New Labour, Old 'New Liberalism'?

By Doyle, Barry | History Today, July 1996 | Go to article overview

New Labour, Old 'New Liberalism'?


Doyle, Barry, History Today


* The British Labour Party is currently reinventing itself as `New Labour', and though journalists have greeted this reinvention with shock and surprise, it is, in fact, a rather common occurrence in British politics. Labour has experienced comparable overhauls in 1918 and 1964 and the Tories in 1924, 1947 and 1975, yet it is the New Liberalism of the Edwardian period which has most captivated the political historian of modern Britain.

Since the publication of Peter Clarke's Lancashire and the New Liberalism in 1971, a heated debate has raged over the importance to the Liberal Party of the new set of ideas developed by the `two Hobs' -- L.T. Hobhouse and J.A. Hobson -- and popularised by David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. In particular, historians are keen to establish whether a form of Progressivism had triumphed as the dominant ideological position within the Edwardian party and if so, whether this was a sufficient change to ensure a future for Liberalism.

The current debate about New Labour has a resonance in the historiography of New Liberalism and it seems that the study of one may cast light on the other, particularly in respect of each ideology's social and economic policies. Are there similarities in the political, social and economic climate of late nineteenth- and late twentieth-century Britain which prompted such radical reappraisals of party ideology? Is there any common ground between the ideas of New Liberalism and New Labour? How did activists respond to the reformulation of aims and objectives inherent in these developments? What, if anything, can be learnt from such a comparative study?

New Liberalism and New Labour are products of their time, but they share their genesis in two comparable political trends: the dominance of a Conservative Party capable of tapping into their traditional constituency, and the challenge of a third party. Between 1885 and 1906, the Liberals were effectively excluded from power by a combination of defections, a reinvigorated Conservative Party, and, from 1893, the appearance of the Independent Labour Party. Similarly, the years after 1979 saw the Conservatives eating into Labour's upper-working-class support in southern England, a loss compounded by the emergence, in 1981, of the Social Democratic Party, whose alliance with the Liberal Party posed a considerable threat. Though Labour has regained much of the support lost in the north of Britain, its failure to replicate this feat in southern England has effectively excluded it from power for almost two decades.

Similar social, economic and intellectual conditions -- especially the situation in London -- also played a part in creating the climate for a re-evaluation of radical politics, for both New Liberalism and New Labour seek essentially metropolitan solutions to essentially metropolitan problems. The 1880s and the 1980s were decades of crisis for the capital, marked by sporadic rioting, mass unemployment, rising crime, concern about the adequacy of education and training, the discovery of a link between poverty and health, the problem of the `aged poor', and a battle for `control of the streets'. Conservative governments in both periods put their faith in market solutions whilst the main opposition parties stuck to their traditional policies, largely rooted in the experience of the provinces thirty years before.

An awareness of this metropolitan crisis, combined with ideological uncertainty on the left, led to the formation of new, extra-party groupings centred in London and drawing inspiration and ideas from liberalism, socialism, science, social science and feminism. Thus, the Rainbow Circle, the Ethical Society and the Fabian Society of the late 1880s and 1890s have found an echo in Charter 88 and Geoff Mulgan's independent think-tank, `Demos'. Similarly, unofficial social investigations (Charles Booth in the 1980s, the Joseph Rowntree Trust this decade), party-sponsored consultations (the Social Justice Commission chaired by Sir Gordon Borrie, the Liberal Democrat sponsored Dahrendorf Commission), academic research and government committees have all been utilised to provide information on social conditions and to debate and develop new ways of thinking about social problems. …

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