The UK Labour Party tends not to promote libertarianism. Whilst the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are hardly consistent champions of liberty, it is much easier to cite libertarian leaning individuals and policies associated with them than it is to find examples in Labour’s history.
Their platform does usually consist of big government, Keynesian economics and social engineering. Their times in government have always been associated with poor management of the economy, and (in recent years) frightening attacks on civil liberties.
However, this does not mean that we should dismiss the entirety of Labour’s record. There have been prominent Labour figures through the years that have stood for policies that libertarians should applaud and respect.
None of these figures are perfect. Many have held positions that are decidedly objectionable. But this is the case with all politicians (see Rand Paul on abortion, or Margaret Thatcher’s opinions about Nelson Mandela, for example).
Field could well be described as a conservative’s favourite Labour MP. Although he is as conservative socially as he is fiscally, Field deserves credit as much as any Thatcherite (incidentally, he was personally close to Thatcher herself, always referring to her as “Mrs T”).
Recently installed as David Cameron’s “poverty tsar”, Field has long championed welfare reform that makes the benefits system more reflective of a contributory principle, and ensuring that welfare does not pay more than employment. He also holds a place on the Advisory Board for Reform, a free market think tank focused on spending cuts proposals.
Whilst the unions continue to exert undue influence over Labour, things are not nearly as bad as they once were. Although Tony Blair gets most of the credit for reforming the Labour Party in the 1990s (in fairness, he did get rid of the obscene Clause IV, which committed the party to widespread nationalisation), his predecessor as leader, John Smith began the modernisation process and his (less well known) reforms are equally deserving of praise.*
Until 1993, trade unions were able to engage in “block voting” at Labour conferences, giving them disproportionate power. Smith managed to introduce a rule of “One Member, One Vote”. Without this, it is unlikely that Blair’s reforms would have gone through.
On the issue of unions, Barbara Castle also deserves a mention. Although generally a left wing figure, in 1969 Castle authored the paper, “In Place of Strife”. Intended to tackle the growing problem of union power at the time (such as spiralling wage inflation), her proposals were unfortunately struck down.
In Place of Strife argued for abandoning closed shop arrangements and required unions to hold votes before striking. Had it been put into law, there would have been no need for much of Margaret Thatcher’s union legislation.
Tony Benn is not someone who automatically springs to mind as when you think of libertarianism. On economic issues, Benn is notoriously left wing and interventionist. However, his ‘far left’ tendencies also extend to social issues, and he has advocated many causes that libertarians support.
Consistently anti-war, he was one of only a handful of MPs to oppose intervention in Kosovo. He has championed unilateral nuclear disarmament, and contemporarily opposes replacing Trident. Benn was outspoken over his opposition to intervention in Iraq, and was the President of the Stop the War Coalition.
He has also attacked encroachments on civil liberties by governments of all stripes. In 2010 he shared a platform with Tory MP David Davis at the launch “Big Brother Watch”, a pressure group focused for defending civil liberties and privacy in the UK.
During his tenure as Home Secretary (1965-67) he oversaw the introduction of a radically liberalising agenda. Although some criticized this “permissive society” (and to this day, critics such as Peter Hitchens blame Jenkins for causing the degeneration of British society), Jenkins viewed his reforms as allowing a “civilized society”.
Jenkins abolished theatre censorship, ended capital punishment, suspended “birching” and significantly relaxed divorce laws. He also leant government support to private members bills that legalised abortion and homosexual acts. Additionally, he was an outspoken defender of immigration and integration.
As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he was known for running a tight fiscal policy. Later his tenure was even applauded by Margaret Thatcher as a strong example of fiscal conservatism.
Increasingly dismayed by Labour’s leftward drift during the late 1970s, he eventually left the party in 1981 to establish the centrist Social Democratic Party (which he led until 1983). *
*[Smith was included over Blair because of The Iraq War. Although most of the individuals mentioned are flawed, none were responsible for anything on par with participating in an illegal war.]
*[David Owen was not included, despite being the most sympathetic to free market ideas amongst Labour defectors to the SDP. This is because the significant part of his career was outside of Labour, contrasting with Jenkins who successfully pushed a liberal agenda from within the party.]