December 14, 2009

The Interwar Era and Multiparty Politics- the fall of the Liberals, the rise of Labour and the Conservative hegemeny

The interwar era was an era of partisan flux and replacement. Overall despite ups and down the trend was the gradual decline of the Liberals to the benefit of the main two parties. In 1918 the two factions of the Liberal party still had more support than Labour some 26.7% of the vote despite electoral deal and 163 seats . By 1935 those Liberals who were not "national" (effectively Conservative) had around 6% of the vote and 21 seats-an extremely poor third. So part of the story was a story of a once massive party being reduced to insignificance in a new two party system.

Given the liberals could reasonably have been seen as the “middle” party at least insofar as issues such as state ownership of industry and industrial relations this arguably represents the vulnerability of a third party in a simple plurality rule system. This is particularly true of parties in the “middle” on the key issues which was definitely true for the liberals on industrial relations and probably on state ownership and economic redistribution as well. In a sense this era is the triumph of institutions-in 1900 there were two overwhelmingly dominate parties in mainland Britain. IN 1935 for all practical purposes this was true again-but one of the parties had been replaced.

It was also an era of coalition-no coincidence of course since three fairly completive parties make a coalition more likely (as the 2010 General Election may let prove). .This was true of the Conservatives who had an absolute parliamentary majority but formed a coalition anyway out of electoral caution in 1918-1922, 1931-1935 and (rather nominally) 1935 onwards. It was an era of tacit coalition both the Labour government of this era 1922-1923 and 1929-1931 were minority governments backed by the liberals and in large part as a consequence with a rather modest agenda. The Tories were the only party to have majorities in this period.
This brings to another distinctive feature. –it was an era of Tory dominance even ignoring the majorities they gained in coalition with others. . They were also the only party to rule alone in 1922-1923 and 1924-1929. However only in 1931 did they actually win an absolute majority of the Votes (the last party in UK history to this date to do so) and in 1935 if you count their now very nominally separate “National” Liberal and Labour allies.

This had led to much talk about a “progressive” majority in this era- defeated by its own divisions-often see as another distinctive feature of the era. I disagree with this theory least insofar as this infers Labour would have won if the liberals had withdrawn from the political fray. In fact the two elections where the Tories obtained no majority (1923 and 1929) were those the liberals did best ( while not in an alliance with the Conservative. Moreover the Liberals then supported a Labour government. In terms of the actual situation one could see the liberals as more splitting a natural anti-Socialist majority. Indeed the first big Conservative majority of this era was in 1924-an election that saw a rise in the Labour vote but a massive switch to the Conservatives from the liberals who had put Labour in power. It was in the 1930’s that the liberals first temporarily allied with the Conservatives (in the 1931 crisis)-the official Labour party then won 52 seats. In 1935 the newly indepe3ndent liberals were weak enough a large Conservative plurality/ majority could assert itself.

In this view which is basically my own it was not until World War 2 that the Labour party competed with the Conservatives on fully equal terms- it was only the liberals splitting the anti-Socialist vote that allowed Labour to win minority governments in the interwar period On the other hand if the Tories had presided over the economics of 1931 it’s questionable whether that would have remained the case!. In light of the demographics which we will talk about in the next post it is worth pointing out that the liberals in this era owed a great deal of their strength to rural and small town areas where organised “labour” whether industrial or political was to remain weak was to be persistently weak for decades to come.

Despite this fear of electoral weakness was a persistent theme of this period's Conservative party. As with the sobriquet “inter-war” hindsight was not available at the time. There was often a very scared conservative party-fear (unjustified) of Lloyd George’s popularity in 1918 and again fears of a defeat for the Conservative party in 1931. Even the dominance of Stanley Baldwin (which will be discussed latter in this series) owed an enormous amount to a fear Socialism would beat a “diehard” or somewhat diehard Conservative party – a fear that might have been wrong though that’s taking us into very complicated counterfactual waters. The same was true of the Labour party for most of this period it too was very sceptical of its electoral strength. It’s willingness to take office in a minority government unable to achieve much “Socialism” owed a great deal to this belief. From fairly on the leading figures in the two parties Baldwin for the Conservatives and McDonald for Labour felt they had more in common with each other than many in their own parties.

