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Fighting for social democracy against the Lib-Labs?

By Mark Bahnisch - posted Wednesday, 6 June 2007

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the history of the British Liberal Party from its Gladstonian zenith to its nadir after the failure of Lloyd George’s last serious campaign for office in 1929.

In part, I’m interested in parties in decline (and I suspect that there might be some relevance here for the Australian Liberals and the US Republicans, though it’s too early to make that call) and I’m also interested in the transition from parliamentary politics to mass electoral politics. But I won’t say anything about any of that now.

What struck me in reading the latest tome I got from the library was the way in which British Liberals attempted to handle the emergence of the Labour movement as a sectional interest group from the 1880s - before its gradual turn towards a parliamentary party (a drawn out process which lasted from 1900 til 1918).


The Liberal thinkers of the 1880s and 1890s were desperate to avoid or forfend the age of class politics and to rebuild a party which could realistically claim to represent a national interest transcending class. To that end, some advocated symbolic attention to labour issues (like the agitation against Chinese indentured labour in the Transvaal in the last term of the Tory government before 1905) while scrupulously maintaining a “balance” between the interests of employers and labour.

That was also, of course, coloured by a long British tradition of seeing employment as a private and extra-political matter - which has left its stamp on British industrial relations to this day and also influenced the classical political economists of the 19th century in large measure. But while some concessions could be made (for instance the payment of MPs) many politicians warned that if the balance tipped too far towards labour, the state should intervene to bolster the position of capital.

I couldn’t help thinking about the Ruddian parallels.

Of course, the labour movement is a movement (at least ostensibly) in decline now, while it was a rising interest in the British politics of the late 19th century. But I suspect Rudd is pitching the Australian Labor Party towards a sort of 19th century national interest reformist Liberalism.

That’s not necessarily a new thing for the ALP.

It could be argued that Whitlam (oddly now portrayed as a hero of the left) also sought to transcend what he saw as labour particularism - but the difference of course is that the trade union movement was much stronger back in the Whitlamite days and thus the field of manoeuvre much narrower.


Australian political analysis tends to assume that parties, and their ideologies and practices, are fairly stable if not immutable. It’s questionable how true this is.

The best analyses of the Howardian Liberal Party, such as Judith Brett’s, highlight the consistency of claims to represent a national interest. However, the practice of Howardian politics has been a highly sectional government, even if All of Us are a different mob than the sectional interests Keating was flayed for being supine to.

Howard’s big government conservatism and his constitutional centralism should not be underestimated as key innovations in the Liberal tradition. Their legacy will continue to shape the political contest, even after he is gone. Similarly, there’s definitely a whiff of Gladstonian sound finance around Rudd Labor. And perhaps, though we’re yet to see the reality in office, a turn towards federalism rather than Whitlamite centralism.

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First published in Larvatus Prodeo on June 4, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. He founded the leading public affairs blog, Larvatus Prodeo.

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