Reclamation, not realignment

Regular readers of LDV  have recently been reminded of similarities between contemporary populist discontent and the 1930s. There is, however, one other aspect of the ‘30s which might be important to the Liberal Democrats today—and, it should go without saying—to the country as well.

And it’s not just the ‘30s. There are lessons, too, that should be learned from more recent events.

To the ‘30s first: These were deeply unstable times for British political parties and for parliament. These were the years of the National Government, of the splintering of the Liberal Party, of enormous division in the Labour Party that almost paralysed it. In retrospect, the Conservative Party was also much closer to permanent splintering than it perhaps appeared at the time.

Today, of those three parties it is the Liberal Democrats who look most likely to come through the next couple of years in best shape.

The single most important reason for that change is that it is clear, as it was not in the ‘30s, where the party stands on the most pressing issue of the day. And from a clear stance as to that main issue, positions on a variety of subsidiary issues also follow necessarily. However unsure as to the specific details, party members and the public at large can parse a variety of Lib Dem policy positions on immigration, human rights, internationalism and trade, among others, reasonably accurately based on the confident knowledge that the party is staunchly committed to the EU project.

However, as in the ’30s, there remains a glaring gap, both in party members’ and the broader public’s understanding of one fundamental component of party policy: Economic policy.

In the ‘30s, it was the debate around free trade that tore the party apart.

Today, the legacy of those debates remain. Indeed, to an extent the name Liberal Democrats highlights the history. The Liberal part pays tribute to the party that remained after defections and electoral poundings until Jo Grimond and his team, along with the stubborn discontent and optimism of the “Celtic fringes” preserved the party.

But those who had left the party in the 30s to support tariffs and a far more centralized role in economic planning never lost their other “liberal” beliefs and found themselves increasingly at odds with structures that undermined personal choice, dignity and integrity.

After the “longest suicide note in history”, and the increasing use of the block vote at the expense of individual input in Labour Party conferences, the successors to those who had left the Liberal Party in the ‘30s came home, via the half-way house of the Social Democratic Party.

Those of us who recall the debates around the merger remember—I think almost universally—that there was little dividing the two parties, a few egos aside, except for one potential stumbling block, and it was a big one: the role the state should play in economic planning and the importance of the trade unions and the TUC in the workplace.

But, in the end, it was possible to conceive of a party committed to the creation of a clear, confident, optimistic, inclusive and tolerant society. To an extent, the economic debates were set aside with the unspoken understanding that debates on those topics, however divisive, could be framed within that broader agreement of principles.

But one lesson we learned from those debates got lost in the reporting, and we fell victim to it ourselves, talk of a “realignment of the left.”

Adopting the language ourselves played into the hands of other interests. It was a phrase that allowed others to define the debates for us. The next few elections would not be fought on Liberal Democrat principles but as left v right, Tory v Labour, with the LibDems cast as the choice for those who couldn’t decide.

Now, as the Labour Party confronts the very real possibility of splintering and as it is even possible to conceive of some committed Remain Tories thinking about leaving their party, the Liberal Democrats face the potential of a second round of mergers and absorptions.

Yet Paddy Ashdown has greeted the possibility—as well he should—as an opportunity for a realignment of the left—as he should perhaps not.

Better to talk about a consolidation of progressive commitment to individual rights, to free movement, to opportunity and to access to fundamental services.

This is not a time for tinkering at the edges, left or right, but for re-making and reclaiming the heart of principles that are not compromises but central planks of a platform distinct from both Tories and Labour, a platform that is defined but what it is for, who it includes, and the future it promises.

Let’s not talk of realignment but of reclamation.

* Chris Fauske, an Essex-native, is now is a resident of Massachusetts.

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30 Comments

  • 1. “The single most important reason for that change is that it is clear, as it was not in the ‘30s, where the party stands on the most pressing issue of the day”.

    It is not enough just to be clear on the issue of Europe – though I support the party’s pro-Europe stance. There is a real danger that the party will be seen to be a one trick pony with only one policy.

    Unlike Chris, I think the most pressing issue of the day – whether we are in Europe or not – is inequality and the cavalier way in which the so called top 1% think they can ride roughshod over everybody else with tax dodging, offshore activities and exploitation of individuals with minimum wage and zero hour contracts. Leadsom belongs to that group.

    Instead, we should be seen to be the party of social justice and radical reform.

    2. Don’t rush to write off Labour just yet. In the 1930’s, yes, Labour took a hammering – but they bounced back in 1945 gaining 239 seats. It’s premature to decide the fate of the current Corbyn Labour Party with four years to go to the next election. A lot can happen before 2020.

    PS As to the electorate of 1935 – most of ’em are dead and gone.

