Monday 12 July 2010

So, how far did Keir Hardie reject Lib-Labbery?

An intriguing sub-plot of David Miliband's Keir Hardie lecture - about which we
blogged on Friday night - is that it seeks to construct a new alliance across contemporary Labour party factions through the curious code of a rather elevated doctoral discussion of Labour party strategy a century ago. It looks as though Progress and Compass have gone, on a blind date, for a night out at the Labour History Group.

The historical narrative of the David Miliband lecture was strikingly Cruddasite. If a concordat is afoot it could well prove good politics, with Cruddas an obvious frontrunner for the role of elected party chair, yet may be founded on bad history.

The lecture offered an account of Labour's origins which may fit the party's current anti-Coalition mood rather better than it does the historical facts. This is the key passage, in which David Miliband finds much convenient contemporary resonance in Hardie's vocal suspicion of the Liberals.

In that understanding lay Hardie’s greatest act of political strategy – to reject incorporation into the Liberal Party and seek an independent movement, based upon its own values and practices, and pursuing a common good. Why did Hardie refuse an alliance with the Liberals? Why did he insist that Labour had to be an independent party? It was not because he rejected the great causes of liberty – of freedom of the individual – but because he considered it vital that when the national interest is considered, the interests of working people are considered to be part of that. So that those who were then exploited and excluded could take their rightful place in the body politic and in the governance of our nation.

Hardie said, repeatedly, that although there were many things that we can agree on with liberals, when it came to the conflict between capital and labour, between the banks and the real economy, they would always side with the Conservatives. He didn’t have a crystal ball, but he would have predicted that Nick Clegg would be busy defending a Conservative Budget over 100 years after he was elected MP for Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare.

Jon Cruddas' influence on that passage can be traced very clearly if you go back to his New Statesman preview last Autumn of Cruddas' own 2009 Hardie memorial lecture in Merthyr Tydfil. Having distinguished between a good social liberalism which helps to provide Labour's intellectual foundations, and a bad 'hollowed out' version of contemporary liberalism, Cruddas issues a curious warning that those who want a more pluralist and liberal Labour party may hanker the secret wish that their own party had never been born:

Implied in the move to uncover and reconnect liberal traditions in our party is the view that the foundation of an independent Labour Party with a distinctively socialist outlook was a historic wrong turning, and that the progressive left would have been better off devoting its energies to building an enduring electoral base for a strong and reformed Liberal Party. This conclusion is not stated openly, but is implicit in much contemporary discussion. Hardie, however, would have been appalled. And so should we today.

That is a "betrayal" thesis. Its tone and content rather jars with Cruddas' pluralist insistence on respecting Labour's internal coalition which has always made it a broad church party. (A plausible defence may be that this simply insists that any effective outward-facing pluralism must be securely be rooted in Labour values). Still, I doubt that any such point has been intended, or is implicit, in "much contemporary discussion". There is scant evidence that the "what if" history of political competition and cooperation from 1893-1906 has even crossed the mind of most Labour political voices suggesting that the party must recover an instinct for liberalism. An interest in liberalism should hardly in itself be cause for suspicion, nor entail the failing of a Labourist loyalty test, as Cruddas' own interest in promoting a serious Labour interrogation of the party's liberal socialist roots itself proves.

To my knowledge, only Richard Reeves has made precisely the argument which Cruddas describes. But he is a liberal/LibDem rather than Labour voice. As with so much else, Reeves blames the Fabians, attributing the division of progressive forces to the "To your tents O Israel" tract of 1893 repudiating the Liberal party.

So it is interesting that David Miliband's own Keir Hardie lecture should now offer, in reply, the clearest possible repudiation of the argument which so worried Cruddas.

Unless Cruddas was simply protesting Tony Blair's political history tutorials with Roy Jenkins some 15 years later, I read his challenge last year as quite probably directed rather more at David Miliband than any other active Labour politician. With the partial exception of James Purnell, Miliband had been most active and prominent in seeking to "uncover and reconnect liberal traditions" for Labour, including arguing explicitly that the party's ideological future lay in a progressive fusion to "integrate the insights of the social democratic and the radical liberal traditions", a potentially important attempt to resolve the challenge of the "progressive dilemma' set out by David Marquand.

So the Keir Hardie lecture could signal an interesting evolution in Milibandism (D), albeit a potentially ambiguous one. Perhaps he now seeks unimpeachably Labourist and even tribal foundations for what I would hope would be the continued pluralist pursuit of a liberal and egalitarian social democracy.

