Keir Hardie recognized the fiction of the ‘progressive alliance’

Posted on August 27, 2010

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This post first appeared on David Miliband’s campaign website.

Keir Hardie’s reputation as Labour’s pioneer depends above all else on his recognition of the fiction of the progressive alliance.

Hardie’s genius lay in recognising this fact before anyone else.  Hardie, who began as a Liberal, saw enough of Liberalism at close quarters to recognise that its sympathies and interests did not lie with the working majority – the people whom Labour came into existence to represent.

Why did Hardie come to that conclusion?  Partly, it was a matter of policy.  Liberalism was not inspired by the desire to redistribute wealth or by a commitment to democracy at the workplace through trade unionism – which were Labour’s imperatives.

But Hardie’s recognition of Liberalism’s inadequacy was not– and this is a point sometimes overlooked – primarily intellectual. It was more a matter of personal experience and personal engagement. Hardie, through his personal dealings with Liberals at all levels of politics, concluded that between Labour and Liberal there existed a gulf of social experience and sympathy.

It was at the 1888 mid-Lanarkshire by-election that these differences became sharply apparent to Hardie. In keeping with the Liberal refusal to select working-class candidates to contest elections, Hardie was passed over by the party in favour of a wealthy London barrister. He contested the election on his own, as the Independent Labour Party candidate.

Liberalism was too comfortable with wealth and privilege to recognize the realities of ordinary working-class life, to accept the democratic role of trade unions, and to share power with the representatives of the masses – the Labour Party. It required the formation of an independent force for Labour to push liberalism into its most creative phase in the 1900s. The central period in Hardie’s life was his conversion from orthodox Gladstonian liberalism to a radical ethical socialism, as he organized miners.

Hardie’s revelation, that only a Labour party would ensure that politics was not dominated by social elites, is especially resonant today.  Who can doubt that the ease with which Clegg, Laws and Huhne sit on the Tory front bench derives from essential similarities of background, education and experience?  Hardie understood that, although British liberalism was a complex creed, the classical or laissez-faire strand of the Liberal Party has always exerted a powerful hold over the Party’s leaders and inevitably comes to the fore when the Party is faced with hard distributive choices.  Lacking understanding or experience of poverty and inequality, the Liberal Party’s leadership was drawn from too narrow a background to articulate the egalitarian vision of left liberal thinkers or even the party’s radical grassroots activists. That’s why, now more than ever, it’s vital that Labour win.

Liberal commitments to social reform have always existed in tension with other strands in the party – the laissez-faire tradition continued by today’s Orange Book inner circle, and the reactionary populism of local Liberal parties. Between the wars, as now, the overwhelming tendency of local liberal parties was to go into coalition at a municipal level against Labour.

The continuing importance to the Labour Movement lies in Hardie’s recognition that the interests of the majority in this country are best served by a Labour movement.

 

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