  • Richard Underhill 8th Jul '16 - 2:34pm

    In the 1929 general election the Liberal party fought to win. There was policy “We can conquer unemployment” which was then very high. There was money. There was energy. There was a further step in increasing the electorate by enfranchising women aged 21-30, who became the target audience for all three parties.

  • @ Richard Underhill Not sure what 1929 has to do with it, but…..

    within two years they all fell out. Lloyd George got appendicitis and took his bat home – and the equivalent of the Orange Bookers threw their lot in with the Tories to pursue an austerity policy.

    Plus ca change plus la meme chose

  • Barry Snelson 8th Jul '16 - 3:46pm

    A thought provoking piece but the central point is that the economic argument wasn’t resolved and all fell back on the time honoured ‘inclusive, fair, tolerant, just’ and a hundred similar words. Unarguable principles, of course, but that’s the problem. No argument = no progress.
    This party is riven between left and right leaning factions but it has the singular advantage (or should have) that it’s debates can be constructive, productive, courteous and deliver a manifesto that all sides feel they have built and own.
    I read David Raw’s views, and others on the social liberal side, and though I probably sit on a different part of the spectrum I concede and appreciate the point on inequality because such will only lead to ‘trouble’.
    But it is time to have the debate on economics as that is the problem that looms largest in our country’s future. The debate may be uncomfortable. It should be because we need a position as to where the party sees the line between encouraging ambition and personal taxation.
    The nation is yearning for a movement that can offer a believable plan for economic prosperity that is not just for the few rather than the bland and useless “invest in infrastructure and skills”.

  • Conor McGovern 8th Jul '16 - 3:58pm

    David Raw is right about inequality. Whether we draw more on ‘social’ spending or ‘classical’ tax cuts, we need to harness the best ideas of liberal democracy to enable a fairer society.

  • Matt (Bristol) 8th Jul '16 - 4:02pm

    “But those who had left the party in the 30s to support tariffs and a far more centralized role in economic planning never lost their other “liberal” beliefs and found themselves increasingly at odds with structures that undermined personal choice, dignity and integrity.

    After the “longest suicide note in history”, and the increasing use of the block vote at the expense of individual input in Labour Party conferences, the successors to those who had left the Liberal Party in the ‘30s came home, via the half-way house of the Social Democratic Party.”

    I don’t really recognise this highly edited version of history — it ignores the fact that the Tories were also addicted to tariffs in this period and the biggest defection from the Liberals over tariff reform in the 1930s was to make an alignment with the Tories under Baldwin.

    Defections to Labour had really already happened from 1914 onwards, through the 20s.

    I am not aware (but stand ready to correct me) that there was a considerable defection to Labour from Liberal in the 1930s.

    The historic Liberal party – enormous monster of a ‘big tent’ that it was – had been shedding factions and spitting them out into other parties since 1880 onwards.

    It has a claim to be the effective parent or co-parent of most political movements since. There has to be an air of ‘so what?’ to every claim that such-and-such was a Liberal. At one point, almost everyone was.

    I am fascinated by Liberal tradition and history, but I’m really not sure how far calls to reclaim the tradition of liberal thought – diverse and contested as it is – get us.

    I don’t want to be reductionist, but we are Liberal Democrats, in the refounded composite tradition of Steel, Jenkins, McLennan, Ashdown, Williams and Kennedy, and so forth unto even this day…

    Taking the principles, influences and agendas proclaimed by such people and applying them to now is work enough. We can definitely take inspiration by figures further back in history (and I frequently do).

    But reestablishing the party of Asquith and Lloyd George as if the intervening near-century has not happened?

    We need a narrative of the party’s recent past that makes sense, goodness knows, – but that’s a narrative that makes sense to the average voter, not one that can only be understood by university archivists.

  • Sue Sutherland 8th Jul '16 - 4:53pm

    Can we please stop thinking about the past and get on with sorting out the future. Barry, inequality isn’t going to lead to trouble, it already has. We are on course to leave the EU because the poor believe that their lives are blighted by that institution, not by the policies of successive governments following Thatcherite economics.
    Why do they think this? Because the papers they read misinform them and are still doing so, because UKIP seems to represent them more than the Labour Party or Lib Dems and because the referendum meant their vote would finally count. If we ignore their wishes democracy will have failed them and I’m very afraid of what will happen after that.
    The Tory party is already starting to coalesce. May said two things of concern yesterday: I) this shows the Tory party can come together and 2) we must help everyone in the country. They will always put party and their cronies above everyone else but May will try to get us to believe they aren’t the nasty party anymore.
    While Labour fights for its future we have to fight for the future of our country, setting out a clear stall of inclusiveness, not just for immigrants but for the poorest in our country and also for the ordinary person who fears for their future and that of their children.

  • Sue Sutherland 8th Jul '16 - 4:55pm

    PS. Can we also remember Charles Kennedy’s comment “I don’t look right or left but up”

  • Phil Beesley 8th Jul '16 - 5:13pm

    A minor quibble.

