Why did Labour replace the Liberal Party as the second main party in British politics after 1918?

The collapse of the Liberals ran almost parallel to the rise of Labour. The so-called Coupon Election of 1918 saw the Liberals slump into a torrid third place. Thompson believes historians in this debate fall into two camps: inevitabilists and accidentalists,[1] but pre-war Liberal division, and Labour’s adoption of social conservatism also had an impact.  The inevitabilists, led by Matthew, McKibbin and Kay, argued that the reform of 1918 caused Labour’s rise because of a class-conscious electorate.[2] Men eligible to vote rocketed from 68% to 94.9%.[3] Undoubtedly, many working-class seats voted Labour, alas it was not a nationwide phenomenon. Pugh instead argues, Labour’s late adoption of social conservatism is what caused their rise.  The accidentalists consider Liberal capitulation during the Great War as having caused the switch, indeed prior to 1914 the Liberals were in a relatively stable position; entering war was the beginning of the end.[4] Dangerfield argued that Liberal infighting occurred in the early 1910s and that the death took place before a bullet was fired. Dangerfield faced criticism for the death of Liberalism in 1913, but a reformed version of Dangerfield’s argument works. Liberal miscalculations since 1903 brought about their downfall. The current schools are erroneous. Instead the most conclusive answer comes from amalgamating accidentalism and Liberal infighting before the war.

The Marxist schools reject accidentalism and point towards a class-conscious and enfranchised electorate. The gradual politicisation of the working-classes coincided with the growth of Labour within the Commons, whether that be the growth of Trade Unionism or the Fourth Reform Act. Matthew, McKibbin and Kay argued that before 1918 only twenty-two borough seats had a male enfranchisement above seventy percent.[5] It was indeed in the most impoverished seats of Britain in which Labour made their gains, especially in south Wales and the north of England. This view that emerged from the 1960s has since been criticised when class-based history decreased in its significance.

However, the overall premise of the thesis has no standing. Clarke attacks this with the working-class stronghold of Lancashire, remaining Liberal. The riposte to this, by Laybourn, is that Lancashire was not the ‘cockpit’ of Edwardian politics.[6] Yet Lancashire is not alone. Tower Hamlets had a dismal electorate of only thirty-six percent of men that were eligible to vote prior to 1918. Yet in the 1918 election, Labour failed. They lost the seat of Bow and Bromley, only made one gain, and could only muster a quarter of the vote share in two constituencies. Nevertheless, it was not just in London and Lancashire where the premise of the Marxist argument fails. Pugh cites the city of Birmingham, a city with a two-third working-class majority, but one that remained Conservative until 1929.[7] There was far more relevant factors to voting than class alone, notably patriotism, that kept Birmingham Tory in even the calamitous 1906 election. Therefore, Laybourn’s accusation that using case studies localises the national picture is weak. Lancashire is not alone; there is much more to voting Labour than just class.

Municipal elections also highlight how class could not be the sole reason for the surge in Labour’s vote share. These elections were restricted more so than general elections, but as Tanner indicates, their results were almost identical to the general elections whereby more working-class men were entitled to vote. Just a year after the 1918 election, Labour won a landslide in the local elections even though a majority of the recently enfranchised were ineligible.[8] The same can be said prior to the war; Labour went from eighty-two municipal seats in 1909 to five-hundred on the eve of war. If the Marxists were correct, then Labour would struggle more so in these restricted elections as working-class voters were not entitled to participate. Perhaps given Labour were the second largest party across Britain in 1919 in these local elections there is more to voting records than one’s class and background.

It is important to remember that alongside the men who were enfranchised in 1918, almost eight-and-a-half million woman were now able to vote. This new electorate were not like the enfranchised men. They had no identity party to vote for. What made their decision a lot easier, as Freeman points out, was the Liberal failures on the suffrage question before the war, and then how Asquith described women voters in the build-up to the general election of 1918. Asquith criticised these voters as “hopelessly ignorant of politics”.[9]  The Liberals missed a trick. The majority of women were to vote for Bonar Law and David Lloyd George and this would cripple the Liberals chances of entering opposition. This built upon the Liberals failure to fulfil promises for women’s suffrage, so their relationship with the women was hardly positive. Even within the enfranchisement argument, Liberal infighting was a major factor.

