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The practical guide to centre-left schisms

August 12th, 2015

SDP

The Labour party leadership election has left the Blairites looking isolated.  Some of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters have described them as viruses and cancers, and have suggested that they look for the exit.  Every Blairite from Tony Blair and Liz Kendall downwards has disavowed the idea of leaving the Labour party, but vows are spoken to be broken, and given the bitterness and the ideological divide they might in due course consider their options.

Before doing so, they should look at historical precedents.  In the last 150 years, the centre left has split on five occasions.  Past experience is no guide to the future, but as we shall see, there are some consistent themes.  Here are those five instances:

The Adullamites (1866-67)

Cause

The Adullamites are almost forgotten nowadays, but for a year their actions convulsed British politics.  By 1865, the Liberals had been in almost unbroken power for a generation.  Following the death of Lord Palmerston (who had been strongly opposed), the new Liberal leadership decided to tackle the subject of electoral reform.  More traditional Liberals, under the leadership of Robert Lowe, resisted this strongly and the group in opposition that they formed was known as the Adullamites (after an obscure Biblical reference).  They worked with the Conservatives to defeat Gladstone’s proposed Reform Bill, leading to the collapse of the Liberal government.

Disraeli became the guiding spirit behind a minority Conservative government that then proposed a Reform Bill that was far more radical than the one that Gladstone had put forward.  The Adullamites had been abandoned by their previous partners in opposition.

Consequence

Following the passage of the 1867 Reform Act, the Adullamites rejoined the Liberal fold.  No lasting harm seems to have been done to the Liberal party, who were re-elected in 1868 on the new franchise with an increased majority.

Fate of prominent dissidents

Despite being outmanoeuvred, Robert Lowe did not suffer for his disloyalty.  On the resumption of a Liberal government at the end of 1868, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Liberal Unionists (1886-1912)

Cause

Like the Adullamites, the Liberal Unionists broke from the Liberal party initially on a point of principle: on this occasion, Home Rule for the Irish. Following Gladstone’s defeat over Home Rule in 1886 and the subsequent general election, the Liberal Unionists (who numbered 77 MPs) propped up a minority Conservative government.

Consequence

The Liberal party moved from being a natural party of government to being relative outsiders overnight.  In the 54 years from the Great Reform Act to 1886 the Whigs and Liberals had been in power for nearly 40 years.  In the next 20 years they would be in power for only three years.

Many on both sides thought at first that there would be a reconciliation at some point, as there had been with the Adullamites.  Reconciliation discussions with the Liberals broke down again over Home Rule for Ireland and as a result most Liberal Unionists moved closer to the Conservatives.  By 1895 they were ready to join the Conservatives in government.  By this stage the two were already seen as part of a wider movement of unionists and boundaries were already breaking down.  The government split over the question of free trade in the early years of the twentieth century, with Joseph Chamberlain (one of the leading Liberal Unionists) fiercely advocating a protectionist policy.

In the wake of the crushing Liberal victory of 1906, the Liberal Unionists were reduced to 25 MPs.  In 1912 the Liberal Unionists formally merged with the Conservative party.

Fate of prominent dissidents

The Liberal Unionists included many political stars who prospered in their new home.  George Goschen became Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Conservative minority government in 1887.  In the 1895 government, five Liberal Unionists featured in the Cabinet.  Joseph Chamberlain, who led the Liberal Unionists, might well have led the unionists in the wake of the 1906 defeat had he not suffered a stroke at the critical moment.

Alumni

Through the Chamberlain family, the Liberal Unionists exerted a powerful influence over Conservative party politics in its afterlife.  Both Austen and Neville Chamberlain rose to become that party’s leader.

Neither Neville nor Austen Chamberlain actually stood for Parliament as a Conservative candidate because their local political association in Birmingham preferred to call themselves Unionist rather than Conservative during this time.  Neither actually fought a general election as leader, a dubious distinction which they share only with Iain Duncan Smith.

Lloyd George National Liberals (1916-1922)

Cause

Of all the splits on the centre left, this was the most personalised.  Following the fiasco at Gallipoli in 1915, Asquith had brought the Conservatives and parts of the Labour party into a coalition government.  But over the next 18 months, senior figures across all parties grew concerned at Asquith’s handling of the war and Lloyd George sought (with newspaper support) to get responsibility for the conduct of the war into his own hands.  Asquith refused to meet his terms and was confronted with the withdrawal of support both of Lloyd George and of the Conservatives.  He resigned, to be replaced by Lloyd George.  The bulk of the Liberal party remained loyal to Asquith but sufficient numbers stayed with Lloyd George to enable him to form a coalition government with the Conservatives and, initially, parts of the Labour party.

Consequence

The beginning of the end of the Liberal party as a significant force in politics for three generations.  Lloyd George was the last Liberal Prime Minister.  By the 1923 general election the two wings of the Liberal party had reunited under Asquith but could manage only 158 seats and third place behind both the Conservatives and Labour.  Its decline from that point was rapid as its vote polarised in subsequent elections between those two parties.

Fate of prominent dissidents

Lloyd George got to be Prime Minister and retained that position after 1918, even when the Conservatives far outnumbered his own party.  While his Cabinet was Conservative-dominated, many prominent Liberals including Sir Winston Churchill also held office during his tenure in office (Sir Winston managed to effect a mini-schism of his own in 1924, standing under the Constitutionalist banner in the general election of that year before re-ratting to the Conservatives).