David Miliband's lecture also adopted a Cruddasite distinction between good and bad liberalism, half compatible with social democracy yet half inevitably antagonistic to it.

We must retain a strong connection with that tradition of social liberalism that recognises that liberty and solidarity are two sides of the same coin, while being vigilant in opposing that form of economic liberalism that rules the world in the interests of the richest. Hardie was put under a great deal of pressure to merge with the Liberal Party, but he resolutely pursued and established the integrity of the Labour interest. And we are reminded in our time how right he was to do that.

This simple bifurcation of liberalism was not evident in Miliband's earlier progressive fusion analysis. There, the tension between liberal individualism and social democratic collectivism was both acknowledged and largely viewed as a potentially constructive tension. Seeking to incorporate and reconcile both sets of insights about the good life and the good society might help to avoid a social democratic tendency to give too little weight to liberty and also the danger of an insufficient liberal engagement with structural disadvantage and the pursuit of the common good.

So that looks like game, set and match to Jon - on the historiography at least - in the name of our founding father Saint Keir.

Yet how far is the new Cruddas-Miliband orthodoxy the whole story about Hardie's relationship with the Liberals? Both Miliband and Cruddas acknowledge that Hardie remained deeply influenced by liberalism, while rightly noting Hardie's commitment to a distinct and independent political identity for Labour. But Miliband goes too far in arguing that Hardie "refused an alliance" with the Liberals. (Miliband's website contains an elaboration on the theme from newly elected Labour MP Gregg McClymont, who has good credentials as an Oxford history lecturer, celebrating Hardie's rejection of the fiction of a "progressive alliance").

But the full story was perhaps more complex. Kenneth Morgan, very much a champion of Hardie as Labour's greatest hero and author of the definitive biography (notably subtitled "Radical and Socialist"), observes that Hardie was both the staunch advocate of Labour independence - and yet also a "symbol of the Progressive Alliance in Britain". This post is obviously deeply indebted to Morgan's essential book, the first serious study of Hardie's political career, and one which demonstrates that a claim to political greatness can survive without an excess of mythology.

So we can go further and say both of Hardie's Parliamentary career - and of his political project for Labour independence - that they advanced and thrived when in alliance with both liberalism and Liberals in one way or another, but were blocked and frustrated when they were not.

Hardie's Parliamentary career and the progressive Alliance

Hardie's place in Labour folk history owed much to his flamboyant entry into Parliament in 1892. It was one peak in an electoral career of hits and misses. In short, he was elected to Parliament where he had Liberal support, and lost when he didn't.

Hardie came to national attention in the 1888 Mid Lanark by-election. But despite a campaign pitch of "a Radical of a somewhat advanced type", telling the mid-Lanark miners that a vote for Hardie would "be a vote for Gladstone, Parnell and YOU", the Liberals would neither adopt him, nor give him a free run. So he finished a distant third with 8.3% of the vote, though Morgan notes that the defeat did establish Hardie's national profile but also "generated an anxious dialogue between Liberal party organisers and Labour spokesmen that eventually resulted in the Gladstone-MacDonald entente of 1903".

Wynford Phillips (Liberal) 3847
Captain Bounsfield (Unionist) 2917
Keir Hardie (independent) 617

How was Hardie able to bounce back and enter Parliament in 1892 as member for West Ham? Here is Morgan's account:

From the start, [Hardie] was aware that his reform depended on amassing the largest possible Liberal vote and inducing supporters of Joseph Leicester [the Liberal candidate] to throw their weight behind his candidacy. Hardie emphasised repeatedly his agreement with the broad outlines of Liberal policy laid down at Newcastle. He upheld franchise reform and Irish Home Rule, he stressed his long career as a temperance reformer ... he bid hard for the non-conformist vote ... "He would support the Liberal programme in its entirety", Hardie declared to applause from a Plaistow audience "but at the same time would use his best endeavours to call attention to the social questions of the day". Hardie certainly underlined his appeal to labour: he addressed a steady stream of trade union demonstrations, dock gates meetings and other informal assemblies. But his appeal was sufficiently flexible to be entirely compatible with that of the Liberal Party. The question of socialism (apart from some incidental references to land nationalisation, which many Liberals also supported) never intruded.