    “After the “longest suicide note in history”, and the increasing use of the block vote at the expense of individual input in Labour Party conferences, the successors to those who had left the Liberal Party in the ‘30s came home, via the half-way house of the Social Democratic Party.”

    Labour’s “longest suicide note in history” was delivered in 1983 *after* much of the social democratic wing set up the SDP.

    I would argue that it is wrong for Liberals or Liberal Democrats to change in order to attract defectors. I know that it sounds arrogant, but our liberalism is what changers seek. When we change our policies, it should be about achieving a more liberal society.

    At the same time, we have to accept that some liberal people hang on in “their” party. Notable examples from the past might be Roy Hattersley or Robin Cook; sadly I can’t think of a 2016 contemporary, but that is probably due to my ignorance.

  • Barry Snelson 8th Jul '16 - 5:41pm

    Sue,
    I deeply admired Kennedy, a flawed man – but so are we all, and deeply principled and noble.

    But the quote you give is a) meaningless and b) leaves the left right issue still unresolved (because he didn’t know how to resolve it).
    I admit to being the arch pragmatist but what underpins “inclusivity and freedom from want?”
    Some voices in the party seem close to conservative doctrine while others seem to want Britain to be a New Age Kibbutz of true equality.
    I am trying to find out whether the LibDems are even capable of forging , through uncomfortable argument, a politically professional offering which says more than “we are the party of Santa Claus” but adds “and this is how we will create the prosperity to pay for it”.

  • @ Caractacus Agree about Beveridge and Keynes….. but Lloyd George ????????

    Post 1910 a completely unscrupulous rascal in every sense. To give examples, it was his Premiership, his dealings with the Tory Party, his sale of honours on an industrial scale and his oppressive measures on civil liberty in WW1 that led to the huge exodus of the most radical Liberal MPs to the Labour Party.

    He had the same toxic effect on the Party’s fortunes as a much more recent leader.

  • Matt (Bristol) 8th Jul '16 - 7:53pm

    @Caracatus – Inclined to agree.

    Gladstone is another of those figures we should be highly wary of claiming to be the sole inheritors of, and is too easily reduced to a caricature — anyone who has had three spells as Chancellor and four as PM (I think), left office at 89, and was in active politics for over 60 years, isn’t going to be reduced to a set of simple principles.

    I am not inclined towards the view of him that reduces his complex and surprisingly flexible thought to a set of economic propositions — I am not interested in us becoming the Rhodes Boyson Revivalist Society.

  • Mick Taylor 8th Jul '16 - 8:20pm

    David Raw
    I suspect the squiffite split had far more to do with the collapse of the Liberals than anything Lloyd George did. When the party came together under LG for the 1929 election it did considerably better than in ’23 or ’24. The later split between the Liberals and national Liberals was arguably far worse than anything that LG did too.
    Sure he was a rogue in many ways but he was a Liberal at heart – listen to any recordings you can find of his speeches and it shines through.

  • @ Mick Taylor ” When the party came together under LG for the 1929 election it did considerably better than in ’23 or ’24″.

    I guess maths and statistics can’t be your strongest point, Mick. In 1923 the Liberals jumped from 62 seats to 158. In 1929 they jumped from 40 to 59.

    Close to home, I suggest you look into the life of the former Liberal M.P. for Elland, Charles Trevelyan, to get an understanding of what happened to the radical wing of the Liberal Party.

  • Sue Sutherland 9th Jul '16 - 12:32am

    Barry, I think he was saying that the left right divide is not relevant to Lib Dems because, roughly, the left support the working man primarily through the Trade Union movement and the right support the wealthy. Both Left and Right support power groups but Lib Dems support the individual and the powerless whilst recognising that we need wealth creators.
    Now the working man is no longer powerful due to the collapse of Trade Unions, the decline of traditional industry and different working practices that benefit the employer. This has been the aim of the Tories since Thatcher. Labour under the Blairites no longer stood up for their traditional supporters who have deserted them for UKIP.
    The neat trick of the Right has been to blame the EU for all ills through their press cronies, so that they can continue their elitist policies with impunity. It’s time we Lib Dems forgot about Left wing realignment and concentrated on our own vision of society.
    However I agree that in order to implement our vision we need a new interpretation of economics. I’m not an economist but there must be Lib Dem thinkers who are. Please come forward and help.

  • nvelope2003 9th Jul '16 - 12:12pm

    David Raw: Mick Taylor: In the election of 1922 the Asquith Liberals rose from 28 to 59 seats and the Lloyd George Liberals dropped from 133 to 59 seats giving a total of 118 Liberal MPs. Most of the losses in 1922 were the result of the Lloyd George Liberals having to compete with a Conservative candidate which they did not generally have to do in 1918. In the election of 1923 which was fought on the issue of Tariff Reform (Protectionism) the combined Free Trade supporting Liberals gained a number of seats from the Protectionist Conservatives but lost some to the Free Trade supporting Labour Party who won 191 seats (up from 142 in 1922) and went on to form the first Labour Government with the support of the 158 Liberals. The Liberals might have fought to win in 1929 but 1923 was the last time they had a realistic prospect of forming a Government.