So why did Labour grow? If it is not about class, then something must have caused their surge. Pugh’s more recent work, after the class-based history of the 1960s and 1970s, points towards Labour burgeoning success in 1918 as because of its U-turn on social issues. The Labour Party had changed its direction from 1914 to the Coupon Election. Many working-class voters previously considered Labour as an anti-British and anti-imperialist party because of those like Keir Hardie. His 1895 poster and rhetoric against the monarchy, the constitution and the nation proved to give the Conservatives a majority in the working-class seat of West Ham South.[10] Hardie went against the Beer and Britannia ethos that galvanised blue-collar Tory support under Disraeli. Pugh argues that the most successful Labour candidates were those that echoed the ideals expressed by the patriotic but left-leaning Daily Mirror that was extremely popular among working-class voters. This shift was embodied between two specific Labour parliamentarians. Jack Jones from the East End, proposed beer should be the national drink and Tom Shaw of Preston, who proposed that a ‘blend of Toryism and socialism appealed to the working-class communities.’[11] These two men were two of the most popular and most successful Labour candidates, who defied the likes of Clarke by winning in the working-class, but non-Labour regions of London and Lancashire. Their rhetoric of hanging the Kaiser, admiring the monarchy, and other socially conservative values proved to enable them to enter office. In fact, this was the attitude of the nation at large. It came as a massive shock to the Liberal, Addison, standing in another East End constituency that so many were determined to see the Kaiser tried and punished.[12] Labour’s shift towards the monarchy was another calculated decision. Ward made it clear that the monarchy enabled the working-class, from all corners of Britain to feel a part of the nation.[13] Therefore, Labour followed and republicanism went from top of Hardie’s agenda to taking up a dismal fifteen-minutes at the 1923 party conference and was rejected by over ninety percent of party members.[14] The problems with primitive socialism of the late 19th century from the Fabians and the Social Democratic Federation was that their social concerns were not representative of the working-man in the street. Labour’s switch by 1918 can be illustrated by comparing the Labour poster of 1918 picturing war veterans glistening in the patriotic sun and to Hardie’s from 1895.[15] Labour transformed from one openly desiring reform, anti-war, anti-monarchy to a status-quo, pro-war, pro-monarch party. What made their success even easier was how the Liberals were portrayed as an unpatriotic party because Asquith placed politics before party. Perhaps if the Liberals had towed the line and not appeared as anti-British then Labour would not have been as successful.

On the eve of the First World War the resurgence of Liberal dominance had not been halted. The Liberals and the nation expected the scheduled election of 1915 as another success. Evans even states that in this election it would have been Labour that would have been obliterated.[16] So what changed? How could the Liberals go into the Great War stealing five by-elections from Labour but by 1918 fall to third? The Liberals even won the Hanley by-election of 1912 where the Labour candidate: a local miner, was rejected by the working-class electorate.[17] Prior to the war it had been Labour who were falling off of the electoral cliff edge. By contrast the Liberal Party of 1918 were in complete disarray. War and imperial ambition, as it had done in 1900 and 1886, had plunged the party into civil war and the party was again subject to mass defections, this time with members entering into a Conservative coalition. The Maurice debate exemplifies the divide with Asquith accusing Lloyd George of misleading the House over the number of Britons serving on the western front in March of 1918. The division left the party irreversibly separated: seventy-one MPs backed Lloyd George, ninety-eight supported Asquith and the remainder abstained.[18] This completely mirrors the three-way split that emerged within the Liberal Party during the Second Boer War. However, the First World War is far more damaging because, unlike in South Africa, it was a total war. No family, no town and no person could escape involvement in the war. Public mood was overwhelmingly on the side of the nation, political point-scoring was electoral suicide.