That broad appeal saw most local Liberal and Radical associations back him. Just days before the vote, it was formally announced that the Liberal candidate would withdraw, his remaining supporters urged by the Liberal whips to vote for Hardie. With 5268 votes, Hardie defeated the Unionist candidate who had 4036 votes, in a straight two-way fight.

As Morgan writes:

"though socialists hailed the political awakening of the working-class, in fact, Hardie owed his success less to the faithful support of the dockers and other unskilled workers than to Liberal votes, carefully enlisted by a "Lib-Lab" programme.

Yet Hardie did not exactly demonstrate gratitude in return for his Lib-Lab support. As elections took place over several weeks, Hardie immediately got on with campaigning against any Liberal who opposed the eight-hour day. As Morgan sums up:

This was eminently 'reasonable' for a Labour candidate. What was a disastrous error was Hardie's recommendation that Liberal voters in these constituencies should actually vote for the Unionist. To take this step, immediately after his election largely on Liberal votes at West Ham, was widely taken as a sign of opportunism and cynicism. Bernard Shaw was not alone in telling Burns it made Hardie look like a "Unionist catspaw" ...

Logic had supplanted common sense. It made any cooperation between Hardie and backbench Liberals on such questions as an eight-hour day or unemployment a difficult cause. Hardie's record in Parliament between 1892 and 1895, however inspiring in terms of propaganda, was a relative failure in terms of practical results. He was to prove less effective than, for example, Burns who dilligently mended his fences with the Liberals. Hardie's role in the 1892 election confirmed the view he was an incorrigible outsider. It went some way towards ensuring he would represent West Ham in the Commons for one Parliament only. If it served as a symbolic episode in the preliminary manouveres leading to a labour alliance, it alienated far too many potential Lib-Lab sympathisers. It ensured that for years to come Keir Hardie remained a voice in the wilderness.

In stark contrast to 1892, Hardie made few concessions to Liberal sentiment in 1895, now stubbornly telling single-issue campaigners he would give no particular priority to Irish home rule or temperance. His own vote falling by 1000 with Liberals less inclined to support him after his attacks on their party..

Following his own defeat in 1895, Hardie could again intervene elsewhere. As Morgan writes, the result was that all 28 ILP candidates lost, mostly heavily, just about the only ILP consolation was that they ensured the Liberal John Morley lost Newcastle to the Tories:

"Hardie spent the rest of the campaign in a bitter anti-Liberal crusade of revenge that helped bring down the rest of the ILP candidates. In the Daily Chronicle, he came out with a ringing statement of hostility to official Liberalism that doomed ILP men all over the country ... The results threw the whole Hardie strategy of all-out belligerence to the Liberals into question".

In his unsuccessful Bradford by-election (again a distant third) in 1896, Hardie was now building bridges, proposing "radical unity" and appealing to Liberal radicals for "an alignment of advanced forces",a greater openness to radical and Liberal alliances which was a feature of his later career.

Hardie got back in to represent Merthyr in 1900, curiously and controversially dividing his attention between that seat and also fighting a fairly hopeless prospect in Preston (where he came a poor third). And how did Keir Hardie get to represent Merthyr, where both Jon Cruddas and David Miliband can, to this day, go to praise and commemorate his staunch hostility to the Liberals?

Again, with Liberal votes and organisational support. One of the two Liberal candidates - the reformist coal mine-owner Thomas - backed Hardie against his pro-war party colleague. Hardie shared 4437 of his 5745 votes with the successful Liberal.

Morgan stresses that Merthyr "was still overwhelmingly a Liberal seat ... Hardie was returned as an unequivocal representative of the ILP and LRC. Nevertheless, without this clear evidence of Liberal endorsement and the backing of Thomas' private machine, Hardie would have been as disappointed at Merthyr as he had been at Preston". The Liberals topped the poll at Merthyr to the end of Hardie's Parliamentary career.

Hardie as party leader

Leaders need something to lead. Hardie was one of only two LRC members in the 1900 Parliament, withh no working relationship whatsoever with his colleague, a keen Lib-Labber who saw the LRC as a pressure group, not a party.

Hardie's great achievement was the independent party, and the Labour alliance of trade unionist interests with socialist opinion, Hardie's famous resolution which founded the LRC in 1900 had quite deliberately evaded all substantive questions of ideology, policy, strategy and alliances, in proposing only to "set up a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree on their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour".

