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Seizing the progressive moment: 1906, 1945, 2015?

18 Feb 2013

In a speech to the Progress annual conference in May 2012, Ed Miliband declared to delegates that ‘we have an opportunity and we must seize this moment’. By looking at other ‘progressive moments’ from history, Professor Richard Toye weighs up the prospect of transformative change in 2015.

As the Coalition reaches mid-term, the Labour party is benefitting from the anti-incumbency effect that can be seen across Europe, notably in the victory for the Socialist, François Hollande in last year’s French presidential election. If Labour’s current poll lead is sustained in the face of continued sluggish or non-existent growth, it seems perfectly possible that Labour could obtain an absolute majority at Westminster in 2015, not least if UKIP takes a significant number of votes from the Tories. But such a victory might turn out to be hollow. Ed Miliband, wisely avoiding triumphalism, has pointed out that many voters lack faith in all parties and all politicians.  If the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are in crisis, then according to Miliband, speaking in 2012, Labour too still has ‘a very long way to go to generate trust, enthusiasm and deep allegiance’. Unless such enthusiasm can be harnessed behind a progressive programme that can truly satisfy the voters, a new Labour government could quickly become the victim of anti-incumbency feeling itself. The party’s challenge is to seize an electoral opportunity and turn it into a genuinely progressive moment.

If it wants to do so, it will help to pay attention to history. In this article I consider two key ‘progressive moments’ in Britain’s past – the Liberal landslide election victory of 1906 and the Labour one of 1945. I address the question: what was the scale of opportunity then compared with today? I do so by considering four factors in turn: leadership, ideas, the interface between public opinion and technology, and the role of politics and civil society.

Leadership

Today, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman is no-one’s political hero. Nor was he anyone’s, really, in 1905, when he became prime minister as a result of the resignation of AJ Balfour’s divided and discredited Tory government. In fact, at the very moment of his triumph, three leading Liberals – HH Asquith, RB Haldane, and Sir Edward Grey – tried to insist that ‘CB’ go to the House of Lords. This would have turned him into a political cipher, and he wisely stood his ground, but nonetheless appointed his rivals to important cabinet jobs. In this way he combined firmness with pragmatism and a lack of ego. Having originally been seen as a ‘warming pan’ candidate who would hold the position only until someone better turned up, Campbell-Bannerman had owed his survival as Liberal leader through the bitter divisions of the Boer War to a winning combination of stolidity and inoffensiveness. Now he called Balfour’s bluff by successfully forming a government and called an election, held at the start of 1906, at which he won a handsome majority. True, CB’s period in office was underwhelming. As an instinctive Gladstonian, the prime minister did not have much time for social reform, at least if it cost significant sums of money. Most of the schemes – such as National Insurance – that we now associate with the ‘New Liberalism’ had to wait until after CB retired in 1908. Asquith was by this token much more successful but it is worth remembering that, although he won two elections, in 1910 he threw away the majority obtained by his predecessor and relied on the votes of Labour and the Irish nationalists to stay in office.

In 1945, Clement Attlee was another seemingly colourless character who transcended his personality to trounce the Tories. He had become party leader 10 years earlier and, like Campbell-Bannerman, had been seen by many as only a temporary fixture. Yet he too had remarkable political skills. These were in evidence in his skilful reply to Churchill’s notorious election broadcast which claimed that a Labour government ‘would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo’. Attlee not only ridiculed Churchill but turned his own weapons against him, presenting Labour as the true national party, capable of transcending class interests in a way that the Conservatives could not. (Miliband’s ‘One Nation Labour’ conference speech in 2012 was a version of the same theme.) Attlee was also a convinced socialist, albeit of a moderate and practical kind. His government lost no time in implementing economic and social reform, even at a time when enforced austerity as a consequence of the war caused it serious political difficulties. Attlee had the help of some highly able figures with more colourful personalities: Hugh Dalton, Stafford Cripps, Ernest Bevin, Aneurin Bevan and Herbert Morrison. He did not worry about being outshone by them, but put down intrigues with the same firmness that CB did. His government in the end ran out of steam, in part because it had achieved so much so quickly that it could not agree what to do next.

