Given all this debate at the moment about Jeremy Corbyn and the possibility of a party split and/or full on collapse, does anybody else feel like the Labour party might be nearing the end of the road, regardless of who they elect as leader? I’m not saying the party is definitely going to dissolve before the end of the year, as they can probably count on at least 100 seats for the foreseeable future with the continued support of much of the ethnic minority and working class vote. However, it would take a special kind of arrogance from Labour to not realize that, historically speaking, they’ve actually had pretty much the standard run for a party of the left in this country.
In British politics there have always been two main parties: a conservative party and a progressive party. British Toryism has been fairly consistent since the English Civil War, but the progressive party has changed, almost completely, on two separate occasions.
The first UK general election to take place with such a duality was between the Whigs and Tories in 1685, and this continued until the founding of the Liberal Party in 1859. The Liberals were in turn supplanted as the main opposition to the Conservatives in the general election of 1922. In other words, the Liberals served as the opposition for 63 years and the Whigs for 174. Labour comes between them at 93 years, and have already been through one near disastrous party split, which led to a lasting rupture of the progressive vote as the Liberal Democrats became a sizeable third force. Could they survive another?
The Liberal Party also faced two major splits in its time, the first was worthy of note and the second was essentially fatal. The first was Joseph Chamberlain’s foundation of the Liberal Unionist Party, which brought down Gladstone’s second ministry over the issue of home rule, and may have helped to keep the party out of government for much of the next twenty years. This was very similar to the more contemporary formation of the Social Democratic Party in 1981, which split off from Labour and most likely contributed to similarly long period out of government for that party. Roughly two decades after their first split, the Liberals recovered to win a landslide victory, proceeding to remain in power for the longest solid stretch in their history (1905-1922); Blairism did the same in half the time. For the Liberals however, it was to prove the last time they held the keys to Downing Street. Beset by an internal split between the Asquith and Lloyd George camps post-WW1, the party were all but wiped out from the 20s onwards, not regaining any real strength until their alliance with the SDP.
Here we can see parallels with the contemporary Labour Party: they lost power in 2010 after 13 years in government, the longest in their history, and now seem on the verge of splitting in twain in much the same way. It therefore seems foolish to not consider the possibility that history might repeat itself with our current main progressive party. Will Blairite and Corbynite be the Asquith and Lloyd George factions of modern day Labour? Moreover, will their infighting see the party finally supplanted by a resurgent Liberal Democrats (in an amusing irony), or perhaps a new party altogether?
As a side note, it is also worth pointing out that Labour are technically the least successful progressive opposition in British history, so again the notion of the party as an immovable cornerstone of our politics is somewhat dubious. If we look at the number of years each progressive party held office for when they were the main opposition to the Tories, the scoreboard looks as follows:
Whig 69 out of 174
Liberal 37 out of 63
Labour 36 out of 93
For Labour, this meant a little over a third of the time in government, and that’s charitably including the last four years of Ramsay MacDonald’s government, when he had 13 National Labour MPs and 470 Tories on the government benches. By that margin then, Labour are the only progressive party to be less successful than the Tories, and less successful by quite some margin. Why is this important? Simply because it questions why Labour have even managed to survive this long. A split was enough to finish the Liberals, a party which won far more elections than it lost. A party like Labour, whose record since 1922 has been 11-14 in general elections, would surely be equally if not more vulnerable.
So what advice for Labour can we gleam from this trip through history? Well firstly, unity. Stay united and they have half a chance of at least limping on, split and it seems they run a very real risk of dooming the party forever, their differing opinions on the matter aside. Secondly, Labour cannot afford to descend into hubris and delusions that their presence is inevitable. No progressive movement lives forever and it’s not as if socialism has been doing especially well of late. Are they likely to heed this fine advice? Frankly, probably not. But at least none of them will be able to blame me when the Conservatives and the newly founded 38 Degrees-Tweeters4socialjustice-Remember Cecil Party are going toe to toe at the 2025 general election.