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Keeping the Baby but Not the Bathwater: Why Labour Should Rediscover Radical Liberalism

21/05/2015 14:49 BST | Updated 20/05/2016 10:59 BST

It is apparent that Labour performed so badly in the 2015 General Election because its programme did not have the wide appeal necessary to win popular support and form a government. This is the harsh truth that the democratic Left must not just accept but take to heart. Labour needs a new programme, one that can be translated into an appealing narrative that re-wins the hearts and minds of the electorate. But what should that programme be and what are the starting points for thinking about it?

Re-imagining Labour's political purpose means re-examining the legacy of Blair - but in a way that manages not to throw out the baby with the bath water. The New Labour achievement in winning a mandate for government three times in a row was an unprecedented accomplishment for a left of centre party, even though the two central problems of New Labour's record, the ones that fatally eroded its electoral support, were its support for US foreign policy in Iraq and its entanglement with a fatally flawed banking system. The pity is that these were entirely unnecessary policy choices. The first was opposed by very large numbers of Labour voters and, whilst the second is not so well understood, there is widespread and justified anger at the recklessness of the banks and the failure of government to regulate and constrain them.

But working from the centre does not mean that Labour's politics have to be bland and featureless. Even from the centre Labour can be the party of popular and radical reform. In fact Labour has often been that kind of party. Even as it was founded around 1900 Labour was never only about class-based issues. It actively embraced and took on the mantle of a wide range of radical and reforming causes that clustered together as "radical liberalism". Although often forgotten, this legacy was in the very air that early Labour supporters breathed and was at least as important in shaping Labour's outlook as were trades unions (crucial though these were).

The core of radical liberalism through the nineteenth century was an advocacy of reforms that undermined established elites - a principle abundantly clear in the struggles against trade protectionism, religious intolerance and conformity, the slave trade, censorship of the press, and for the extension of the franchise and women's suffrage. In general these causes were animated by a determination to extend liberty, a natural corollary of which was a profound suspicion of the state as a source of arbitrary power and oppression, a belief that, it has to be said, was shared at that time with large sections of socialist opinion. For radical liberals suspicion of the state, of course, went along with support for private property and a market economy; this was the key issue of principle that separated them from socialists. Nevertheless, this difference was not absolute. Radical liberals were active in campaigns for reforms to working conditions, for example, and there was a strong support for non-capitalist forms of business such as the ascendant co-operative movement. Apart from this, radical liberals were active in a range of cultural politics, taking in causes as diverse as the rational dress movement, free thinking and secularism, food reform and vegetarianism, and popular self-education - causes that resonate to this day with progressive opinion.

The key point is this: early Labour people, socialist and non-socialist alike, shared and supported large elements of the radical liberal cannon and made common cause with it. I think that reflecting on this will give Labour supporters quite a few clues, I put it no higher than that, of how to be a reforming and radical but popular party of the twenty-first century. No doubt some will interpret this as a version of the idea that the Labour Party should become a contemporary version of the nineteenth century Liberal Party. But history shows that the Liberal Party itself proved unable to promote reform during the first decade of the last century precisely because it refused the mantle of radicalism - not only in relation to class issues but also parliamentary reform, female suffrage and Home Rule for Ireland. In effect those in the radical liberal tradition peeled away from orthodox Liberalism and made the nascent Labour Party a vehicle for not only socialist but also broader radical politics.

The lesson of all this is that Labour can renew itself by thinking hard about what a contemporary version of radical liberalism might look like. This would require a reforming zeal in relation to over-mighty elites, affirmation of the central importance of civil liberties, a measure of scepticism about the state and support for strong institutions of civil society. It might, for example, champion the social enterprises and mutual organisations currently springing up around the country and often initiated by younger people. It might campaign for serious reform of the banking and financial sector and create the conditions required for rebalancing the financial sector towards productive investment rather than bubble blowing and speculation. One such reform would be to take away the near private monopoly power of banks to create money (as debt) out of nothing - a cause that might scare New Labour faint-hearts but is actually one promoted by the Chief Economic Correspondent of the Financial Times. Electoral and constitutional reform are also topics clearly ripe for reforming radicalism.

This list merely illustrates how a new, radical and reforming Labour Party might emerge over the next decade, not by breaking from Labour's past but by returning to it. The radical liberal tradition, and the role it played in the founding of the Labour Party, provides a rich source of inspiration for reconnecting with the majority of the British people whose contemporary values echo its deeply democratic, anti-elitist and socially progressive spirit.