Ed Miliband can take some comfort from these examples, which show that charisma is not the only ingredient of leadership success. Steely endurance and the astute management of colleagues are important qualities too, and it seems that he has them. It is true that Miliband will not be allowed the same long apprenticeship that Campbell-Bannerman and Attlee had. One lost election and he will be out. It is also true that the media environment has changed (see below). But, like CB and Attlee, he should not be underrated. He has shown a self-deprecating sense of humour and a capacity to admit Labour’s mistakes in government without abasing himself. He should concentrate on being Ed Miliband Mark I rather than trying to be Tony Blair Mark II.

Ideas

The ideology of the Liberal Party in 1906 was a distinctly peculiar mixture. It combined nonconformist opposition to the Church of England and the drink trade with elements of small-state Gladstonianism and incipient New Liberal welfare-ism. The party was also divided between Liberal Imperialists such as Asquith who had supported the Boer War and ‘pro-Boers’ such as David Lloyd George who had opposed it. The question of Irish Home Rule, which was temporarily dormant, was another faultline. The election was won on a strange combination of issues: hostility to Conservative plans to introduce protectionism (or ‘Tariff Reform’), nonconformist resentment at the religious provisions of the 1902 Education Act, and outrage at the Balfour government’s support for the use of Chinese indentured labour in South Africa. Humanitarianism, dislike of privilege, and concern about poverty sat cheek by jowl with religious bigotry, laissez-faire economics, and a good helping of xenophobia (See Frank Trentmann’s book  Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption and Civil Society in Modern Britain.  The contradictions help explain the Liberals’ capacity to build a winning coalition and also its initial struggles in office. How successfully the party conquered them is open to debate, but it is clear that the 1906 government’s welfare reforms were very much a response to its difficulties in office, not a programme that had been fully thought out in advance.

By contrast, Labour’s 1945 programme was the product of a conscious effort at policy renewal that had been embarked on after the electoral disaster of 1931. This was partly a reflection of changed times. The Edwardian Liberals had been elected on what was essentially a negative platform – a promise not to introduce Tariff Reform. Four decades later, partly under Labour’s own influence, parties were much more expected to provide the voters with shopping lists of policies. The electoral victors were then expected to spend their time in office ticking off their various legislative commitments. This modern model of programmatic politics is now one we take for granted, but in this respect we are very much the inheritors of Attlee’s Labour party. In terms of specific policies, some of its remedies, such as the nationalisation of industry, now seem old-fashioned or at any rate not practical politics. Yet, to a considerable extent, its priorities on employment and welfare are still shaping the debate today – in spite of the depredations of Thatcher, Major and Cameron (and to a fair extent Blair and Brown). Irrespective of precise means, our expectations surrounding the sorts of things a government should do for its citizens are very much an Attlee legacy.

Labour today cannot hope to revert to the halcyon days before parties were expected, as part of their supposed contract with the voters, to specify exactly what they will do over the next five years irrespective of what may change in the meantime. To that extent, Miliband will have to be Attlee-esque to succeed, as in fact do all modern leaders. This means establishing an ambitious but manageable set of legislative priorities that command both popular assent and the consensus of his colleagues. If that sounds a bit like saying that Miliband needs to look for the Holy Grail, what he can learn from the 1906 era is that ‘seizing the moment’ may well involve welding together seemingly disparate and unlikely issues in order to pin the label of failure on Labour’s enemies. Enough of these have been provided over the Coalition’s first two-and-a-half years in office: phone-hacking; bankers’ bonuses; the ‘pasty tax’; ‘the granny tax’; cash-for-access; the petrol fiasco; the abolition of the 50p tax rate. More will present themselves; and, of course, there is also the overarching failure of the
Coalition either to bring down the deficit or to restore meaningful growth. Whatever narrative is chosen will one day have its eccentricities exposed, and in the meantime there remains a serious threat from Conservative attempts to paint Labour as the party of ‘unlimited welfare’. The challenge is to build narrative that does not return to bite its creators once – it is to be hoped – they are back in government.

