Opinion: Why emulating Ramsay MacDonald may be Gordon Brown’s only hope

There’s little argument now that the situation of Gordon Brown looks at best precarious – no reader of this article will need reminding of the Tories’ enormous poll lead, the infighting within the Labour party, or the perilous economic situation in which we find the nation. If Mr. Brown and his party are to avoid a rout on the scale inflicted on the Conservatives by his own party’s victory in 1997, then he is going to have to do something radical. A change at the top is practically out of the question – Labour now have nobody left with the experience to run the country who has not been discredited by the party’s recent inept stewardship of the country.

Labour’s first Premier, Ramsay MacDonald, faced with economic problems, unpopularity and a lack of inertia within his party, formed a “National” government in 1931, featuring the Tories and the rumps of the Labour and Liberal parties of the day. The parallels with the government of MacDonald are perhaps not as compelling as they appear at first glance, but certainly do exist. The government of the day was facing a severe economic decline precipitated by the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent run on the pound; Brown faces the credit crunch and associated economic malaise.

While I am not suggesting that our current woes are on anything like the scale of the Great Depression, the decline in popularity of the government and dearth of new talent is roughly parallel – it’s worth remembering that when MacDonald went to the country for support for his national government, the enormous majority of those elected were Conservatives, and his own National Labour party returned only 13 MPs.

The chances of Brown forming a similar National Government are slim – the Conservatives have long ago scented blood and would call for a general election – but he certainly could appeal to the Lib Dems in exchange for parliamentary support for policies like proportional representation and green taxes. This would give Brown the double boost of reinvigorating his legislative programme by bringing in “concessions” to his partners, and also give him access to new talent – Vince Cable for chancellor would be a popular and sensible choice, for example.

It’s also clear that the temptation for our dear leader and his supporters would be strong – the chance to fight the next election on PR and to bring in key elements of our policies would be difficult to resist. Bringing in PR would also be handy for Mr Brown – he would be able to restrict the size of the Cameron surge at the next election this way, and, pointing out PR as a concession, would be more able to withstand allegations of desperation.

Interestingly, Mr Brown does, like MacDonald, have a track record in trying to create political consensus – his short-lived attempt at “government of all the talents” when he took office last year. Most in the Lib Dems and Conservatives saw this for what it was, a cheap attempt to poach talent and discredit his opposition. The difference then was that our Gordon was coming from a position of strength.

Personally, where coalitions are concerned, I have always been of an isolationist bent, and I can see no long term benefit to our party from this kind of arrangement. Fighting the idea that we are marginal and irrelevant has always been a challenge for us, and joining a coalition with a mid-term government with a healthy majority would only reinforce the allegation that we aren’t serious. I can however see the counter-argument that getting our policies enacted could override this, in that we would be doing a service to the electorate and enacting a social liberal agenda.

Whether we like the particular system that proved the result, Labour was elected only three years ago with a significant mandate. In that time, they have gone from third-term heroes in the eyes of the electorate to being seen for what they are – sleazy, washed up, warmongering bureaucrats with little direction. Ramsay MacDonald’s experiment with “government of all the talents” did him no good, and ended in abject failure, seeing him expelled from his party, and leaving him beholden to Baldwin’s Tories, for whom he had little time. It remains to be seen whether Gordon Brown will go down this road, and if he does, whether he can make more of a success of it.

* Reuben Thompson is Vice-Chair of Hackney Liberal Democrats.

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11 Comments

  • A ‘national government’ in a time when civil liberties are under intense pressure sends shivers down my spine.

  • To be fair, Geoff, is anything Labour doing “playing out with the electorate” at the moment.

    You’ll also notice that I don’t actually think a coalition is a good idea ;o)

  • David Evans 9th Sep '08 - 9:15pm

    Let us remember that it was a desperate act by a man desperate to hang on to power. However, the party it did the most long term damage to was the Liberals.

  • I agree with all the commenters. However, might we gain by offering Vince’s help as Chancellor? If Brown said yes, we would gain prestige and influence (always presuming we could overcome some rather large hurdles, like whether Vince would have any truck with this idea!). And if Brown said no, as I’m pretty sure he would, we would at least show we were trying to be constructive, while he would look petty and partisan.

  • David, it isn’t within our gift to apply for individual cabinet jobs and Labour has no mandate for such a move. To do so would undermine our claims to independence and acting in the public interest while giving Brown an opportunity to define himself by opposition to the principles we represent thereby making our politicians look like petty self-interested careerists. The consequence of this would be to reinforce a sense among the public that the Conservatives are a more coherent bunch and give them a boost in the polls.

    Resolute partisanship is not petty because it shows a clear set of ideals are held in higher regard than the fortunes of any particular person.

    We show we care more about the fate of our country by caring less about the fate of the government of the day, and ultimately that is what the electorate rewards come polling day.

    So the best way to help the Chancellor would be for us to bring forward any announcement about our the details of our spending plans to well before the Autumn spending review to actively encourage and enable Alistair Darling to pinch our ideas – proving our relevance and discrediting Labour further.

  • Richard Whelan 10th Sep '08 - 3:07pm

    I have nothing against coalitions provided they occur in the right circumstances. i.e. after a general election when no party gets an overall majority and the subsequent government is a genuine partnership between parties who are committed to a common agenda.

    The problem with the arrangement some here are suggusting is that it is inviting Liberal Democrats to prop up a discredited Labour Government who is well into its term of office and whose policies we have rightly condemned as illiberal. When such an arrangement was tried in 1978/79 it did us a huge amount of damage because we were linked to the failed policies of the Callaghan Government which subsequently contributed to a significant loss of seats at the 1979 General Election.

    Had we not entered into this arrangement at this time we may have even made gains at Labour’s expense thus ensuring a smaller Conservative majority then the 43 that was achieved or no outright Conservative majority at all.

    Just imagine how different this country would be if Thatcher had to rely on other parties for support!

  • Richard, I agree with you almost entirely, except “we may have even made gains at Labour’s expense thus ensuring a smaller Conservative majorityv” doesn’t make sense? Surely us making gains from Labour would have had a nil net effect on the Tory majority?

  • Richard Whelan 11th Sep '08 - 11:13am

    Yes it would because Labour were the Government at the time meaning that every seat we gained from them at the 1979 General Election was a seat that the Tory opposition didn’t gain thus leaving them with less seats then they otherwise would and lessening their majority.

    What you are referring to is the effect of what happens when the Liberal Democrats make gains from the principal opposition party, going into the 1979 General Election, the Conservatives. In these circumstances you are absolutely right. Had the then Liberal Party made significant gains from the Tories then the effect would have been nil because it would have meant that they would have had less seats to make the necessary gains from Labour in order to form a government with a workable majority.

    It is why Nick Clegg was right to shift resources to the 50 most winnable Labour/Liberal Democrat marginals at the next election. By doing so he is attempting to ensure that the Tories will not win with the expected landslide majority.

  • Richard, it’s about us winning the highest number of seats possible, not about changing the total of the Tory majority.

    Let’s take an example of Colne Valley, a Lib-Dem hold over Labour. Let’s say we hadn’t held off the Labour challenge and it had gone Labour. The net result of the election would have been the same number of Tories and hence the same majority.

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