Is Gordon Brown Labour’s Lloyd George?

There’s a fascinating article in today’s Financial Times by Peter Clarke, drawing the comparisons between Asquith/Tony Blair and Lloyd George/Gordon Brown – two Prime Minister and Chancellor ‘political couples’ separated by a century, who helped their parties back into government after a couple of decades in the wilderness, dominating the political landscape, but whose personal rivalry triggered their parties’ decline. Here’s an excerpt:

It was when the Liberals’ failure of leadership left them divided that Labour saw its chance, and opted to fight for and by itself. The split between Asquith and Lloyd George thus had consequences that neither man could have imagined, as they surveyed the wreckage of a party for whose leadership they had so unforgivingly contended.

Why should Labour be immune to such a fate? The fact it survived a crisis in the 1980s, when the Social Democratic party split away, may comfort some who rely on the solidity of Labour’s natural constituency. But the SDP-Liberal Alliance not only gave Labour a nasty shock but also consolidated a bridgehead of support that remains. The recent elections show how small a shift it would take to put the Liberal Democrats ahead of Labour, which might look in vain to rally the solid working-class support that now looks so last-century.

Mr Brown’s problems ripple out in concentric circles. At the centre there is the challenge, day by day, of looking like a leader on top of his game. Then there is his record in government, which is quite creditable and seen as such internationally, to an extent that may surprise many voters. A third circle defines Labour’s support in the country – or the lack of it at present. But the ripples are not spreading outwards in a benign pattern. There is a failure to communicate government strategy, with a consequent loss of confidence in policy, and a sapping of support.

The only time in Labour’s history when things looked worse was in 1931, when a paralysed minority Labour government buckled in the face of an economic crisis that it had no idea how to handle. The party was reduced to about 50 seats. It recovered because the Liberals had obligingly put themselves out of the reckoning. Today the electoral writing on the wall is different. In the perspective of 5,000 weeks in politics, Labour should look over its shoulder at the Lib Dems. It would not be the first time that the whirligig of time brought in its revenges.

What do you think of the parallel: neat, wrong or onto-something?

Incidentally, LDV readers can look forward this Sunday to the debut article by Lib Dem blogger ‘Costigan Quist’ in which he outlines how the Lib Dems can replace Labour in four easy steps.

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  • The Asquith/Lloyd George split is generally overplayed since it provides a personal narrative to the collapse of the Liberal party. In truth, the rift between the two only exacerbated existing trends. Liberalism was always going to struggle with the emergence of the Labour party which took so many of their constituents and was more relevant to the defining ideological debate of the inter-war years. Even Keynes admitted the positive argument for being a liberal in the 1920’s was “not strong”.

    On the continent, social-democratic parties split from their liberal forebears much earlier than in Britain. Even when Lloyd George and Asqutih reunited the party limped only to third place in 1923 before being wiped out in the Zinoviev letter election of 1924.

    I don’t know where the ideological battleground of the future is but I doubt the actions of Brown or Blair alone will dictate how the Labour party fares in the long term.

  • In more general terms it was clear that the “New Labour” coalition would fall apart once Blair who put it together departed the scene. Somewhat like the “New Liberal” coalition of 1906 did. Labour’s problem is that in making New Labour, Blair took apart the classic Labour Party and its block vote support in the country. Gordon Brown can’t fall back on that. It’s already going elsewhere. Labour will implode into a minority left wing/union dominated rump led by Harriet Harman. Blairites and others will spin away. Perhaps at last Grimmond’s vision of a new progressive coalition will be realised in the space vacated.

  • thank God for the Labour party’s ignorance of history..

  • Tom Papworth 15th Jun '09 - 2:00pm

    I always presumed he was Jim Callaghan.

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