Liberal Nationals / National Liberals (1931-1968)

Cause

The relative importance of the policy of free trade and of forming a national government.  The leadership of the Liberal party were opposed to any weakening of a commitment to free trade and made their support for the national government conditional on that being retained.  Those Liberals who saw the necessity of free trade as secondary to the formation of a national government broke away to form the Liberal Nationals (those few Liberals, led by Lloyd George, who opposed the national government, also broke away to form the independent Liberals).

Consequence

The Liberal party’s destruction was more or less complete.  The official Liberal party was reduced to 33 seats in 1931 and to 21 seats in 1935.  The Liberal party organisational structure was also wrecked by the different factions all claiming to be Liberals.

The Liberal National party continued in separate existence, migrating slowly from a Liberal orbit into a Conservative orbit over the next fifteen years.  In 1947 the Liberal National party merged with the Conservative party at a constituency level but retained its separate identity at a national level, changing its name to the National Liberal party.

Fate of prominent dissidents

The Liberal Nationals initially prospered in government.  In Ramsay Macdonald’s second national government they had three Cabinet ministers including the Foreign Secretary, rising to four Cabinet ministers in Stanley Baldwin’s government and five in Neville Chamberlain’s government.  They only waned in significance once Sir Winston Churchill took over in 1940 and Labour joined the government.

Following the merger with the Conservatives, three National Liberals sat in the Cabinet in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The National Liberal party was folded into the Conservatives completely in 1968.  The final leader of the National Liberals was Sir John Major’s predecessor as MP for Huntingdon.

Alumni

Lord Heseltine stood as a National Liberal in 1959 (though was not elected under that banner).  Sir John Nott, Defence Secretary during the Falklands war, began his Parliamentary career as a National Liberal. They remain living links to what otherwise seems like a distant historical period.

The SDP (1981-88/2015)

Cause

The SDP was born out of factional infighting within the Labour party.  Taken for granted by the centre of the Labour party in its battles against the left, 28 Labour MPs left the party in 1981 to found the SDP under the leadership of the “Gang of Four”, seeking to find a middle way between Thatcherism and the leftward direction that the Labour party was then taking.  Aside from the Gang of Four, few were well-known and many were at risk of deselection.  The SDP also attracted some support from wet Conservatives, including one MP.

It formed an alliance with the Liberal party and initially recorded enormous popularity in polls, backed up by spectacular by-election results.  The wind was taken out of the Alliance’s sails by the Falklands war, however, which gave a boost to the popularity of the Conservatives largely at their expense.

Consequence

While the Alliance ultimately took 26% in the 1983 election, it took only 23 MPs, of which only six were SDP MPs.  The Conservatives were elected in a landslide.  Labour were kept out of power until 1997, but the Alliance was unable to profit by this.  The two parties of the Alliance eventually merged in 1988 to form what became the Liberal Democrats (with some dissenting SDP members under the leadership of David Owen then founding a successor independent party).

The Liberal Democrats, after a shaky start, gained a secure Parliamentary foothold, building on local successes in successive elections until finally joining the Conservative party as the junior partner in a coalition government in 2010.  That experience, however, resulted in the party being nearly wiped out in the 2015 election.  They look unlikely to be significant political players again any time soon.

Fate of prominent dissidents

In sharp contrast to all the other splits, none of the initial senior founders of the SDP ever achieved high office again.   From a personal viewpoint, the decision to leave the Labour party was a disaster.

Alumni

Power and pelf proved hard to come by for the SDPers.  By seeking and failing to break the mould, they found the route to power much harder.  Vince Cable and Chris Huhne eventually became Cabinet ministers under the Liberal Democrat banner.  More SDP supporters, however, attained that rank as Conservatives: Greg Clark, Chris Grayling, Andrew Lansley and David Mundell managed that feat, and Anna Soubry, while not in the Cabinet, attends its meetings.

Conclusions

None of the splits resulted in the mould of politics being broken (with the unintended exception of the coup by the Lloyd George Liberals, which resulted in the Liberal party being displaced as one of the two main political parties).  So if the aim of any breakaway is to build up a new political party, forget the idea.

You can argue about cause and effect, but on each occasion a split took place, progressive politics suffered at least temporarily and more usually it ushered in a lengthy period in which the Conservatives did substantially better than they had done in the preceding period.  So anyone participating in a breakaway has to be prepared for the Conservatives to benefit in the short term.

Rather surprisingly, this damage is visible only at a macro level.  Many individual politicians who broke away achieved major rank either immediately or shortly afterwards.  Two dissidents became Prime Minister.  Many more achieved Cabinet rank.  All of these, however, did so by reaching an accommodation with one of the existing major parties – usually the Conservatives.  The one occasion on which the centre left breakaway party sought to go it alone was a failure.

So if the Blairites do decide that life in the Labour party is unendurable but they wish to see their political careers prosper, they need to be prepared to reach an accommodation with the Conservatives sooner rather than later.  By retaining a separate identity but operating a non-aggression pact, much as the Liberal Unionists did, they may be able to influence government policy far more than either standing aloof or by remaining in the Labour party.

Such an outcome would probably be bad for leftwing politics but probably personally good for the Blairites.  Are they sufficiently ruthless?  I guess we’re going to find out.

Antifrank