Time for a new Progressive Alliance?

Rise and shine, peeps, it’s Polling Day. It has been called the Most Exciting and Critical Election in Recent Years – a unique distinction that it shares with only the last general election – and quite a few other previous ones, as well. That to one side, it is of course the second straight general election that’s likely to produce a hung parliament/balanced parliament (delete as less hopeful), and the two main parties who have dominated the political skyline since the 1930s don’t much like it.

As the saying goes, however, with problems come opportunities. I can’t remember exactly how the saying goes or who originated it, because I think I threw that particular fridge magnet out, but you get the meaning. Among the only safe predictions to make about this election is that there will be a swing against the Conservatives – the only question is how big it will turn out to be. Just as the anti-Labour swing in the last election returned the Tories as the biggest party in the House of Commons, giving David Cameron the right to have the first go in forming a government, equally an anti-Tory swing this time round ought to give Ed Miliband at least a chance at hammering out a Queen’s Speech acceptable to a majority in the chamber – even if Labour end up with fewer seats than the Tories. It’s not as if he wouldn’t have a precedent for so doing. It would be another opportunity to build up this century’s first proper Progressive Alliance – left-leaning parties and individuals working together to effect much-needed radical change to the country’s institutions.

The first Progressive Alliance of modern times was forged around the UK’s last purely Liberal government of 1906-15. Amid one of the most sensational anti-Conservative swings ever the then Liberal leader Henry Campbell-Bannerman swept to power in the 1906 election with a staggering 401 MPs, to the Tories’ 157. Not only that, but “CB” – and, from 1908, his successor H H Asquith – could also expect to enjoy the support in the Commons of the Labour Party (with 29 MPs) and John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party (with 83) – effectively giving the new government an enviably whopping great majority of 356. There then ensued an unprecedentedly radical programme, encompassing such achievements as free school meals, old age pensions, labour exchanges, the first national insurance scheme, and reforms to trade union law and the House of Lords. The strength of the Progressive Alliance meant that, even in the next elections of 1910, which reduced the Liberals’ parliamentary strength to 272, they could still count on Labour and IPP support. It was one of the great reforming governments of modern times, rivalled only by Attlee’s Labour government of 1945-51. The Alliance and its durability certainly caused the Opposition considerable heartache: in the words of Asquith’s biographer Roy Jenkins the Tories were ‘sick with office hunger.’

H H Asquith (1852-1928), British prime minister 1908-16
H H Asquith (1852-1928), British prime minister 1908-16

The Alliance came to grief over political intrigue in the First World War. In the middle of May 1915, after the Allied forces had suffered calamitous reverses in Flanders and the Mediterranean, Charles a Court Repington, a Times journalist embedded on the Western Front, reported the British army commander General Sir John French as saying that ‘The want of an unlimited supply of high explosives was a fatal bar to our success.’ One wonders whether anyone at the time ever thought to point out that access to an unlimited supply of anything is by definition logically impossible, but the fallout from the “Shells Scandal” was in any event massively damaging, with the inference from Repington’s report that the government were not pulling their weight in backing the war effort. On the very same day, the imaginative but unstable First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jack Fisher, sensationally resigned his post following the failure of the Gallipoli expedition, which he claimed (falsely) that he had never supported – thereby landing the Admiralty’s First Lord Winston Churchill in some very unpleasant organic material.

The government could have handled either of these crises reasonably well on their own, but, taken together, this double whammy was too strong for the Liberals to withstand alone – or so at least prime minister Asquith thought. As a way of staving off the inevitable call for a general election, which the Liberals would in all likelihood lose, Asquith panicked, and invited the Conservatives to join the government in an all-party coalition. As a short-term measure of handling the flak and prolonging his and his colleagues’ careers, Asquith’s tactic was faultless, but the long-term ramifications of his actions proved disastrous not just to the cohesion of the Progressive Alliance but also to the Liberal Party itself.

Ulster Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson, the man who before the Great War had threatened to start an armed rebellion against a future Home Rule government in Dublin, was among the new coalition government’s cabinet ministers, installed as (what else?) Attorney-General. The slap in the face to the Irish nationalist movement was undeniable. IPP chief John Redmond was offered a cabinet post, but his party’s rules prevented him from accepting it. Yes, the Government of Ireland Bill had received the Royal Assent the previous September, but nationalists were quick to realise that the influx of Tories into the government was likely to make the promised launch of Home Rule less, not more, likely. This, coupled with the mounting war casualties, left Redmond’s party precisely nowhere left to go politically, and the IPP gradually began to lose ground to Sinn Fein and the anti-war section of the Irish Volunteers, as nationalism’s centre of gravity moved ever closer to the GPO on O’Connell Street.

John Redmond (1856-1918)
John Redmond (1856-1918)

Freed finally from their electoral pact with the Liberals, the Labour Party, led by future Nobel Peace Prize winner Arthur Henderson (newly installed as Education Board President, the first-ever Labour cabinet minister), began at last to carve out their own political path, in competition with the Liberals for the progressive vote. At the next election in 1918 Labour, in the absence of the abstentionists of Sinn Fein, became the new Official Opposition.

Arthur Henderson (1863-1935), Labour Party leader 1914-17
Arthur Henderson (1863-1935), Labour Party leader 1914-17

As for the Liberals themselves, the formation of the 1915 coalition was a cause of dismay to many members. If the decision to go to war the previous year (and it was nothing like so popular a decision as has been claimed) had left many Liberals more than a little queasy, then forming a government with their opponents caused them to start heaving. Historians such as Martin Pugh and Trevor Wilson have written of how the Party started “rotting at the roots” at this time, with increasing absences in local party branch meetings. It did not help that the Party suffered from limp and pathetic leadership, with H H Asquith’s “Wait and See” parish-council-chairman-type approach, so adept before the war, so clearly a serious liability not just in a time of total war but in the transformed post-war environment in the face of both the resurgent Conservatives and a renewed and confident Labour Party.

The Conservatives have been in power, either alone or as a leading coalition party, in 69 out of the hundred years that have elapsed since the fracturing of the Progressive Alliance. In the previous hundred years they and their predecessors had been in power for around 58 years. Such is the backdrop to Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s repeated call during this election campaign for an anti-Tory alliance, a call echoed by Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, and also by the SDLP. All three non-abstentionist nationalist parties know that, like the Liberals in 1906-15, the Labour Party of today offers the only realistic hope of putting a truly progressive legislative programme into action. The Conservatives’ sudden adoption of the irresponsible EVEL (English Votes for English Laws) campaign the day after the Scottish referendum, despite their earlier promise of Devo Max for Scotland, offers a revealing window to their approach to constitutional reform.

The UK needs a proper written constitution. The House of Lords needs to be replaced with an elected upper chamber. The rules need to be changed to make lobbying more transparent. The present FPTP voting system needs to be replaced by a fairer and more proportional one – and the likely outcome of a second straight hung parliament will surely bear this out. Additionally, the Assemblies in Belfast and Cardiff and the Parliament in Edinburgh need more powers to work better for the people of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland in a UK system still dominated by England. It remains to be seen whether the Labour leadership can ultimately take the various progressive hints that were dropped across the country during the campaign once the votes have been counted.

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.

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