current affairs

On making the breakthrough and change in the British political system

Political breakthroughs are often surprising and unexpected by many with no interest in their success.

110 years ago today there were no Labour MPs in Parliament. It wasn’t until October 1900 that the first two, Keir Hardie and Richard Bell, were elected. In 1906, thanks to a pact with the Liberals, there were 29 Labour MPs elected. The 1910 election saw 42 Labour MPs returned to the House of Commons. 1924 saw Labour’s first Prime Minister in Ramsay MacDonald backed by 191 Labour MPs. Splits in the Liberal Party gave Labour plenty of room to grow leaving Labour to become established as one of the two major British parties.

History never quite repeats itself exactly, but its lessons are always instructive. Many in the political bubble talk of the parties as if they are inviolable timeless structures which shall always endure. But none of the three major parties currently in Parliament can claim such status. Conservatives, while the oldest, still can only trace their current incarnation back to the 1830s. Labour to about 1899 when various unions and labour organisations decided to contest parliamentary seats. And of course the LibDems only date to 1988 though their origins go back much further than that.

This is a time of incredible social, economic and technological change. Are the parties of the 19th and 20th centuries best placed to represent and serve the citizens of a 21st century Britain? Not necessarily. I’m sure some of their members recognise the new challenges we face such as the LibDem’s Cory Doctorow or Labour’s Tom Watson MP. But structurally I’m not sure those parties are best placed to respond to the new challenges.

When people raise questions about whether it’s worth voting Green given we won’t form the next government or that it’s between Gordon Brown and David Cameron, I respond that change has to start somewhere. Back in October 1900 voters had to vote for what they believed in, that a new party for the labour movement could come of age if given a chance.

Today I believe the Green Party is ready to come of age also. A party that puts social justice, public service and the environment ahead of free trade and trying to keep up with the military superpowers. Labour have lost their way, the Conservatives are divided between emulating ’97 era New Labour and their old hard-right ways whilst the LibDems struggle to resolve what they truly stand for.

We’re on the cusp of a fundamental change in the British political system – I believe a diversity of newer parties are going to have a major role to play in reform. I hope people will trust their vote in Greens to play our part.

2 replies on “On making the breakthrough and change in the British political system”

The difference between the rise of the Labour Party from 1900 and the fortunes of the Green Party couldn’t be more marked. The LRC, the forerunner of Labour, was established in 1899. Eleven years later there were 42 Labour MPs.

Compare that with the Greens. Established in 1973 as the Ecology Party and campaigning since 1985 as the Greens, they’ve been around now for 37 years. How many MPs to date? Zero.

The Labour movement was fuelled by a desire to see working class representation in Parliament. It had some momentum, some popular support in the country. If the Greens had this, why have they not got a single MP into Westminster in their 37 years? That’s a long time to come of age.

Thanks for your comment Tracey. History is instructive I don’t think it will repeat itself. For a start I think mass membership parties are unlikely to make a return. In my view we’ll be seeing more smaller parties potentially with Labour and/or Conservatives splitting at some point in the future.

Back to history: The LRC itself was formed of a number of labour movements with longer histories and were more established e.g. Independent Labour Party & the Social Democratic Foundation. They were thus in a position with memberships and resources to support candidates once the LRC was formed. So Labour took a long time to come of age too – it just wasn’t called the Labour Party in that time.

By contrast, many of the organisations in the Green movement started around the same time as the Ecology Party, so there wasn’t existing infrastructure or membership to build on. Furthermore many have taken an apolitical stance either as a strategy to further their lobbying of all parties or because of charitable status. So direct support is difficult.

I sense change is in the air in Brighton. Even I’m amazed that Saturday’s March for Jobs didn’t have an active Labour presence leaving Greens to it.

The trajectory of the Green Party and the Labour Party are decidedly different, but I do think it’s helpful to remember that it wasn’t *that* long ago that Labour were fighting for their first MPs.

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