However, I do not believe that either of the main schools fully explain why the Liberals were substituted in opposition by Labour. The progressive pact of 1903 undoubtedly brought about the gradual, painful and somewhat unexpected death of Liberalism. The pact of 1903 that enabled Labour to enter the Commons which Dangerfield confesses meant that the Liberals were no longer the most radical alterative to the Tories, or the party of the left.[19] The grand Liberal majority of 1906 was the sole benefit of this miscalculation in preventing the Tories entering office. However, as Evans argues, it gave Labour ‘a bridgehead in parliament, with twenty-nine of its candidates elected in 1906’[20]. The Progressive Alliance also realigned the Liberals and made them more of an anti-Conservative Party, rather than a Liberal one. Their 1906 election poster was a prime example of negative campaigning; as the word Liberal only appeared once and it was just attacking the Conservatives rather than stating what the Liberals could do for Britons.[21] The Liberals were undoubtedly pushed to a more radical line. The Daily Herald even mocked the direction that the Liberal Party had let themselves get into a decade since the Gladstone-MacDonald Pact was signed, he considered it as being led by the “devilish diplomat” MacDonald.[22] It caused issue with the interpretation of Liberalism. Whereas Wales still supported old Liberalism, the north of England preferred new Liberalism. A divide began to emerge electorally because of the forced realignment of Liberals. The 1903 pact allowed Labour to replace the realigned Liberals as a true, clear-cut alternative, and with the help of the pact, one with political experience. The Liberals created this and therefore brought about their own death.

Dangerfield argues that the death started before the war. The death was dependent on three issues since 1910: women’s suffrage, Ireland, and trade unions.[23]  His major downfall is that he pronounced Liberalism as dead in 1913. Despite this and ignoring the pact the three issues contributed to Liberalism’s death. The political crises emerged from the pillars of Liberalism. The Home Rule crisis was brought about by Redmond’s nationalists supporting the Liberal government. As a price Redmond demanded Ireland to be ruled in a devolved parliament after the war concluded. However, the Liberals appeared to side with Ireland. This damaged relations with Bonar Law reaping the rewards of a pro-British electorate. Secondly, the trade unions crisis failed the nation because ten-million working days were lost through industrial action.[24] But it also helped Labour, as the sour relationship between the two saw the Trade Unions support Labour. Finally, the Liberals failed on women’s suffrage, and as Disraeli did in 1867, the Tories went from the party opposing enfranchisement to supporting it by 1918. The lack of change and Cat and Mouse Act meant the Liberals were not a party for women. This was at odds with their membership but was to cost them in 1918. These failures damaged the whole nation; thus, the Liberals were wounded by 1913 and 1918 would prove to be the final nail in the coffin. Nonetheless, these political miscalculations, alongside the 1903 pact should not be ignored.

In conclusion, it is without doubt that Labour superseded the Liberals in opposition and then gradually as a viable alternative to a Conservative government. This shift was brought about because of calamitous political decisions from within the Liberal ranks before and during the Great War. This adapts the accidentalists theory and indeed shows the war compounded Liberal problems and this was the straw that broke the Liberal camel’s back. Marxists who consider the enfranchisement of 1918 as integral to the change in the political landscape, ignore case studies as an anomaly. However, they are in an abundance, the thesis also ignores the female electorate and forgets that Labour achieved similar votes in the more restricted municipal elections. Instead, Pugh provides a logical reason why more Labour parliamentarians, usually from a socially conservative background, were elected in 1918. The main schools are not accurate. The Liberals inflicted self-harm on their chances, but the final drop of blood fell in 1918. By combining accidentalists and pre-war Liberal infighting, we have a clear answer as to why the Labour Party replaced the Liberals.

