Not long after Nick Clegg had wowed the nation in the first television debate, a whisper could be heard within Labour ranks. While the astonishing rise of the Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls threatened both the larger parties, "Cleggmania" was particularly humiliating for Labour. In 1983, the "Alliance" of Social Democrats and Liberals came close to overtaking Labour in its share of the popular vote. Now the Lib Dems had done it: they surged ahead of Labour in the polls, and have stayed there.
Not long ago, victory seemed to be the Tories' for the taking, but now the possibility that no party will win an absolute Commons majority has turned into a probability. In that case, Labour could retain office only in some form of coalition with the Lib Dems - "And would that be such a bad thing?" say those whisperers. Mightn't it be a return to another alliance, the "Progressive Alliance" of a hundred years ago? Doesn't that old alliance hold many lessons for the left today? Perhaps so, but then they may not necessarily be the lessons those anxious Labour folk imagine.
In the reign of Victoria, the unspoken story of British politics was class: not the violent class conflict that Marxists preached, but the "social question" as to how the mass of the people might be accommodated in the existing order, and how the parties would adapt to this. After the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884, a large part of the working class was enfranchised, but these plebeian voters were still expected to choose between two patrician parties at Westminster.
When Gladstone first became prime minister in 1868, it was hard to distinguish his Liberals from Tories by class, at least at the level of national leadership. Gladstone was a product of Eton and Oxford, his cabinets were full of earls (Clarendon, Kimberley, Spencer), and the grandees of his party included the Dukes of Bedford, Devonshire and Argyll. By the time he left Downing Street for the last time in 1894, there had been a great change: the dukes had gone, and there was an unmistakable social divide between the parties.
This distressed Lord Rosebery, Gladstone's successor as Liberal prime minister and the last gasp of aristocratic Whiggery, as he told his
colleague Sir William Harcourt (darling of the Liberal rank and file, though no proletarian himself). Harcourt replied that Rosebery's desire to avert the political "cleavage" of classes was understandable, but too late: "The horizontal division of parties was certain to come in as a consequence of household suffrage. The thin end of the wedge was inserted, and the cleavage is expanding day by day." That was truer than Harcourt realised. He meant the division between Tories and Liberals, but now the masses were beginning to find a political voice, with grave implications for the Liberals.
Some working men had already entered politics, none more remarkable than Henry Broadhurst. He left school at 13 to become a stonemason, appropriately helped build the Big Ben tower at Westminster, became a union official and then, in 1873, secretary of the Labour Representation League, which was formed as early as 1869 to send trade unionists to parliament. Two were elected as Lib-Labs in 1874, and Broadhurst became MP for Stoke-on-Trent in 1880, living on the £150 a year he received as secretary of the TUC parliamentary committee. In 1886, he was made under-secretary at the Home Office, the first working-class man to be appointed a government minister. With a tactlessness unusual even for him, Gladstone proposed that Broadhurst's salary be reduced, and the Queen said that he need not attend court.
Although more Lib-Labs were elected, the Liberal Party was often little more welcoming to poor men than the Queen, and a separate Labour Representation Committee was begun in the Commons. This was still very much not an ideological party, but a class-interest group. As Keir Hardie said in 1903, "when acting in the House of Commons, they should be neither socialists, Liberals, nor Tories, but a Labour party", and that's what they remained for years to come - the political representatives of the working class.
In 1906, the Liberals won a landslide, and that election also brought the arrival of more than 50 working-class MPs, 29 of whom formed a new Labour Party. The next ten years were the heyday of the Progressive Alliance. Labour supported most Liberal legislation, from old-age pensions to Irish Home Rule. This was also the age of "New Liberalism", embodied by writers and journalists such as Leonard Hobhouse and J A Hobson. "New" meant that they were forsaking the classical liberalism of laissez-faire and small government for social reform and state welfare funded by taxation.
In his book Parties and People: England (1914-51), Ross McKibbin looks back fondly at that "progressive alliance", and asks why it didn't endure. The first answer is the First World War, which enormously increased the power of the state, and dealt a heavy blow to the liberal tradition. Not by accident, this was the very moment when Labour at last became a socialist party. That was marked by the constitution adopted in 1918 - Clause Four and all - largely the work of Sidney Webb, the Fabian economist (and one of the founding spirits of the New Statesman).
What this turn by Labour meant for the alliance was summed up by Sidney's imperious wife, Beatrice, when she said that "for us, as socialists, the real enemy are the Liberals". Labour was hostile not just to laissez-faire, but to all manifestations of liberalism in even the broadest sense: the Webbs ended, after all, as great admirers of Stalin. The feeling was mutual. Once a bogey of the propertied classes, David Lloyd George had been chary of Labour even before the war that brought him the premiership. After it, he was horrified by the Russian Revolution and eager to form a new alliance, but this time anti-socialist rather than progressive and anti-Tory.