That Hardie did get to lead a significant parliamentary Labour group of 29 after 1906 was a direct beneficial result of the secret Gladstone-MacDonald electoral pact of 1903.

Morgan's conclusion is surely unavoidable:

The image of Hardie differed sharply from the reality. The real Hardie was exceptionally flexible in his attitude to relations with the Liberals. He supported a national electoral alliance through the whips or through individuals like Lloyd George, provided that it gave due recognition to the independent status of the LRC ... He persistently advocated short-term agreements in pursuit of minimal reformist goals.

If political strategy and tactics faced both ways, in ideological terms, there was no great difficulty for Hardie, as Morgan describes"

Hardie's vision of the Labour Party allowed it to expand. While he preached Socialism, its character was so ill-defined and its establishment placed so far in an undeterminate future, that it presented no serious obstacle to practical cooperation with radicals of other parties, and of none on behalf of day-to-day progressive reform. ... Hardie's socialism was never hedged around by rigid dogma. It was compatible with almost all of the New Liberalism of Lloyd George, Masterman and their allies in the press. It was compatible equally with the Old Liberalism of the chapels and of the struggle for democracy and for civic and religious equality ... Hardie's own abiding attachment to themes such as temperance reform and Celtic nationalism showed how enduring were the links that bound him to the Liberalism of his twenties and thirties. His socialism was in reality a radical-socialism of a singularly malleable kind ... In Lenin's eyes, Hardie's outlook was contemptible, the very epitome of 'opportunism' ... To many British radicals, however, Hardie's opportunism was simple common sense.

Progressive dilemmas restated

The past does not determine the future, though it is healthy for political communities to to interrogate their own histories, traditions and indeed myths. Miliband's lecture is a very welcome sign that Labour is finally now over a neuralgic relationship with its own history, and makes a strong argument that a constructive and critical engagement with a political tradition can avoid both nostalgic reverie and hyper-modernist contempt for the past.

And this argument about Labour's origins does contain much of contemporary resonance about political choices which the party may face in the future.

Firstly, Labour does have a suspicion of political alliances and entanglements which often runs much deeper than it does for Liberals or Conservatives. Ramsay MacDonald's betrayal of 1931 retains an important symbolic role, and so reinforces the tendency to turn Keir Hardie into a plaster saint, a polar opposite, always rejecting alliances as a dilution of socialist principle. So the party instinctively feels that the new Con-Lib Coalition will help to clarifying an adversarial choice. Perhaps. Yet, in the long-run, it seems unlikely that the deep and gradual shift to increased pluralism in British politics over the last thirty years will be sharply reversed. If that does prove to be the case, enshrining Labour's historic aversion to political alliances into a proud shibboleth of integrity, even at the price of impotence, could prove a costly mistake, particularly when it can be shown that Labour's founding father demonstrated rather more flexibility and pragmatism in pursuing the cause.

Secondly, David Miliband suggests that the Conservative-Liberal coalition is dangerous because it reflects the tacit alliance which enabled the right to be dominant in the 20th century. That essentially restates Marquand's progressive dilemma, looking at it from the other side of the aisle. Part of his response is that Labour will have a responsibility to defend the interests of those likely to lose out. That is right, but it does not explain how to disrupt or change the outcome. In 1935, British politics was dominated by an anti-Labour alliance, despite mass unemployment; in 1945, Labour represented a broad cross-class alliance.

So there is a danger in asserting a single underlying cause from 1900 to 2010 of Lab-Lib division and Lib-Con alignment. Doesn't this suggest that an anti-Labour alliance is the natural order of British politics? Yet key moments of division or realignment - such as 1918-22, 1929-31, 1981-83, 1997 and 2010 are strikingly different, dependent on particular choices made in specific context and circumstances. Miliband tactitly acknowledges in referring to the mistakes made by Ramsay MacDonald and Phillip Snowden after 1929. Then it was Labour which was wedded to Treasury orthodoxy, and it was Lloyd George, Keynes and the 'yellow book" liberals who were campaigning for an alternative. How bemused they would be to find their "Orange Book" successors defend George Osborne's economic strategy, very much in the spirit of Montagu Norman. That useful challenge to today's LibDems also casts doubt on Miliband's endorsement of Hardie's account of the underlying cause of lack of Labour-Liberal understanding being rooted in differences about class, political economy and the choice between the banks and the real economy.

