History suggests divisions in Labour and Brexit could transform party politics
The Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party have always had an intertwined history. The Liberals bore Labour, and then Labour bore the Liberal Democrats in turn.
Having departed from Labour in their ‘Orange Book’ years in the Lib-Con coalition they are now reviving their old act of latching on to the Labour Party.
However, they can no longer approach Labour from the left as they did with Iraq; in the current climate only Trotsky could do that. They are now approaching from the centre, to try and recapture both the centre-left and shy conservatives, either disillusioned with Corbyn or with the Conservatives’ approach to Brexit.
But will it get them back to power in the southwest and in bellwether constituencies for the Lib Dems, such as Cambridge?
If it wasn’t for the Liberal Party, it would be unlikely that there would be a Labour Party or a welfare state. The 1903 Pact between the Liberals and Labour, masterminded by Ramsay McDonald was one of the key contributing factors to the demise of the Liberals in retrospective years.
It was two Liberal intellectuals who were central architects in the formation of our now cherished welfare state; William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes.
One of the reasons why the Labour government of the 1920s was such a failure was its ardent pursuit, particularly by Philip Snowden, of the neo-classical obsession of balanced budgets. Keynes transformed the Labour party’s notion of economics, by moving beyond this neo-classical fanaticism.
Then there was Beveridge, whose report on Social Insurance and Allied Services in 1942 invited our notion of the benefits system. The Liberal legacy is interwoven into the fabric of the Labour party and the welfare state.
After the Second World War the Liberals very much wandered in the wilderness until the Social Democratic Party gave them a path to back to being germane. The SDP and the early years of the Liberal Democrats under Paddy Ashdown were pitched very much on the centre-left/right faultline.
Tim Farron is trying to revive this age, and in many respects these are very similar times.
The SDP was born out of Labour divisions, was pro-Europe, actively pro-business, and pitching for Labour votes on the centre. In the 1983 General Election it achieved 25.4 per cent, only 2.2 per cent less than Labour’s 27.6 per cent.
Early indications are that history could be repeating itself with a string of council by-elections in solid Labour seats going to the Lib Dems on massive swings.
And last night the Lib Dems took seats from Labour in Plasnewydd in Cardiff Central, a traditional Labour-leaning seat, by an increase of 15.4 per cent.
These are Labour heartlands where the Labour Party should be solidly ahead. A trend is emerging and Farron must be hoping that it continues.
The major difference now lies between Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. In the 80s Thatcher was pro-Europe and an advocate of the common market. Now the Conservatives couldn’t be further away from this position.
Farron is trying to speak directly to shy liberal conservatives in the suburbs and the south-west when he declares the Conservative Party
‘no longer supports business, no longer understands the need for calm economic pragmatism – but instead pursues the nationalist protectionist fantasies of the Brexit fundamentalists who have won the day.’
Farron hits on a key weakness of the Brexit fallout for the Conservatives: do they put the will of the British public on Brexit above business interests?
Liam Fox’s comments on businesses being ‘lazy’ offers an insight into the rhetoric that will start pouring out of fanatical Brexiters’ mouths if they don’t get what they want.
David Cameron only just won the 2015 general election. What supported his victory was the Liberal Democrats imploding in the south-west. For Theresa May to win, even after the boundary changes, she needs to hang on to Lib Dem voters.
Can Farron get enough of the shy conservatives and Labour centrists together to seize the middle ground? We shall see. It wouldn’t be the first time Labour and the Lib Dems have swapped roles, and it might not be the last.
Sam Pallis is a Labour member on the executive of his local CLP and an active Young Fabian. Follow him on Twitter.Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.