciling them with public right. [Cheers.] Socialism would kill enterprise; Liberalism would rescue enterprise from the trammels of privilege and preference. [Cheers.] Socialism assails the pre-eminence of the individual; Liberalism seeks, and shall seek more in the future, to build up a minimum standard for the mass. [Cheers.] Socialism exalts the rule; Liberalism exalts the man. Socialism attacks capital; Liberalism attacks monopoly. [Cheers.] These are the great distinctions which I draw, and which, I think, you will think I am right in drawing at this election between our philosophies and our ideals. “

  • No I don’t think so. Young people are voting for socialism. How did we manage to not retake Sheffield Hallam by the way?

  • @ TCO That speech was in Dundee in 1908. By 1922 they had unceremoniously kicked him out by a large majority. He came fourth, well beaten by a prohibitionist and by a former Liberal turned Labour (because of the War).

    He went back to his Tory tribe and proceeded to wreck the British economy by returning to the Gold standard as Chancellor. He was particularly vindictive to the miners when (as a result) their wages were cut in 1926. He should have listened to Keynes, Hobhouse and Sankey.

    ‘Dundee’s Disenchantment with Churchill: A Comment … – jstor https://www.jstor.org › stable by WM Walker – ‎1970 ….. ‘having headed the poll on every electoral occasion since 1908, Churchill in 1922 came fourth among six contestants in Dundee’s two-member constituency …’

  • Dare I suggest that we should have confidence in the progressive values of our own Party and that we promote a Left Of Centre Social Liberal alternative to both the main Parties? Human Rights – Environmental Protection – Social Justice – Internationalism.
    In my view it was actually damaging to give up seats to Plaid Cymru (the ultra nationalist Party that wants “reparations” from the rest of Britain!). That is shown by the results in Wales. In the mainly Welsh speaking areas, people who usually vote Liberal Democrat had little choice and those who carved out the “pact” sacrificed Ceredigion, which was a LibDem Seat and undermined the Campaign in Montgomery.
    Elsewhere, in Seats where Plaid and Independence are very unpopular, such as Brecon and Radnor, the same “pact” probably lost us the Seat. It was probably a damaging “pact” that was badly negotiated. Also, in many Constituencies, the voters were denied the chance to vote for a Liberal Democrat Candidate, which also lowered our National Vote.

  • TCO
    “raise up poverty (loud cheers)”, a Freudian slip perhaps.

  • Tim Morrison 18th Dec '19 - 8:42pm

    Maybe if you had been more honest it would have helped.

    In one post I revived three leaflets all of which contained demonstrable untruths including the notorious “expert” letter.

    Your ‘only the Liberal Democrat’s can… ‘ are bunkum at best and at worst may have contributed to Tories winning in some seats.

    Swinson appeared downright condescending to voters she met – especially on the question of austerity.

    To many on the left you are NOT a party of any kind of left wing. A party of the centre left would never haVe been in alliance with the Tories.

  • @David Raw “@ TCO That speech was in Dundee in 1908. By 1922 they had unceremoniously kicked him out by a large majority. He came fourth, well beaten by a prohibitionist and by a former Liberal turned Labour (because of the War).”

    That doesn’t alter the fact that he knew the fundamental differences between Liberalism and Socialism, and why they always have been and always will be the antithesis of each other.

    Scots flirted with Socialists of and on for a century before coming to their senses in 2015 and, to quote you, unceremoniously kicking them out for good.

  • @Tim Morrison “To many on the left you are NOT a party of any kind of left wing. A party of the centre left would never haVe been in alliance with the Tories.”

    Guess what – we’re not a party of the left. We’re Liberals who are the antithesis of left wingery.

  • Nice to see some talk about Leicester where the Lib Dems currently have one councillor to Labour’s Fifty three. Not so much sign of the death of Labour here!

    The LDs did win a big chunk of seats in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and win the Leicester South bye election too.

    Then, locally, you went into coalition with the Tories (before the national coalition), split into a left and right group and are now locally toast, as are the Conservatives!

    I haven’t seen one of your ‘Focus’ leaflets for about nine years, now.

  • Tim Morrison – we are a party of the centre and therefore can work with both parties on the left and parties on the right. I know the sort of “many on the left” you talk of, the sort who will not even talk to Tories. Not a good attitude to have.

  • Gosh, just how unionist and imperialistic is this party? Plaid Cymru’s point about reparations is worth thinking about. The fact that Wales was battered, bloodily, into England in the days of the Plantagenets rather than Victoria didn’t lessen the impact which echoes down to today. Wales’ economy was structured for it away from its own hands and the results are what we have more – the poorest performing and poorer part of the U.K. If there had been a UN back in the day, Norman England’s standing would be on a par with Russia of today, with bells on. The fact that Plaid point this out does not make them ‘ultra nationalist’ in my view, they are just seeking to protect (not very effectively) what’s left. The ultra-nationalism has been what was imported into Wales in the centuries since. Plaid were always going to win Ceredigion this time, and the LDs need to do more than to blame them for not holding B&R and not re-taking Montgomery (now held by the rejected former Tory MP from Cardiff North). How did Cardiff Central get on by the way?! Bah! It won’t do to blame other parties for this, except perhapsmfor the obviously telegraphed elephant trap that the Brexit party pulled on us.