  • nvelope2003 9th Jul '16 - 12:19pm

    Caracatus: Asquith and his supporters opposed votes for women as they rightly believed this would give an advantage to the Conservative Party. Although that may no longer be true it was so until fairly recently but that is because the Labour Party are now the party which defends the welfare state and a return to the settlement of 1945 while the Conservatives are the ones who want to change things.

  • nvelope2003 9th Jul '16 - 12:45pm

    Caractacus ??

  • “However, as in the ’30s, there remains a glaring gap … economic policy”

    I completely agree. Successive party leaders have been negligent in not sorting this out – or rather economic thinking. It defines the party and when it’s straight policies follow easily and naturally and, importantly, can respond flexibly as circumstances change.

    A party leader doesn’t even have to feel comfortable thinking about economic issues themselves as long as he can find an effective way of delegating this to someone else and making clear that he is totally onside. I once worked for a firm that was in a heap of trouble until it got a new CEO who knew nothing about the business but had the good sense to find those who did and delegate to them. The results were quick and spectacular; having lived through that I really don’t see why it wouldn’t work in politics.

    And really, this should be a job for the whole membership (plus supporters who aren’t members) so why not crowdsource it, “Here are the problems everyone, what are the answers?” (Actually, answers are usually fairly easy, it’s asking the right questions that is really difficult which is why those dead-brain customer service follow up surveys are so annoying.)

  • nvelope2003 9th Jul '16 - 9:19pm

    Caracatus: Why was it wrong to oppose conscription ? The war might not have lasted so long if it had not been introduced, lives would have been saved and the Bolshevik Revolution possibly avoided.
    Under Asquith reforms to protect the rights of Trade Unions from being sued for damages for example, the provision of old age pensions and other improvements to public welfare and the introduction of national Insurance were enacted. Asquith came from a relatively modest background and became a distinguished lawyer because of his great ability. Having just heard a recording of his daughter Lady Violet Bonham-Carter ( wife of Sir Maurice Bonham-Carter) supporting sanctions on Rhodesia, I would be surprised if Asquith was a Whig if only for the fact that the Whigs, led by the Marquis of Hartington (later Duke of Devonshire), left the Liberal Party in 1886 because they opposed Gladstone’s bill for Home Rule for Ireland and became allied to the Conservatives as Liberal Unionists then merged as the Conservative and Unionist Party.

  • Ruth Bright 9th Jul '16 - 9:33pm

    Did someone mention a theme park of Liberalism? What a fantastic idea! What would the rides be? It would, of course, have to be opened by Lord Bonkers the last survivor of the 1906 landslide.

  • nvelope2003 10th Jul '16 - 9:43pm

    Ruth Bright: And your point is ?

  • Matt (Bristol) 10th Jul '16 - 11:26pm

    I like Ruth’s joke.

    I submit as possible rides the Lloyd George Roller Coaster (entering through a replica welsh cottage, you experience the highs and lows of the great man’s career, before crashing suddenly downwards into a picture of Hitler and Mussolini) and the Victorian Education Policy Labyrinth (try desparately to avoid being caught in the Cowper-Temple Claws!)

  • David Allen 11th Jul '16 - 1:04am

    The Fawlton Towers Experience:

    Boris Johnson on Zipwire

    Boris, Michael and Nigel starring in “Now you See them, Now you Don’t”

    Nigel Farage in “Go Ape!”

    Eric Pickles as “Elephant Man”

    Jeremy Corbyn rides out for “Oblivion”

    George Osborne on “Roll a Penny”

    and of course, Nick Clegg as Nemesis!

  • Ruth Bright 11th Jul '16 - 9:27am

    nvelope2003 – just a bit of fun, sorry if you are offended poppet.

    David Allen – inspired ideas but surely Matt’s Lloyd George Roller Coaster has to win.

  • Simon Banks 11th Jul '16 - 5:36pm

    I’m cautious about realignment if it means mergers and the like. I’m all for reclaiming people who ought to have been with us all along (except during the coalition, maybe, when they may have had good reason for distancing themselves). But there is a halfway house of widespread discussions and limited co-operation between people who value liberty and equality, whether they’re in political parties or pressure groups; and if this leads to a quiet electoral agreement that we won’t fight hard in X and you won’t fight hard in Y, (as existed in 1997) or even to a very few cases of one party standing down where it doesn’t have a chance (as happened in 1945), provided local parties aren’t opposed, I’m for.

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