Two names are sometimes invoked when progressive alliances are spoken of, J M Keynes and William Beveridge. Both abandoned laissez-faire, but they remained Liberals. Even then, although Keynes helped draft Britain's Industrial Future, otherwise known as the Liberal "Yellow Book", proposing a national investment board, he was still no supporter of a planned economy. Although Beveridge wrote the report known by his name, adumbrating a system to slay the "giants of idleness, ignorance, disease, squalor", he detested the name "welfare state", and his 1948 book Voluntary Action warmly defended the co-operative welfare sector.
One world war had damaged the Liberals; another nearly finished them altogether. In 1945, it was Labour's turn for a landslide, and the Liberals, who had won 400 seats in 1906, were reduced to 12, which soon dropped to six; in less than half a century, their share of the popular vote had fallen from 49 to 2.5 per cent. For that depressing postwar decade, their leader was the diffident Welsh lawyer Clement Davies; no wonder he took to the bottle.
But the Liberals did survive, under Jo Grimond and his successors, sustained by some of their old tenets - individual freedom if not pure laissez-faire. From the late 1950s there was a succession of false dawns as they won by-elections and gradually recovered their share of the vote, before turning into the Liberal Democrats with an infusion of Labour defectors. But they failed to replace Labour. Then came Tony Blair. He talked of a possible reunion of progressive forces, but, in terms of Lib-Lab relations, the effect of his ten years as prime minister was highly ironical.
Talk of a renewed alliance can only remind us of what has happened. The right-wing historian Andrew Roberts has commended Blair for "destroying socialism", but this is wrong. Socialism was in poor shape before Blair became Labour leader, and barely needed his last rites. What he did personally, and can take credit for, was to destroy two nourishing traditions that had once found a home within Labour: liberal faith in individual freedom, and resistance to war.
A "New Labour" government introduced an astonishing array of oppressive laws and created a surveillance state. It took the country into more wars than any government had in living memory, culminating in a disastrous invasion of Iraq waged on claims so obviously mendacious that they shouldn't have deceived an intelligent eight-year-old. Altogether, under Blair's leadership, New Labour moved so far to the right that the Lib Dems became the party of the left just by standing still. Apart from Vince Cable foreseeing the financial crash while Gordon Brown was endlessly gloating about his brilliant rate of growth, the Lib Dems criticised the government's relentless assault on civil liberties, and opposed the Iraq war. Now, they have reaped their reward. Why should they give it away?
In the circumstances of the past fortnight, it's no wonder that members of the government are suddenly talking Lib-Lab again, or that Brown should have undergone his risible deathbed conversion to electoral reform. But if the reasons why Labour is making eyes at Clegg are obvious, it's hard to see what's in it for him and the Lib Dems. What Clegg did at that remarkable first debate was to appear less wooden than Brown and less glib than David Cameron. Put like that, it may not have been a superhuman feat.
There is more to it. Clegg's personal distaste for Brown is visible whenever they're in close proximity, and he has rightly said that it would be preposterous for his party to prop up a Labour government if Labour came third in the popular vote. Clegg is likely to be in a very strong position on 7 May. It would take but a blink of his eye to get Labour to dump Brown: most of the cabinet have been desperate to do that for a long time.
And then what? Brown could be replaced by David Miliband, the bearer of a once well-known radical name who has just treated us to this little New Labour classic: "I met some guy in Soho yesterday, when we were launching the Labour lesbian and gay manifesto. And I said to him, 'Look, you've punished us enough about Iraq, all right?'" Note who has been punished: "us", politicians in London, rather than the vast numbers of Iraqis killed or mutilated by the criminal war those politicians supported.
Instead of all the New Labour careerists and apparatchiks, Clegg might remember those who kept alive the liberal traditions of peace and freedom. Hobhouse was one. Having espoused collectivist New Liberalism as a journalist on the Manchester Guardian and the Nation before 1914, he was shattered by the horror of the First World War, which to him was the outcome of state-worship. "In the bombing of London," he wrote in 1918, "I had just witnessed the visible and tangible outcome of a false and wicked doctrine." We have seen many more such outcomes recently.
The circumstances in which the Edwardian progressive alliance was forged have changed, but the idea of political honesty hasn't. On the night of the 2001 election there was another classic definition, from Shaun Woodward, the Tory turncoat now in the cabinet: "New Labour is not a party for people of any particular class, or any particular view."
If there is to be an alliance after 7 May, it need not be "progressive", nor must it necessarily be drawn from people of any one class. But it might be based on a few shared views, or what used to be called principles.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include "The Strange Death of Tory England" (Penguin, £8.99) and "Yo, Blair!" (Politico's, £9.99)