Tuesday 13 July 2010

Why Keir Hardie rejected the Liberals

In this guest post, Gregg McClymont, newly elected Labour MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East and a history lecturer before entering Parliament, continues and responds to Next Left's debate following David Miliband's Keir Hardie lecture about what lessons for contemporary politics we should draw from Labour's origins.


At first glance, Next Left’s take on Keir Hardie seems incompatible with mine. I see Hardie’s reputation as labour pioneer deriving from his recognition of the fiction of the ‘Progressive Alliance’; Sunder Katwala sees Hardie as ‘symbol of the Progressive Alliance’.

But not so fast. The difference is less than it seems. The distinction (to some degree) is one of emphasis. At the risk of over-simplifying, Sunder emphasizes Hardie’s affinity with Liberalism as a (loose) set of ideas; I stress Hardie’s alienation from the Liberal party as an institution.

So I agree with Sunder that Hardie’s ideological position incorporated aspects of Liberalism and Radicalism, alongside Socialism (and alongside Labourism too). Hardie reflected accurately the intellectual flux of late Victorian and Edwardian Labour and Liberal politics, in which a variety of ideological currents flowed. More fundamentally, I agree with Sunder that Liberalism and Socialism are overlapping traditions at the level of ideas – traditions which come together in Social Democracy.

Nor should Lib-Lab alliances be ruled out in advance; there will certainly be circumstances where Labour should favour them to advance our agenda of Social Democracy. But the compelling point about Hardie is that he realised that without separate Labour representation, without a Labour Party, the interests of working people would have very little bargaining power in these situations. Hardie realised that if we care about poverty and inequality, then there needs to be a strong party that represents working people and makes sure their interests are accorded appropriate weight in policy-making.

Thus Hardie’s affinity with (Radical) Liberalism as a set of ideas was not matched by an affinity for the Liberal party as an institution. I’d go further: Hardie recognized after 1888 that the Liberal party was not a credible vehicle for Social Democracy and he did so as a result of personal experience of the individuals and social groups who made up the Liberal party.

Hardie concluded that the gulf of social experience and sympathy dividing Liberal politicians from labour activists was too wide to be bridged. The social gulf was especially wide in local politics. At the national level relations could be better (thus the Gladstone-MacDonald pact), but it was locally that the instincts and social prejudices of the Liberal party emerged – and they were incompatible with the aspirations of labour to self-representation.

Another way to put this is to say that it was about class and culture. Take the politics of West Ham. Sunder notes that Hardie’s victory in West Ham in 1892 (and in Merthyr too in 1900) would not have happened without Liberal support – yet Sunder also notes that Hardie displayed little gratitude for this support, encouraging an anti-Liberal vote elsewhere during the 1892 election.

The politics of West Ham Labour may explain this ingratitude. The West Ham Labour movement – led by Will Thorne and dominated by his Gasworkers’ Union - was increasingly hostile to Liberalism in all its manifestations. They found local Liberals unsympathetic to the New Unionism of the unskilled which focused on gaining concessions from employers in the workplace. Local Labour hostility to Liberalism helps explain why Hardie’s 1895 campaign made few concessions to Radical opinion. It might also explain why Hardie did not seek re-nomination in West Ham after losing in 1895.

The wider point, I think, is that viewed from the ground-up the historical relationship between the Liberals and Labour appears more antagonistic than it does when viewed from Parliament downwards. At the sharp end, Labour activists (and especially Councillors) often found Liberals to be far from progressive in temper and action.

Again, there is an insight from West Ham. Led by Thorne, West Ham in 1898 elected the first ‘Labour’ Council in Britain. The governing Labour Group included several unaligned Liberal/Radical members and embarked on a programme which involved enlarging the municipal workforce and bringing it directly under public control so as to improve pay, conditions and job security. By 1900 the Labour Council was no more. It was defeated by an alliance of Liberals and Conservatives, who, aghast at the distributive consequences of municipal socialism in action, united in opposition to the common enemy.

This pattern would be repeated. Across the twentieth century the tensions between Labour and Liberal have been most evident at the local level. This is partly because it was only in local government that the Liberals could wield power – and only when close to power are the instincts and prejudices of a political party revealed.

Labour councillors around the country have been telling us this for years about Liberal Democracy. Now, with the Coalition, we see the same dynamic at the national level.

When faced with the hard distributive choices of government, the laissez-faire strand of Liberalism comes to the fore. Liberalism’s social democratic aspect is submerged as the Liberal (Democratic) party seeks to deliver for its supporters - supporters who tend not to have experienced poverty and who wish to see their standard of living defended in hard times – even if this comes at the expense of those below them in the wealth and income scale.


Previously in the history and politics debate

Here is a Keir Hardie reader on the debate following David Miliband's Keir Hardie lecture last week.

* Sunder Katwala welcomed the rejection of a "year zero" conception of New Labour, but staked a heretical claim for Keir Hardie's dependence on Lib-Labbery.

* Jon Cruddas' 2009 Hardie lecture explored Hardie's pluralist engagement with liberalism alongside his insistence on independence.

* Anthony Painter says Labour's return to history should make the party more confident about building plural alliances.

* LibDem Mark Pack finds echoes of contemporary suspicions between the parties.

* We welcome further responses to continue this debate: please comment or highlight links to pieces elsewhere in the blog comments; offers of posts responding to Next Left's history and politics debate can also be sent to editor1@nextleft.org

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