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.

  • chrisjones2

    define “progressive”

    As it stands it is a meaningless phrase – the political equivalent of fat free yoghurt – which is why politicians love it

  • Reader

    Dan Payne: 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 conservatives never promised Devo Max for Scotland. What they offered could be labelled as “Devo More”, and is entirely consistent with EVEL – which is, after all, simply offering the English what the Scots already have.
    You’re arguing against equality here – that’s hardly “progressive” (whatever progressive means today)

  • chrisjones2

    The UK needs a proper written constitution.

    Even though there is no popular support for this?

    The House of Lords needs to be replaced with an elected upper chamber.

    Even though there is no popular support for this and it will be stuffed with deadbeat grafting politicians – just like the current chamber.

    The rules need to be changed to make lobbying more transparent.

    OK,Now define lobbying. Is your post lobbying?

    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.

    Thats logically inconsistent in that PR systems almost guarantee weak coalition Governments. Also the electorate had that choice and voted resolutely utterly and decisively against it – so are you a democrat or autocrat?

    Sorry but all this reads like a demand for the system that you want to future your personal agenda and interests dressed up as high minded altruism and not what the wider community are prepared to vote for. Nothing wrong with that – its what lobbyists do – but be honest about it

  • Old Mortality

    Chris
    It almost invariably means left-wing and collectivist which is laughable when it slips from the tongue of Nicola Sturgeon. What is ‘progressive’ about preserving and even reinforcing the very policies that have failed Scotland for 50 years?

  • Barneyt

    Do you not think that the post referendum response from the Torys (EVEL) was in some ways counter productive with regard to the preservation of the union? If I were a unionist, I would sooner leave the UK in the hands of someone like Nigel Dodds than I would David Cameron, or anyhow else that takes an more inclusive approach to the union.

    The Conservative & Unionist Party have lost their unionist claim in some respect.

  • Chingford Man

    It means a belief in money trees.

  • Granni Trixie

    Assemblys in Belfast need more power? (Insert PRs “are you dense here):it is not power that cloggs up progress in our Assembly but a lack of will to get round problems. Rather it seems that our MLas tend to
    recycle problems …why, we learn that some parties do not even extend common curtesy to their counterparts in other parties.

    No wonder people are fed up with politics here.

  • Reader

    BarneyT: Do you not think that the post referendum response from the Torys (EVEL) was in some ways counter productive with regard to the preservation of the union?
    I don’t really disagree that it’s a tactical mistake, and badly handled. However, it’s a valid if belated response to the West Lothian Question (posed by Tam Dalyell, a bit of a progressive himself). It’s all the more urgent in the face of increasing devolution to absolutely everywhere but England.
    And in the end, equality has to trump tactics, doesn’t it?

  • Dan Payne

    Currently on my lunch break, so I just thought I’d answer queries in one go here and now…

    As I understand it, the word “progressive” refers parties or individuals with a positive outlook on life who are ready to work to effect radical reforms to remedy unfairness in any society – though I recognise that the term is subjective, and can be open to abuse.

    ‘”The UK needs a proper written constitution”. Even though there is no popular support for this?’ – five years ago, the Ministry of Justice reported a poll they’d conducted that said 44 per cent were in favour of a written constitution, and 39 per cent against… (see http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmpolcon/463/46338.htm)

    ‘”The House of Lords needs to be replaced with an elected upper chamber.” Even though there is no popular support for this and it will be stuffed with deadbeat grafting politicians – just like the current chamber.’ – A YouGov poll of 2012 revealed that 69 per cent of those questioned wanted at the very least a half-elected second chamber, with the most popular response (33 per cent) being for a completely elected second chamber (see http://unlockdemocracy.org.uk/media/news/entry/clear-majority-want-lords-reform). What’s more, an elected second chamber need not necessarily be a carbon copy of the Commons – it’s been suggested that political parties could be disqualified from it, with elections there being contested by non-party-affiliated individuals.

    ‘”The rules need to be changed to make lobbying more transparent.” OK,Now define lobbying. Is your post lobbying?’ – There is a difference between writing articles for a blog on the one hand, and doing what John Nash of Care UK did in funding former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley to the tune of £21,000 on the other, round about the same time that the Health and Social Care Bill was going through Parliament. Yet, despite David Cameron’s warning a few years ago that lobbying was ‘the next big scandal’, his government’s 2014 Lobbying Act is targeting groups like trade unions and charities rather than big business (see http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/owen-jones-under-the-disguise-of-fixing-lobbying-this-bill-will-crush-democratic-protest-8793224.html). And it’s not an exclusively anti-Tory campaign either – remember the Bernie Ecclestone affair of ’97? (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/937232.stm)

    ‘”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.” Thats logically inconsistent in that PR systems almost guarantee weak coalition Governments.’ – Did you mean to say “almost” or “always” there? Just because a government is a coalition it does not necessarily make it weak – that has been the norm in Germany for decades and governments there can hardly be called weak. Likewise, a single-party government is not necessarily a strong one – remember the Major Ministry of 1990-97? As for the notion that the electorate ‘voted resolutely utterly and decisively against’ PR, what actually happened in 2011 was that the electorate voted against AV, which is NOT a PR system: point of fact, it actually produces even more distorted parliamentary outcomes than FPTP, as any Asutralian voter will testify. The Lib Dems really messed up in the Coalition negotations there in 2010 – they should really have been angling for STV.

    Finally, as Slugger contributors and readers appreciate honesty, I plead guilty to the charge of being one of those romantic English liberals who are proud of their country and its heritage, but who feel nonetheless that the system governing them is bust and so needs to change, and that to pretend otherwise is just self-delusion.
    Anyway, dudes, I’ve said my piece. Your go.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Left leaning individuals worked together during the last Labour government to affect change. They finished up bankrupting the country. Look east old chap at French left leaning experiment for your “results”. More taxes, more borrowing supporting a bloated, corrupt public sector and massive unemployment levels. ” its the economy stoopid”.

  • Reader

    Dan Payne: As I understand it, the word “progressive” refers parties or individuals with a positive outlook on life who are ready to work to effect radical reforms to remedy unfairness in any society – though I recognise that the term is subjective, and can be open to abuse.
    That’s a terrible definition. Any party will declare they understand the good life; will have its own definition of “unfairness”, and insist that they will use “radical” methods to deal with it.
    So how about this as a definition, then:
    Progressive (politics): a nice sounding term to describe policy changes regarded positively by the person using the term. Otherwise undefined. (2015 – currently favoured by users on the left of the political spectrum)

  • Dan Payne

    Reader: as I said in my last posting, I recognise that the term is subjective. It’s just a personal POV, after all.

  • chrisjones2

    radical reforms to remedy unfairness

    Like getting those on welfare into work?