The 1920’s not the 1980’s offers the best historical guide to The Independent Group’s prospects

Professor Steven Fielding argues systemic change to the British party system in the aftermath of the First World War provides a better historical guide to the potential prospects for The Independent Group than a quick comparison to the SDP.

Any major political shock sees a rush for an appropriate historical comparison and the momentous events of the past week have, naturally, been no exception.

So instant comparisons between the new Independent Group and the Social Democratic Party have quickly become commonplace. These have led many to suggest that, whatever bright sparks the Group might create today, it will ultimately lead to nothing of consequence: just like the SDP, which also began with bright hopes of changing the face of British politics, the Independent Group will end in failure.

No historical comparison is perfect, but despite the conventional wisdom I believe we are not living in a re-run of the 1980s: we are instead much closer to the 1920s. It is ironic that having just commemorated the end of the Great War and its consequences, so few are aware that the conflict was not only a human disaster: it created massive instability in the party system. The First World War split the Liberal party over how best Britain could fight, something which led David Lloyd George to overthrow Liberal leader Herbert Asquith as Prime Minister in 1916 at the head of a largely Conservative government. The conflict also caused the Labour party to disavow its Edwardian progressive alliance with the Liberals and become a fully independent national party in 1918.

After the Lloyd George coalition broke up in 1922 intense three-party competition followed. In the four elections held between 1922 and 1929 the difference in vote share between the three parties was as low as 8.5 per cent. The first-past-the-post electoral system, which in a two-party context usually produces stable majority governments, became more like a lottery: three evenly matched parties meant the outcome of these four contests was especially uncertain. Two of them produced short-lived minority governments.

That’s a very different scenario from the early-eighties. In the 1983 general election Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives received 42.4 per cent of votes cast – only slightly down on its share in 1979. It was Labour that lost most votes to the SDP-Liberal Alliance, which won 25.4 per cent compared to Labour’s 27.6 percent. But in regard to Parliamentary constituencies while Labour won 209 the Alliance only held 23 while Thatcher gained a Commons landslide. The SDP failure to make a breakthrough in terms of seats was because the Conservative vote held up in face of its insurgency. For while Thatcher might have been seen by many Britons as an extreme right-winger they still regarded her as an effective Prime Minister, one solving, in her own way, the British crisis, that had been so crystalised by the 1978-9 Winter of Discontent.

Look at it that way, today’s experience is clearly different from the early eighties with a lack of public confidence in both the current ‘legacy parties’. This period is much more redolent of the roaring twenties than the era of the New Romantics.

If Jeremy Corbyn is viewed, like the then-Labour leader Michael Foot, as being on the far left – and also ineffective –Theresa May’s Conservatives are not thought of much better. When the public are asked who they think makes the best Prime Minister, ‘Don’t Know’ often comes first. To state an obvious point: May is not Thatcher. Instead of being perceived as solving the British crisis the Conservative leader is seen as contributing to it. And her inability to deliver Brexit and weak leadership of a divided party has, so far, resulted in the defection of three times more Tory MPs to the Independent Group than the SDP ever managed and MPs of much more significance that the Gang of Four’s lone Commons Tory convert. The 1920s example shows that the working of the British electoral system is difficult to predict with three parties of roughly equal strength. The creation of the Independent Group, in the context of both – not one – of the main parties being seen as extreme, divided and incompetent, opens up the prospect of just that; the kind of possibility of which the SDP could only have dreamed. While so much remains uncertain, despite what many believe, the future of the Independent Group might be very bright indeed.



About the author

Steven Fielding is professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. He has written extensively on the past and present of the Labour party and the wider British centre-left, as well as cultural representations of politics. He has also presented a number of documentaries on BBC Radio 4 with a new one currently in production. He tweets @polprofsteve and is co-presenter of The Zeitgeist Tapes podcast


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