A left-wing legacy: Bring back 19thC radical Liberalism

Many would be surprised to learn that during the late 19th century, the Liberal party abandoned its free-market policies and was fast becoming a socialist party. Sidney Webb, writing at the time, declared that the Liberal party was committed to universal education. In fact, the actual words Webb used for the party’s education policy was a dedication to ‘free schools’ – though not in the sense that it has taken on today, characterised by commercialising the schooling system through encouraging businesses to intervene. Where elected and accountable local councils would have before, private companies will be providing primary and secondary education in the new ‘academies’. Alongside Victorian Liberals’ commitment to free education was a programme of investment for ‘housing for the poor’.

The Liberal party of the late 19thC also aimed to undertake a ‘revolutionary extension of local self-government’. Currently council’s are facing cuts of 28% over the next four years. So much for a commitment to localism. Even the Tories of 1888 were embarking on what many on all sides of the spectrum amounted to ‘municipal socialism’. Now we are facing unprecedented attacks on local government.

Mainstream Liberal opinion and policy during the period in London was what many deemed an ‘extreme socialist proposal’ of building ‘unlimited dwellings’ paid for by a tax on landlords. Instead, the 21st century Con-Dem government is bringing about massive cuts to housing benefit, forcing tens and hundreds of thousands of families and individuals out of their homes, especially in London where rent is high. Social housing is facing another assault after decades of marketisation under Thatcher, and the decline of the council housing stock under the ‘right to buy’ scheme – now thankfully being abolished in Scotland. Families living in social housing will be forced to pay near-market rates, and many people will be forced out after a few years. When there are already huge levels of homelessness, the housing market is in turmoil and the job market just as weak (with five people chasing every vacancy), the changes will be detrimental.

Obviously it is wrong to compare too much the Liberal party of the late 19th with the Liberal Democrats of today, but it is interesting nonetheless. Indeed, many radical Liberals at the time were adopting the ‘Star’ programme which explicitly advocated the ‘extinction’ of the upper class and demanded an end to the sub-contracting of local government services. In Barnet, the local authority delegated all its primary services to profit-driven businesses, which has been dubbed ‘EasyCouncil’. Local councils are becoming a mere hub to pass on their responsibilities to companies which put people before profit.

If only the Liberals of today could re-embrace the socialist policies of the 1800s.

The figures for council cuts are shocking when looked at. Tower Hamlets, a deprived left-leaning constituency (with many Respect and Labour councillors), is facing 9% cuts. Conservative supporting areas such as Richmond  and Kensington are seeing cuts of less than 1%. Around the country it is the same. The poorest areas are getting hit the hardest.

I’m reminded of Oscar Wilde: ‘Recommending thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less’. Indeed.

It can only be hoped that Lib Dem-controlled councils (like Truro city council) reject the cuts. Most campaigned on the basis that they would delay cuts until the economy is stable. However unlikely Lib Dems are to vote against cuts, it must be remembered that only a month or so ago over 100 Lib Dem 2010 election candidates signed a petition in opposition to the government. Let’s hope that local authorities and Lib Dem constituencies think with the same independence. Many on the left (such as Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, the Labour Representation Committee etc.) are campaigning for Labour councillors to vote against the cuts. But it is also important to pressure Lib Dems to defend public services. The party does, after all, have a surprisingly radical history.




  1. Hi Josiah

    Speaking as a 2010 Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate I believe that Nick Clegg inflicted deep damage to Lib Dem credibility on 9th December 2010 with the tuition fees vote.

    I was in the heart of Parliament Square during the student protest on that day and that evening I attended a meeting inside Parliament so I saw things from both sides of the barricades!

    See http://shakinguppolitics.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/nick-clegg-does-deep-damage-to-lib-dems-as-he-pushes-through-his-savage-cuts-and-trebles-tuition-fees/

    Mike Simpson

    1. Hi Mike,

      Lib Dems like you are much needed. I was in Parliament Square that day too so it’s reassuring to know there were some dissenting Liberal Democrats alongside us. Nick Clegg has indeed inflicted a lot of damage on to the party, and I think a split seems likely. Do you think the party will split?

      Good article by the way. I’m sure it was interesting to hear the protest from both outside and inside parliament.

    1. Thanks, that’s very kind. The linked post is good – it’s interesting to compare the vast variety of theoretical political strands in the 19th century compared to now, with every major party merely offering a slightly worse/better version of capitalism.

  2. I’d offer two general prescriptions for the left (i.e. two things that I think we need to think about more than we currently do):

    1. Markets aren’t the problem – monopolies are. We’re waaay too easy-going on monopolies and the left could adopt a popular consumerist resistance to them.

    2. Democracy is an end in itself. The answer to ‘methodological individualism’ is methodological democrat…ism (or something..). By simply arguing for a better standard of democracy we can rope in a whole swathe of the political centre to a set of ends that we will be quite happy with.

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