I was pleased to hear this afternoon that David Miliband was not going to join his brother’s shadow cabinet. With luck this signals a deeper split developing in the Labour party, and the beginning of a new bout of internecine conflict. With a bit more luck he’ll wait for a year or two, and let his younger brother mess things up, before challenging him again for the leadership. That would be fun.
I don’t really know what the Labour party is about any more. Back in the 60s and 70s, and long before, they were the party of the working class. But the working class, in the form of millions of miners and factory workers, seems to have largely dwindled away. Labour seemed to have recognised this under Blair, and to have gone looking for middle class votes instead. The smoking ban, which fell most heavily on the working class, in some ways marked their final abandonment of them.
A few days back I read on Spiked something that seemed about right:
I’ve been reading up on the history of the Labour party over the last few days. I was of course rather struck by the photo (right) of Keir Hardie, its first leader. If you know nothing about this man, you at least know that he smoked a pipe. And, right now, that seems to be the only thing that is worth knowing. Keir Hardie with his pipe, in this photo, seems to personify everything that the Labour party has abandoned.
The Labour party seems to have started out as very much a Scottish party when in started up in about 1900. Keir Hardie was born in Lanarkshire, although he became an MP first for West Ham in London, and then Merthyr Tydfil.. The next four leaders of it – Arthur Henderson, George Barnes, William Adamson, and Ramsay McDonald – were all Scottish. Its first English leader was John Clynes, who was born in Oldham, and became a Manchester MP. It was under his leadership that the Labour party in 1922 expanded from a mere 52 seats to 142 seats, largely at the expense of the Liberal party. Apart from the brief and disastrous return of Ramsay McDonald, the party leaders remained English for the next few decades under George Lansbury (born in Suffolk, MP for Bromley), Clement Attlee (born London, MP for Limehouse), Hugh Gaitskell (born London, MP for Leeds South), Harold Wilson (born Huddersfield, MP for Ormskirk), and Jim Callaghan (born Portsmoth, MP for Cardiff South). This was the “powerful Labour party” of the mid-20th century.
After that came Michael Foot (born Plymouth, MP for Ebbw Vale) and Neil Kinnock (born Tredegar, MP for Bedwelty), at which point the Labour party seemed to have taken on a strongly Welsh flavour. But then the Scots started taking over again, first with John Smith (born in Scotland, MP for North Lanarkshire), Tony Blair (born Edinburgh, MP for Sedgefield), and Gordon Brown (born Renfrewshire, MP for Kirkcaldy).
And that is the story of a party which began in Scotland, enjoyed a heyday in England, and returned to Scotland via Wales. It started out as a party of peripheral discontents, became an establishment party, and then went back to its discontented origins.
And it also suggests that, unsurprisingly, the English prefer having English prime ministers, and that perhaps it was only when the Labour party’s leaders were English that the English were prepared to vote for it. One of the frequent complaints about Gordon Brown was that he was Scottish. Yet it wasn’t a complaint that was made against Tony Blair, even though his family origins were in Glasgow, and he was born in Scotland, and grew up in Scotland, and ended up an MP in a constituency on the Scottish border of England (and Blair is also a Scottish name), he somehow seemed more English than Scottish. Perhaps he was a Scot who successfully masqueraded as an Englishman? Gordon Brown made no pretence of being English.
It applies equally to Conservatives. Iain Duncan-Smith was Scottish. Michael Howard was of Romanian origin. Neither became prime minister, needless to say. John Major may not have been a particularly compelling politician, but he was at least English.
All of which bodes ill for Ed Miliband. From an English point of view, he’s something that’s much worse than being Welsh or Scottish: he’s a foreigner from a continental country. And he’s more or less an illegal immigrant.
And he’ll be up against David Cameron (born London, MP for Witney), who’s more or less English aristocracy. About the only thing Scottish about him is his name.
And since the English prefer to have English prime ministers, almost certainly the Scots prefer Scottish ones, and the Welsh Welsh ones. This doesn’t help Miliband either. Miliband’s Labour isn’t going to represent either an English or Scottish or Welsh ascendancy within the Labour party. It’ll be an orphan party, attracting the votes of a cosmopolitan assortment of outsiders and malcontents, now that they have dispensed with their old working class core vote.
Add to that the fact that almost every time the Labour party lost power, it resulted in deep splits, and internecine war.
Seen from this perspective, the Labour party is quite possibly now entering a phase of terminal decline, and is set to become an increasingly radical party centred in cosmopolitan cities. This might allow the Liberal party to begin to recapture the working class votes, what’s left of them, that it lost a century ago to the nascent Labour party.
And should they ever shake off the jackboot of righteous, bullying healthism, any one of these parties could reach out to Britain’s disenfranchised smokers by amending or repealing the smoking ban. For the Conservatives it would be a return to traditional organic communities. For Labour it would mean the revival of working men’s clubs and pubs, and the party of Keir Hardie. And for Liberals it would simply be the liberal thing to do. But the Labour party imposed the smoking ban, aided and abetted by illiberal Lib Dems. Conservative MPs voted against it, and David Cameron didn’t vote. It’s the Conservatives alone who don’t have blood on their hands, and who stand to gain the most votes. And a few years hence, they may need them.
In fact, they could have done with them in the last election.