When Keir Starmer talks about his role models he cites Clement Attlee, and to a lesser extent Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, Labour’s most electorally successful leaders. But if he’s looking for a leader who took his party from a crushing electoral defeat to a sizeable majority in only a few years by exploiting the divisions of a tired and fractious Conservative Party, he could go back a little further.
Henry Campbell-Bannerman led the Liberals to stunning success at the 1906 general election. They gained 216 seats, including that of the former Conservative prime minister Arthur Balfour, and achieved a parliamentary majority of 125. It would be nine years before the Conservatives and their Liberal Unionist allies returned to government and 17 years before they again ruled alone.
Like Attlee in 1945, “CB” was singularly lacking in charisma, and yet he engineered a historic victory. Starmer could learn a lot from Campbell-Bannerman’s success in reuniting his party, silencing dismissive criticism on both sides of the House, and creating what would prove to be one of the great reforming administrations.
Starmer’s reputation for competence rests on his tenure as director of public prosecutions, and Campbell-Bannerman was similarly seen as an instinctive reformer and an able administrator. In the four decades before the First World War the question of Home Rule for Ireland was every bit as divisive as Brexit is now. Prior to the 1906 election Campbell-Bannerman neutralised the issue in the same way that Starmer steers clear of detailed debate over the UK’s future relationship with the EU. The Liberals’ enemies were starved of ammunition, just as hardline Brexiteers are denied tangible evidence of Labour seeking a rapprochement with Brussels.
Although Campbell-Bannerman deferred the Irish question, he recognised the advantage a large parliamentary majority gave him in exploiting a demoralised opposition. The newly-elected Liberal government swiftly seized the initiative, pushing through welfare and foreign policy reforms.
At home, trade union and employment rights were extended, building regulations were strengthened and the penal system reformed to separate young offenders from adult criminals. While short-sightedly the question of votes for women was still off the agenda, “New Liberal” plans for old age pensions and national insurance were well advanced when terminal illness forced Campbell-Bannerman to resign in April 1908.
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Overseas success included the formation of the Union of South Africa, détente with Russia and a deepening of the Entente Cordiale. Admittedly, CB’s vision of Britain’s future relations with the Tsar and France was very different from that of his foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey. Campbell-Bannerman was almost certainly kept in the dark about plans for military collaboration, although he more than held his own in talks with Georges Clemenceau, the similarly radical French prime minister. Campbell-Bannerman, a Francophile and a free trader, prioritised Britain’s prominence in European power politics over the extension or consolidation of its already overstretched empire. Now, a priority for a Labour government in its honeymoon period – whether ruling alone or supported by the Liberal Democrats – must be to restore membership of the European single market, or to secure an equivalent status.
The Liberals’ electoral strategy embraced a progressive alliance with what was then called the Labour Representation Committee. In January 1906 the pact bore fruit, ensuring the future Labour Party a foothold in the House of Commons. Few anticipate Labour candidates standing down for Lib Dems, and vice versa, but Starmer can learn from Campbell-Bannerman the value of talking to your natural allies.
Above all, Starmer should embrace Campbell-Bannerman’s systematic exploitation of a demoralised government’s bitter infighting. By 1905 Balfour’s administration was riven by factionalism, his Tory-dominated coalition split over Joseph Chamberlain’s imperial vision of protectionism and tariff reform. For 18 months prior to polling day, the Liberals ruthlessly publicised their opponents’ divisions, portraying tariff reform as a direct threat to the material well-being of families already hard hit by rising prices and deepening inequality. Party strategists identified a select number of salient issues, all seen as illustrative of government incompetence and inertia, and all portrayed as evidence of the need for fundamental change.
In the 1906 campaign Liberal propaganda was simple, easy to comprehend and devastatingly effective. By then Campbell-Bannerman had one big advantage over Starmer, in that he was already in office. When Balfour’s cabinet imploded in late 1905, the Liberal leader ignored the reservations of his party’s big beasts and accepted the king’s invitation to form a minority government. Come the new year he called a general election. Campbell-Bannerman had a keen sense of timing, shrewdly managing risk and sensing exactly when to seize an opportunity. Starmer needs to hone these qualities and be ready to run with fresh ideas as they become available. The release of Gordon Brown’s constitutional review, commissioned by Starmer, will be one such moment. As a keen advocate of parliamentary reform, Campbell-Bannerman would be the first to embrace an ambitious plan to reshape a malfunctioning British state.
The Liberal prime minister secured an astonishing reversal of fortune for his party within a single parliament. An Edwardian politician may not be Starmer’s default choice for inspiration, yet Campbell-Bannerman’s achievements remain unexpectedly relevant in an era no less turbulent and polarised than his own.
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