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20 February 2020updated 30 Jul 2021 12:16pm

To win again, Labour must rediscover its Liberal past

Unless it learns to truly reach out beyond the narrow confines of the left, Labour may never hold power again.

By Glen O'Hara

The catastrophic election defeat suffered by Labour in December is what will happen to any political party that retreats into a corner, angrily waving a fist at everybody else and claiming to be the sole arbiter of virtue. Labour seems to have become a campaigning sect, existing purely inside a moral universe possessed of its own contemporary narrative, social norms and even language.

It was that insular sense of superiority that formed one strand in the electorate’s rejection of Labour in December. The party appeared to not only think that it knew what was best for voters better than they did, but that it was actively superior to them – that its own perceived landscape of “chicken coups”, “billionaires” and “the right-wing press” was one that the populace in general couldn’t understand and didn’t live up to.

Combined with the impression that Labour was going to do things for people, rather than with people – that perhaps the gentleman and lady in Whitehall really did know best – the party fatally misread the mood of an electorate that had in many ways grown weary of politics itself.

Labour’s withdrawal into its own comfort zone is a tragic development, not only because it has been born out of a strange mix of intolerance and lack of confidence, but because it has never been a narrow ideological party. Although enriched and enlivened by the presence of the left, Labour has reached across the political spectrum to all sorts of reformers, including social democrats, liberals and centrists.

Few historians would today attribute the rise of the Labour Party in the first three decades of the 20th century to some kind of inevitable “rise of the working classes”. In fact, Labour’s ascendancy issues from the collapse of the old Liberal Party, its own governing ideas under deep strain since at least the divides over Irish Home Rule in the 1880s, but brought out into the open by the demands of fighting the First World War.

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Edwardian Liberals offered themselves as gradualist reformers, willing to restructure state and society, but as part of a wide front from “Lib-Lab” MPs and radicals like David Lloyd George to cautious advocates of incremental change and “business as usual”. Debates about more or less spending and regulation were all very well: but when it came to fighting a total war with Germany, issues such as nationalisation and conscription (not to mention Lloyd George’s alliance with the Tories in 1916) tore the Liberals apart. They looked likely to never govern on their own again.

Thereafter many Liberals left their old allegiance behind and joined Labour, not because of its socialism but because the party looked to be putting its past rhetoric behind it in favour of issues Liberals could make common cause with – Free Trade, internationalisation, colonial liberalisation. Although ex-Liberals might remain deeply sceptical about socialism in theory, in fact and on the ground they found the actually existing Labour Party increasingly the only likely game in town.

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The list of Liberals who went on to assist Labour’s rise to power is a long one: Charles Trevelyan, Josiah Wedgwood, Noel Buxton, William Wedgwood Benn (secretary of state for India in the second Labour government between 1929 and 1931) and James Chuter Ede (Clement Attlee’s home secretary after 1945) were all among them.

Nor was that the only influence the Liberals exerted on Britain’s new governing party of the left. As Lloyd George turned in that direction during the late 1920s, and under the influence of John Maynard Keynes, many of the Liberal Party’s remedies for mass unemployment and Depression became more extensive and detailed than Labour’s. As direct economic planning came to see more and more problematical under Attlee, it was to Keynes’s budgetary methods that his ministers turned.

One of Labour’s problems is that it has managed to forget all this. Labour seems to have effaced its own past, when those defectors from the Liberal Party – and the adherence of all sorts of academics, planners, social scientists, journalists and economists – gave it its special character as a coalition of all sorts of radical anti-Conservative forces.

Philosophical purity has replaced breadth of vision; all too often, generosity and openness has been replaced by angry repudiation of any allies at all. Relations between Labour and the Liberal Democrats have probably never been worse. That means that Labour seems increasingly focused on its own ideology, rather than the points of contact that they share with others. Focused on any and all retail offers and the attendant micro-targeting that fit into its cramped and statist vision, Labour has forgotten how to embody the national political “mood” or “tone” by adopting a confident, outward-facing, generous politics that can build bridges and inspire voters with a vision of the future that is better than the past.

None of this means that there should be any deals, any alliances, or even much direct co-operation with other parties at all. But it does mean that the ideas of other parties, their campaigns and preoccupations, most of all perhaps the ideas and language of their supporters, are just as important as what Labour thinks of as “its values” and “its voters”.

There is evidence that some people in Labour are thinking along some of these lines. The two candidates for Labour leader who are willing to admit just how serious their party’s crisis really is – Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy – give some grounds for hope in their policy platforms. Starmer’s Europeanism and internationalism will appeal to many liberal voters, and many pro-Europeans at present lending their votes to nationalist parties. Nandy’s emphasis on local rebuilding echoes that Liberal urban pride and self-reliance that helped to fuse economic growth and social progress in the later nineteenth century.

But these initial signs of hope will need to grow into a much wider-ranging reappraisal of how Labour looks from the outside – particularly to those fair-minded and middle-of-the-road voters prepared to give Labour another look under fresh leadership. Labour has renewed itself before. Attlee seized on many Liberal ideas in 1945. In 1964, Harold Wilson won by embodying the change towards professionalisation, education and expertise that many of the resurgent Liberal Party’s voters wished to see. In 1997, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown even concerted their attacks against John Major’s faltering government.

The lessons of those elections have plainly and unfortunately, been discarded. Unless it learns to truly reach out beyond the narrow confines of the left, to turn from narrowcasting to tribe and towards broadcasting to nation, Labour may never hold power again.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of book and articles about post-war British history, including most recently The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017). He is currently writing a book about the domestic politics of the Blair governments of 1997-2007.