Oh, to be a time traveller!
Imagine, for instance, paying a visit to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown on the 2nd May, 1997. The things you could tell them:
“Well, Tony, the good news is that you get to be Prime Minister for the next ten years… put that Nokia down, Gordon! You get your turn next – though only for three years.
“Yeah, in 2010 the Tories get back in – sort of.”
“Who succeeds you? Miliband.”
“No, not David…”
“Of course the Tories win a second term – this time without the Lib Dems.”
“Oh, did I not say about Nick Clegg?”
“No I don’t supposed you would have heard of him, not yet anyway. But you know who Jeremy Corbyn is, don’t you?”
“You might want to sit down for this bit…”
A mere 18 years after its landslide electoral triumph, everything that the New Labour project fought for stands to be lost. The Blairites are already consigned to the fringes and the Brownites could soon follow.
It all seems very strange. Indeed from the perspective of 1997, a description of current events would sound like the ravings of a lunatic.
Martin Kettle of the Guardian tries to make sense of it all:
“When Labour lost the general election, the phrase “the strange death of Labour Britain” surfaced in several postmortems. Readers of a certain age who have studied 20th-century British political history will know where the phrase comes from. It comes from George Dangerfield’s 1935 book The Strange Death of Liberal England, which traced the astonishingly rapid collapse of the party and culture that appeared to command the country just before the first world war.”
Kettle finds a series of parallels between Dangerfield’s argument about the causes of Liberal decline and Labour’s modern-day predicament:
“The first was Ireland and the future of the union. Asquith’s government bottled it on Ireland and thus handed the initiative to the nationalists. Labour’s handling of Scotland has echoed the Liberals’ handling of Ireland, giving the initiative to the nationalists…”
One might add that the party’s enthusiasm for different kind of union – the European Union – has also played a part in the alienation of its traditional support.
“The second issue is the labour movement, whose growing power and demands the Liberals could not embrace a century ago. A Labour party explicitly bound to the labour movement’s interests was the result. Yet today Labour remains bound to a labour movement in historic decline.”
The third issue was votes for women – “over which the Liberal party fatally hesitated.” Kettle seeks to broaden the parallel:
“Labour does not do modern democracy. Labour won’t reform the voting system, won’t revive local government, won’t abolish the House of Lords, won’t energise industrial and corporate democracy and won’t revive its own internal party democracy either. It is a top-down party, much as the Asquith Liberal party was.”
The irony is that it’s an experiment with direct democracy that’s opened the door to Corbyn.
There is, I think, a fourth parallel. Following their landslide victory in 1906, the Liberals began the process of building up the welfare state. However, the up-and-coming Labour Party stood on a platform of taking this process further and faster than the Liberals were willing to countenance, but for which money could always be found.
However, in recent decades, social democratic parties throughout the developed world have run up against the limits of welfare expansion – firstly by discovering that there’s only so much tax that can be wrung out of an electorate and secondly by maxing out the national credit card.
The initiative now lies with fiscal conservatives not fiscal expansionists – thereby leaving social democracy at a loss. Of course, one can reject the assumptions that underpin these fiscal limits, but that is a point of view that defines the Left and sidelines the Centre-Left.