  • TCO – “@Tim Morrison “To many on the left you are NOT a party of any kind of left wing. A party of the centre left would never haVe been in alliance with the Tories.”

    “Guess what – we’re not a party of the left. We’re Liberals who are the antithesis of left wingery.”

    We are the party of the left, and if not, then left-leaning not right-leaning. In addition, we are a democratic party, which should by default put us against the Tories who would get rid of democracies if they can do so. This is the nature of conservatives, whose attitude towards democracy is at best contempt and at worst total hatred and fear.

  • Another long-term reason to place ourselves on the centre-left: Labour have won the majority of youth vote, and political ideologies in fact does not change when people become older, they are simply different between generations, and the left have already won the Millennial votes.

  • Peter Martin 19th Dec '19 - 8:38am

    @ Thomas,

    “……and political ideologies in fact does not change when people become older, they are simply different between generations”

    This is obviously not true when you think about it. The over 65s are often criticised for being cohort of Tory leavers – usually in terms that they are some kind of hang over from Empire days. However simple arithmetic tells us that anyone born in 1954 is now going to be 65 years old. The Empire was well and truly in decline by then. The Wilson government of 1964 -1970 lowered the voting age to 18, previously it was 21, in time for the 1970 general election.

    Tory allegations were, and undeniably true, they’d only done that because the then 18+ year olds, who wouldn’t otherwise have been eligible, were more likely to vote Labour than Tory. That is anyone born shortly after 1952 who now, if they are still alive, will be 67-70 years old and more than likely to be a Tory voter.

    I’ve seen this from personal experience too. Many friends and relatives of mine who were socialist firebrands in their youth started to drift to the right as they aged. The hippy, anti apartheid, anti Vietnam war generation slowly metamorphed into Tory voters. It doesn’t happen to everyone. My own personal opinions aren’t a lot different now to what they were in my younger days. However, I know I’m not that typical.

  • Nonconformistradical 19th Dec '19 - 8:44am

    @Thomas

    Please stop going on about left and right – go on about liberal instead.

  • Studies are inconclusive on the extent to which people get more right wing as they get older … and of course the Labour and Conservative parties today are not the same as the Labour and Conservative parties of the 1960s by a long way, so actual comparisons are difficult anyway – during the election campaign many prominent former Conservative MPs of the 1980s and 1990s were highlighted as recommending a Lib Dem vote in 2019 despite not having changed their opinions much at all since they were MPs.

    However, what held in the past might not hold in the future anyway – I can think of three related reasons that this might be different, at least over the next decade or two.
    1) In the 2010 general election, which had a similar overall difference in the Con and Lab vote share, the Con-Lab split by age was virtually non-existent. Older voters were slightly more Conservative, but not a lot. The split now is huge and may be difficult to reverse (on either side).

    2) One of the common reasons given for rightward drift is people getting more economically secure as they age. But there’s strong evidence of a realignment with a wider range of social issues (on which the Lib Dems are more clearly left than centre too) defining the left-right balance, compared with the economic issues dominating the 20th century. People don’t tend to get more socially conservative as they age (or more socially liberal).

    3) Similarly, if increasing economic security with age is a driver of rightward drift, that is no longer happening anywhere near as much for Millenials and Gen Z, who are doing worse than previous generations were in this respect.

  • Peter Martin
    People born from the early to mid 1950s are less the hippy generation than they are the Punk and Disco generation. The hippy generation are in their 70s. John Lennon would have been 80 years old in 2020. I think the whole nostalgia for the empire argument is one of those historical determinist rhetorical devices designed to imply that the EU is the bright shiny future and that to even suggest otherwise is to be part of the dim dark past.

  • John Marriott 19th Dec '19 - 9:56am

    Peter Kenny refers to the ‘strange death’ of the Lib Dems after they went into coalition with the Tories on the Leicester City Council. I seem to recall that it was Roger Blackmore, Lib Dem Leader of the Council, who was largely behind the move. Roger earlier spent many years in Lincolnshire fighting the Tories as PPC for Gainsborough and his legacy lives on in the fact that this area is now the only place where there is a decent LD presence.

    Peter puts the demise of the party down to it’s going into coalition. Many English voters just do not like, or possibly just do not understand, the nature of coalitions, certainly at national level. Local level is a different matter, which may explain why so many comparatively speaking, are prepared to have a punt on smaller and niche parties at this level as, thanks to local government’s gradual emasculation overall many decades, they don’t consider local elections as that important. For proof of this, you only have to look at turnouts.