Public opinion and media technology

Today’s concerns about the dumbing-down of the media and the difficulty of getting rational arguments across are not new. Anxieties about the impact of technology on the mass mind, and fears about the effect of crude political messages on the lazy and the ignorant, were Edwardian obsessions. In 1906, the technologies of choice were the public meeting and the poster, and Liberals exploited both to great effect (see for instance Jon Lawrence’s book Electing our Masters. Posters were large, eye-catching and colourful; they might involve personal attacks on opposing candidates more outrageous than anything that would be tolerated today. Meetings were large, noisy, and frequently violent. The parties habitually accused each other of populist stunts and of trying to suppress free speech; there was nothing staid, placid, or particularly dignified about Edwardian electioneering.

Although the Edwardians certainly had a concept of ‘public opinion’, it has to be remembered not all men yet had the vote, nor any women. Until the late 1930s there was no opinion polling either, and when it did arrive many politicians treated it with scepticism. However, we now know that Labour’s media operation in this era was more sophisticated than has generally been assumed. Although the mass meeting was by no means dead, the party’s use of radio and film – media exploited to great effect by the Conservatives in the interwar years – were an important contribution to the 1945 victory. Attlee himself was not exactly on the crest of the wave: he was only persuaded to allow a ticker-tape news machine to be installed in Downing Street when he was told that it would tell him the latest cricket scores. Nevertheless, his quiet public persona was quite media friendly in an age that put considerable stress on masculine emotional restraint.

Of course, the need for politicians to be at the forefront of current technology is something that today is taken for granted. Peter Mandelson’s efforts to make Labour more professional encountered suspicion in the 1980s; there is no obvious danger now of the party falling behind. But by the same token, there is perhaps less opportunity now than in the past to steal a march on the Tories by deploying techniques which they themselves are failing to exploit. We are in an era of catch-up and convergence, in which no party has an obvious technological edge. Indeed, even the minor parties can now make good use of new media at relatively low cost, making it easier for them to overcome their relative exclusion from the mainstream press and traditional broadcasting. It seems inevitable that Labour will continue to vie with other parties to stress its ‘modernity’, both in terms of technology and policy. This, again, is very much the Attlee model, followed successfully by Wilson and Blair. But Miliband’s Labour might also benefit from some Edwardian-style aggression. Whereas it is widely assumed that the ‘Punch and Judy’ aspect is one of the things that alienates voters from politics, there is little clear evidence that this is the case. In order to mobilise popular anger, it is necessary for Labour to appear angry as well; and if politicians want to make politics as popular as football then they owe it to the people to make it entertaining too.

Politics and civil society

Party politics has always been embedded in civil society. That is to say, although it is often presented as a peculiar activity carried out by weird, sect-like groups, it is not a hermetically sealed world. Parties have succeeded most when they have extended their tentacles into other forms of associational culture, whether through overlapping membership with pressure groups, civic organisations or through the sponsorship of ostensibly ‘non-political’ social events. This can be seen in the Liberal Party’s response to Tory Tariff Reform proposals in the run up to 1906. As Frank Trentmann has shown, the defence of Free Trade was organised around the ideal of the ‘citizen-consumer’.  Free Trade went hand-in-hand with political freedom and progress, it was argued, because it distanced the state from interest groups that might attempt to corrupt its purposes. This left space for the organs of civil society, including unions, friendly societies and co-ops to, in Frank Trentman’s words,  ‘cultivate social independence, solidarity, and trust’. This was seen as form of empowerment: ‘The language of the consumer gave particular attention to those without a direct voice in public politics – the poor, women, and children’ (Trentman again).  At this time, there were many auxiliary organisations promoting particular causes which, although ostensibly independent, in fact served the purposes of particular parties. The Free Trade Union, which in time secured a wide membership, was one such body on the Liberal side. In 1906, the Liberals also benefitted from the activities of the Labour Representation Committee – the embryonic Labour Party, the junior partner in the ‘Progressive Alliance’ – that sponsored Labour candidates in the hope of overturning the anti-union Taff Vale judgment of 1901. The 1906 landslide was, to a great extent, the product of an alliance of interest groups provoked into action by real or imagined Conservative misdeeds.