Bibliography:

Dangerfield, G., The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935)

Evans, EJ., The Shaping of Modern Britain: Identity, Industry and Empire 1780-1914 (2014)

Freeman, G., The Liberal Party and the Impact of the 1918 Reform Act (2018)

Lawrence, J., Class and Gender in the Making of Urban Toryism, 1880-1914 (1993)

Laybourn, K., The Rise of Labour and the Decline of Liberalism: The State of the Debate (1995)

Matthew HCG, McKibbin RI, Kay JA., The Franchise Factor in the Rise of the Labour Party (1976)

Noonan, LG., The Decline of the Liberal Party in British Politics (1954)

Pugh, M., The Making of Modern British Politics 1867-1939 (1982)

Pugh, M., The Rise of Labour and the Political Culture of Conservatism, 1890-1945 (2002)

Searle, GR., The Liberals: Triumph and Disintegration, 1886-1929 (1992)

Tanner, Class Voting and Radical Politics: The Liberal and Labour Parties, 1910-1931, in Party, State and Society, (1997)

Thackerey, D., Conservatism for the democratic age (2013)

Thompson, JA., The Historians and the Decline of the Liberal Party (1990)

P, Ward., Britishness since 1870 (2004)

P, Ward., Red flag and Union Jack: Englishness, patriotism, and the British left, 1881-1924 (1998)

Wilson, T., The Coupon and the British General Election of 1918 (1964)

Wolstencroft, S., The Progressive Alliance and the Rise of Labour 1903-1922: Political Change in Industrial Britain (2018)

Primary Sources:

Keir Hardie Poster, Labour Party Poster, 1895

Liberal Party Poster, Ten Years of Toryism, 1906 General Election

Punch Magazine, Forced Fellowship, 27/10/1909

Will Dyson, The Daily Herald, On The Way To Nowhere, 1913

Labour Party Poster, 1918 General Election

Labour Party Poster, 1923 General Election


[1] JA Thompson, The Historians and the Decline of the Liberal Party (1990), 66.

[2] HCG Matthew, RI McKibbin, and JA Kay, The Franchise Factor in the Rise of the Labour Party (1976), 742.

[3] Matthew, McKibbin, and Kay, Franchise Factor, 731.

[4] Thompson, Historians: Decline of Liberals, 71.

[5] Matthew, McKibbin, and Kay, Franchise Factor, 727.

[6] K Laybourn, The Rise of Labour and the Decline of Liberalism: The State of the Debate (1995), 215.

[7] M Pugh, The Rise of Labour and the Political Culture of Conservatism, 1890-1945 (2002), 529–31.

[8] D Tanner, ‘Class Voting and Radical Politics: The Liberal and Labour Parties, 1910-1931’, Party, State and Society (1997), 115.

[9] G Freeman, The Liberal Party and the Impact of the 1918 Reform Act (2018), 52.

[10] ‘Keir Hardie 1895 Poster’, (1895).

[11] Pugh, Labour’s Rise and Cultural Conservatism, 529.

[12] T Wilson, The Coupon and the British General Election of 1918 (1964), 40.

[13] P Ward, Britishness Since 1870 (2004), 28.

[14] Pugh, Labour’s Rise and Cultural Conservatism, 525.

[15] ‘Election Poster’, Labour Party, (1918).

[16] EJ Evans, The Shaping of Modern Britain: Identity, Industry and Empire 1780-1914 (2014), 434.

[17] S Wolstencroft, The Progressive Alliance and the Rise of Labour 1903-1922: Political Change in Industrial Britain (2018), 233.

[18] GR Searle, The Liberals: Triumph and Disintegration, 1886-1929 (1992), 132.

[19] G Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935), 22.

[20] Evans, The Shaping of Modern Britain: Identity, Industry and Empire 1780-1914, 433.

[21] ‘Election Poster – Ten Years of Toryism’, Liberal Party, (1906).

[22] W Dyson, ‘On The Way To Nowhere’, The Daily Herald, (1913).

[23] Dangerfield, Strange Death of Liberalism, 14.

[24] P Ward, Red Flag and Union Jack: Englishness, Patriotism, and the British Left, 1881-1924 (1998), 89.

Published by Jack Walters

I am currently studying history at University College, London. I have also contributed to BrexitCentral and have conducted political research used by The Daily Telegraph.

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