This moderation aroused considerable resentment which spilled over into electoral politics in a way that was not true in the post World War 2 eras. -there was several significant breakaways form the Labour Party in this era most notably the “independent Labour Party” defection of 1932. There was also frequently massive success for rightwing independent candidates in this era-most notably the “anti waste” candidates whose victory over the Tory-Lloyd George coalition in the early 1920’s helped provoke it’s splits and the "Empire Free Trade" candidates that helped push the Conservative party to embrace protectionism as a policy (as opposed to an ideological aspiration) in the early 1930’s.

There is of course another way of looking at a “progressive” majority- this might argue that it was Labour who split the vote and prevented a liberal majority asserting itself- this is a lot harder to rebut. This of course begs the question of whether the believers in the ideology of the Labour party should have really been happy with the policies of liberals instead of fighting for their own... It also seems fairly clear the liberals would have been crushed in 1918 even if Labour did not exist-indeed probably even If Labour did not exist and they had been united. Also the new boundaries of politics created a new politics of class and Labour that meant many Labour supporters were almost certainly old Tories, Tory strongholds in Glasgow started to go Labour for example. It is to the ideology of this party to which we now turn.

The picture is of Ramsay McDonald perhaps the supreme symbol of the politics of this era- as Prime Minster first for Labour then in a Tory dominated coalition he represents both the rise of Labour and the Tory dominance of this era.


Vino S said...

The interesting thing about the inter-war period, taken as a whole, is the dominance of Tory-dominated coalitions over the period (1918-22 and 1931-1940). I would argue that Stanley Baldwin [and before him, Austen Chamberlain] was a good choice for the Tories as Tory leader since, being a moderate, he was more able to both win over floating voters and to convince elements of other parties to ally with them.

Looking at aggregate election results, it is easy to only focus on _net_ movements of votes rather than the vast range of gross movements between parties and between voting and abstention. It is because of this focus on net movements that it seems that the inter-war period was about Labour-Liberal swings. As you say, it could well be the case that some ex-Liberals went Tory and some ex-Tories switched to Labour. The decreasing salience of religion would have, as you say, encouraged the Protestant working-class to support Labour where they would not have supported the Liberals.

Of course, there is a generational issue here. Older voters died and new generations of voters came of age. I would argue that part of the problem for the Liberals was that a lot of their voters died and that the new generation of voters was more likely to be pro-Labour than those who were dying. Additionally, of course, the enfrachisement of women helped the Tories as lots of previous non-voters were added to the electoral register who then disproportionately leaned towards the Tories.

Sulla said...

Interesting comments as usual Vilno. To take your piotnsi n order.

As i said (not hat this contradicts you) they also had a majority in these coalitions-and i do think the 1935 government is a very dubious form of coalition-I'm not sure it's meanginfully more than the Balfour ministry arguably less.

I hope to write on Baldwin latter in the week so maybe we could talk about that then- I think it's a complicated subect . Austen Chamberlain i think was cleary a disastrious leader- in four years he took the Tories from massive domiance to losing by elections to a nascent new party- he had to be disposed before distancing the Tory party from a vastly unpouplar issue -and he played his cards appalingly badly in the coaliton in terms of getting "his" party's way.

I'd be dubious to what degree "good leaders" in the Conservative party or the Labour party have necessariy been moderate- if there is a correlation it's pretty weak. I also think (as i emphaised in this post) the Tories were in a very strong postion in the Interwar era.

Very good point on swinging too and through. My point is merely that when the liberals revivied someaht they took votes of the tories -ie the nature of the majority they "split" i agree as today any flow diagram of vote switches would have been much more complicated.

On the type i'd say Constituioanl and sectarian it's broader than just religon.

Very good piont on generation- and there'd not be an election for eight years in 1918 and there were a huge number of new male voters-all in all the
Liberals picked a very bad time to split!