Thirdly, this account understates the amount of Lab-Lib cooperation at key moments in British political history. It is true that there have been many, perhaps crucial, missed opportunities, enabling the right to dominate. If there has usually been more ideological affinity between the Labour and Liberal traditions, that has more often been trumped by a more supple and pragmatic high Tory statecraft. That is why the pattern of British political history has been that Coalition governments have always involved the Tories. These may usually have been alliances more of convenience than principle, but they have achieved their objective of securing political power.

But there is another side of the story too, as the example of Keir Hardie's progressive alliances shows. Centre-left alliances have usually been looser, more difficult and have not endured. So isn't it striking just how much which endures has been achieved by these flurries of cooperation. I have argued that all of the great progressive advances of British history have arisen from various forms of Labour-Liberal cooperation, albeit that these have never been sustained: it is true of Labour's 1906 entry to parliament; breaking the Lords veto in the hung parliament of 1911; Attlee enshrining the Keynes-Beveridge settlement; the social legislation of the 1960s; and early New Labour's constitutional legacy, developed in dialogue with extra-parliamentary pressure from Charter 88 and pursued through a joint Cabinet committee with the LibDems. The outcome was the biggest reforms in British politics since 1911, and they set a clear benchmark for the Coalition's hyperbole about its unique post-1832 reformist ambition.

The importance of this cooperation risks being written out of history. We may see an example next year, with the centenary of the Parliament Act, which concluded the last great Liberal-Conservative battle, an existential political crisis which brought Britain to the brink of civil war. No doubt we are all on the same progressive side now. But it was a close run thing. What has mostly been written out of the history is just how crucial the alliance with Labour was to the victory of Lloyd George and Asquith in the knife-edge elections of 2010.

After all, the Conservatives won 250,000 more votes than the Liberals, and led the popular vote by 3.5% points. They gained 110 seats while the Liberal government lost 121, leaving the parties almost tied on seats. The only reason the Conservatives did not win a Commons majority - so killing both Lloyd George's people's budget and the bid to remove the Lords veto - was that Labour and Liberal leaderships managed to contain the number of three-cornered contests to only 35.

As Martin Pugh writes in his new history of the Labour Party, 'Speak for Britain!', the progressive alliance was absolutely crucial to this democratic breakthrough:

The leaders recognised that, quite apart from safeguarding the party's own electoral interests, the pact made complete sense from the national perspective. The Conservatives, who had pushed their share of the vote to over 46 per cent, would have won an overall majority of seats if Labour and the Liberals had not severely restricted the number of three-cornered contests. As a minority government, the Liberals were now dependent on the votes of the forty-two Labour members to enact reforming legislation especially as the eighty Irish were not always reliable.

Had Labour instead employed a Clegg doctrine of the mandate after the January 1910 election, this could have entailed the historic defeat of Lloyd George. Instead, alliances were forged on the basis of principled agreement over the core issue at stake. Of course, Lloyd George was later to maintain a Tory alliance after the great war ended in 1918, from which almost nothing productive resulted beyond the betrayal of the promise of "homes fit for heroes" and the split and historic destruction of the Liberals as a governing force.


Of course, another common (Liberal) reading of the history of Labour's emergence is to regret the assistance to a minor party which eclipsed its rival. A similar (Labour) reading is to warn against alliances which could have the same result, with the party eschewing all calls for progressive cooperation, whether with LibDems or Greens, as a potential death-trap.

Of course, this makes sense only on the dominant post-war but increasingly contested assumption that British party politics will and must always revolve almost exclusively around an essentially two-party system. That then provides a strategic imperative that parties should never cooperate precisely because they share common objectives and ideological space, and so should fight each other to the death first before one or other can take on a Conservative enemy at some undetermined future point. (That is a staple Labourist account, though an argument using precisely this arid "progressive death-match" model was implausibly offered by Nick Clegg in his Demos pamphlet last year, though he must now need an entirely different political strategy).

Such party tribalism may have a strong intuitive appeal to activists in all parties, but it can have important costs for progressive political outcomes, nor is it as dominant in the Labour tradition as is commonly assumed.

So the politician in 2010 who could well benefit most from a close study of Keir Hardie in 1900 would be Caroline Lucas, party leader and sole Parliamentary representative of the Greens. No doubt there will be political pressures for a rhetoric of staunch independence. Yet, as there ultimately was for Hardie, there may well be more to be gained from pluralist cooperation too.

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