1945 was rather different, in part because of post-1914 changes to electoral law that restricted the ability of outside organisations to throw their financial resources into election campaigns. The support of the unions was obviously still crucial for Labour, but the role of civil society as a whole is perhaps not yet adequately understood. For decades, now, there has been a proper questioning of the simplistic narrative of a ‘people’s war’ which triggered an uncomplicated swing to the Left. Nevertheless, the extent of indifference to politics has sometimes been exaggerated. The 1939–45 period of course disrupted many existing civil society organisations, including the political parties, but it also saw an enormous amount of voluntary activity in support of the war effort that was experienced by many as a time of comradeship and mutual acceptance. This feeling of course extended across party lines, but Labour surely gained from it because it chimed with the desire to maintain a new cooperative social spirit into the peace. It was probably impossible to sustain such a mood much beyond the wartime emergency, and Conservative surrogate organisations such as the Housewives’ League soon emerged to challenge maintenance of wartime controls such as rationing. Arguably the defeat of 1951 was a sign that the Labour party had not embedded its civil society roots quite far enough.

Plainly, the contemporary Labour party cannot expect to benefit from any civil society flux as deep as that provoked by the second world war. It is to be expected that engagement in formal party politics will remain the preserve of a tiny minority – the strange people who, as Miliband observes, choose to watch him speak on 24-hour news channels rather than switching over to re-runs of Top Gear. But civil society bodies can nonetheless assist many of Labour’s purposes. Two internet-based campaigning organisations are of special interest: 38 Degrees and Avaaz. The former, which is UK based, in 2011 secured over half a million signatures in opposition to the government’s plans to change the ownership of state-owned woodland. A policy reversal soon followed. Avaaz, which bills itself as a global civic organisation, organised a campaign against News Corporation’s proposed acquisition of BskyB. An email revealed to the Leveson Enquiry reveals that News Corp regarded the campaign as a significant concern. These campaigns in some ways face a challenge to Labour. Unlike the Liberals with the Free Trade Union in 1906, the party cannot hope to influence them, let alone control them. And as highly responsive, multi-issue organisations, there is a risk that many people might see them as better able to achieve what formal opposition politics rarely can – changes in government policy due to popular pressure. Labour though, should probably take a relaxed attitude, and enjoy the embarrassment that these groups can inflict on the government without trying too hard to copy them or take them over. The success of Conservative Home shows that the Left has no absolute advantage when it comes to web-based citizen interactivism (or ‘slacktivism’ if you prefer). Nevertheless, the anti-incumbency effect probably gives progressives a comparative advantage for the time being.

Conclusion

There are undoubtedly lessons to be learned from the Labour victories of 1964, 1974 and 1997 too: there is no reason to privilege 1906 and 1945 as progressive moments above all others. But close examination of the iconic episodes shows, in a sense, their underlying messiness. They were times of frustration as well as of hope, and the building blocks of victory included some distinctly unpromising material. Who would have thought that the weaknesses that wracked the Liberals in 1900 could have been turned to such promising account just a few years later? Who would have placed money on pedestrian Mr Attlee turfing war hero Churchill out of Downing Street? The moral is that we cannot wait for the perfect storm of events that will conjure a ‘progressive moment’ into being; we need to work with the materials that we have. In that sense, our opportunity now is as great as at any time in history.