    Let’s, for the sake of convenience, say that around 40% of the electorate is basically Conservative leaning, which usually means that they are quite happy with their lot. Many of them would be the sort of people, not bad people in any way, who, for example, would have kept their heads down in Germany between 1933 and 1945. But I digress. The rest probably questions the status quo, some more strongly than others. Of those a very small percentage really does want revolution and they actually join one of the non Conservative parties. It ‘s possibly that percentage, and a few hangers on who currently control the Labour Party. I doubt whether many of them, like the early pioneers, have ever got their hands dirty. Had they gone through that process they would have realised that those they were genuinely trying to help were, deep down, as conservative, with a small ‘c’ in terms of aspiration, as most of the population. Perhaps I should therefore revise that 40% upwards.

    So, how do you break the Conservative stranglehold on national government? By changing the voting system – mind you, around here in Lincolnshire, with the possible exception of our County Town, the Tories would win whatever system you introduced. Any system of PR is likely to produce coalitions. But I‘ve already said that we don’t like coalitions, so why change? There’s problem Number 1 for the opposition parties to deal with.

  • @John Mc “Gosh, just how unionist and imperialistic is this party? Plaid Cymru’s point about reparations is worth thinking about. The fact that Wales was battered, bloodily, into England in the days of the Plantagenets rather than Victoria didn’t lessen the impact which echoes down to today. Wales’ economy was structured for it away from its own hands and the results are what we have more – the poorest performing and poorer part of the U.K. If there had been a UN back in the day, Norman England’s standing would be on a par with Russia of today, with bells on. The fact that Plaid point this out does not make them ‘ultra nationalist’ in my view, they are just seeking to protect (not very effectively) what’s left. ”

    Absolutely. And I’m sure you’ll join me in calling for reparations form the Italians. England too was battered and bloodied back in the day by the Roman Imperialists. What did they ever do for us, eh? Answer me that!

  • @Thomas “Another long-term reason to place ourselves on the centre-left: Labour have won the majority of youth vote, and political ideologies in fact does not change when people become older, they are simply different between generations, and the left have already won the Millennial votes.”

    This is a false premise.

    For example, the Conservative Party enacted gay marriage and that is now a settled position, because it became normalised in society. Political parties and societal norms change over time, so generational attitudes defined as “left” when someone was young, become the norm, and therefore “right”, as they get older.

  • @John Marriott “I have always been a pragmatist, having managed to work with Tories as part of the Administration Group between 2013 and 2017. The one group I have always had trouble with was the Labour Group. Therein lies the problem and the challenge for any potential opposition.”

    Here you have the crux of the issue.

    The Labour party – and the Left in general including the left of our party – see the world in evangelical terms. They simply cannot accept that many of those loosely on the right have the same concerns and seek similar outcomes to those on the left, but differ as to the means of getting there.

    They view their own side as “Good”, and anyone who does not buy into their ideology wholesale as “Evil” – necessarily bad. And they also value the purity of that ideology and their sect higher than the pragmatic compromises needed to take and wield power. As we saw over the Coalition, when the Left howled “Betrayal!”.

  • Peter Hirst 19th Dec '19 - 2:48pm

    Socialist Labour died a long time ago with Tony Blair’s government. Until it, the Labour Party comes to its senses, we can only whistle in the wind. The Conservatives are their own greatest opponent and we can only await and respond to events.

  • Peter Martin – many of those whom you talk about might be still left-wing economically but right-wing socially. Also, we must break down age groups further into Greatest Generation/Silent/(early or late)Boomer…

    Nonconformist – unfortunately, left-right still matters. Very often “moderate right-wingers” and “classical liberals” were the ones who catapulted right-wing extremists into power throughout the history because they fear leftist governments would reduce their profit margin.

  • TCO – the Conservative party did not enact gay marriage, the Tory Lib Dem coaltion enacted it, it was a Lib Dem policy, if it wasnt for us and the coalition we would not have it !

  • TCO – “Here you have the crux of the issue.

    The Labour party – and the Left in general including the left of our party – see the world in evangelical terms. They simply cannot accept that many of those loosely on the right have the same concerns and seek similar outcomes to those on the left, but differ as to the means of getting there.

    They view their own side as “Good”, and anyone who does not buy into their ideology wholesale as “Evil” – necessarily bad. And they also value the purity of that ideology and their sect higher than the pragmatic compromises needed to take and wield power. As we saw over the Coalition, when the Left howled “Betrayal!”.”

    Youre so right, I m only talking of experiences with friends here, but with Tory friends we disagree on a lot (but not everything), we have very heated debates, sometimes I get so frustrated with them, but at least there is a dialogue. Very left wing friends dont even talk to Tories. How can you be pragmatic and find common ground with that attitude ?

  • The Vote shares of both Tories & Labour have been in slow decline since 1950. The last few Years have seen a possible slowing of the Trend but its equally likely that thats just a temporary result of The Coalition & Brexit.
    The gradual shrinking of Labour & Tory Voting blocs has made room for Liberals, Nationalists & Greens at various times.
    If the 70 Year trend of decline for The “Big Two” Parties got back on track then the next General Election would see them getting less than 60% between them. That leaves a big space for us to expand into, potentially.

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