Tony Blair and the Centre Left

By Rose, Paul B. | Contemporary Review, January 1995 | Go to article overview
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Tony Blair and the Centre Left


Rose, Paul B., Contemporary Review


In his very relevant book published in 1981 Professor David Marquand finished on the following note: 'The new progressive coalition which the times demand cannot be contrived from the top ... what is needed ... is a marriage between the communitarian, decentralist, participatory radicalism to which the Liberal Democrats are heirs, and the communitarian, decentralist, participatory strands in the socialist inheritance: a marriage, if you like, between Thomas Paine and William Morris. Such a marriage hardly needs official blessing'.

The collectivism that characterised Labour in its early epic struggles are typified for me by a miniature miner's lamp from the General Strike of 1926, sold to raise funds. It was worn by my mother when heckling a fascist rally in the thirties, and torn from her but is now worn by my son. He is self-employed in the field of professional video equipment - significantly the kind of job that did not even exist during the formative years of the Labour Party and Trade Union movements. They created an ideology relevant to its time which grafted together the various strains of trade unionism and Socialist thought that made up the British Labour Party.

The individualist, radical, humane, socially conscious but sometimes eccentric values central to the remnants of the once great Liberal Party were by no means fully absorbed into the fairly broad church of the Labour Party. Indeed, the Labour Party posed as a class party and was often recognised and vilified by its enemies as a party with only sectional interests.

To most Labour supporters, Liberals were regarded as 'Tories with a conscience' or 'Wishy-washy'. Their apparently amorphous nature and occasional Liberal-Tory pacts obscured the underlying radical Liberal tradition that in some respects made the Labour Party appear as conservative and even reactionary. This was increasingly so in the post-1960 period of social, demographic and economic change which transformed the electorate and its aspirations. New technologies were steadily reducing the number of blue collar workers and creating a less cohesive labour force in which many of the old shibboleths needed to be reappraised. Labour was no longer necessarily the party for the young and idealistic.

To many persons who even voted Conservative but had become disillusioned, the idea of voting Labour at the last General Election was unacceptable. Nevertheless, a vote for the Liberal Democrats, particularly in the south, was an option that had become increasingly attractive. To many young people for whom the history of the Labour movement was as remote as the Peasant's Revolt of 1381, the radical liberalism of a party committed to electoral and constitutional reform, willingly rather than reluctantly embracing Europe, was an attractive contrast to the still lumbering Labour machine. The achievements of the Labour Government of 1945-51 were as remote as the post-1906 Liberal administration was to those who voted in Labour after the Second World War.

Those of my own generation born into the Labour Party were among the vanguard of the social democratic upheaval, frustrated by the failure of Labour to free itself from a once glorious but no longer relevant past.

In the industrial heartlands of Labour, tradition still held the party together but outside that ghetto, in the Celtic fringes, over vast areas of Southern England and even pockets within Labour's heartlands, an alternative non-Tory challenge was making headway. From Harrow to Hastings, from Deal to Devon within the very heartlands of Conservatism, that new challenge was making significant and even sensational inroads. Side by side, two parties of opposition to the radical Toryism of the 1980s separated by history and geography were grappling with the problem that permitted two left of centre traditions to allow a Conservative monopoly on the basis of about 42 per cent of the electorate.

That this occurred was due to the context of adversarial institutions enshrined in the very design of Parliament.

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Tony Blair and the Centre Left
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