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1918-2019: A Century (well, roughly) of UK General Elections

Ares96

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#1
Thought these deserved a thread of their own.

1918

The parliament elected in December 1910 would, despite passing a bill reducing its own term from seven to five years, go on to sit for nearly eight, the longest-lived parliament since the English Civil Wars. The cause for this is obvious to us: in 1914, the First World War broke out. The parties in the House of Commons, deciding a general election would not be helpful to the war effort, formed a Coalition Government and suspended general elections until the end of the war. True to that promise, Prime Minister David Lloyd George announced the dissolution of Parliament three days after the armistice went into effect, with elections scheduled for the 14th of December, 1918.

By then, quite a lot had happened. Not merely with the war, which was too long and eventful to cover here, but in the British body politic as well. The Parliament Act had reduced the parliamentary term to five years and greatly reduced the House of Lords’ power over legislation. The Government of Ireland Act had provided for Irish home rule, although its implementation had been put on hold due to the war. And the Representation of the People Act had given the vote to all men above 21 and women above 30, the latter due to fears that the death toll from the war would put women voters in the majority.

The latter Act also provided for a massive restructuring of parliamentary constituencies, a necessary measure after thirty years of urban growth and population shifts. The House of Commons was expanded from 670 to 707 seats, the largest it had ever been or would ever be. Of course, 105 of those seats were in Ireland, where Home Rule would’ve meant a large reduction in representation if it had gone into effect.

The wartime Coalition, originally made up of members of the Unionist, Liberal and Labour parties, had shrunk significantly over its lifetime. When David Lloyd George replaced H. H. Asquith as Prime Minister in December 1916, the latter took a significant chunk of the Liberal Party with him into Opposition, and the Labour Party left at the end of the war (though a few of their members formed a new "National Democratic Party" to let them carry on supporting the Government). This left the Coalition consisting of the Unionists plus whatever Liberals backed Lloyd George over Asquith, which was usually enough to ensure a stable majority, but hardly the type of national unity that had been seen in 1914.

Lloyd George and Unionist leader Andrew Bonar Law still felt their work was unfinished, and when the election was called, they arranged for a Coupon (a form letter of endorsement signed by both leaders) to be sent to one candidate in each mainland constituency – hence the 1918 election’s common nickname, the “Coupon Election”. Unfortunately, the Coupon was private correspondence, and no unified record was made of who received it. It was up to each individual candidate to publish their Coupon and use it for their own election campaign, and some of them (mainly Liberals) disowned it while others may have simply chosen not to mention receiving it. In addition, all Unionists elected sat on the Government benches, but not all had been elected with the Coupon, so that makes it even harder to figure out how to count Coupon and non-Coupon candidates.

Whatever the exact numbers, it is however clear that the Coalition won a blowout victory. If we trust Wikipedia’s numbers, 523 out of 707 MPs elected supported the Government, with only 36 seats for Asquith’s Opposition Liberals and 57 for Labour (still their best result to date).

The biggest opposition party would be neither of these, but instead Sinn Féin, the face of radical Irish republicanism. The situation in Ireland had hardened after the 1916 Easter Rising was brutally suppressed by British force of arms and all but one of its ringleaders executed (the exception being Éamon de Valera, whose dual US citizenship made Dublin Castle fearful of causing a diplomatic incident). The decision to introduce conscription in Ireland in early 1918 did nothing to help, although a campaign led by Sinn Féin succeeded in quashing the idea before any Irishmen were conscripted. It was a tense situation by autumn 1918, and in the end, Sinn Féin were able to win 73 out of 101 Irish seats, including all but two seats outside the divided province of Ulster. The party had announced beforehand that its members would not take their seats in Westminster, instead forming a new Irish parliament out of their own number, and this was what happened. The 69 members of Dáil Éireann (the Assembly of Ireland) met in Dublin on 21 January 1919, and declared the independence of the Irish Republic.

Meanwhile in Ulster, those Protestants who had declared that they would fight any attempt to take Ireland out of the United Kingdom readied themselves for exactly such a fight, and the British Government prepared to defend the rule of law from what they saw as a treasonous rebellion. The war with Germany might be over, but peace wasn’t quite yet in sight…

 
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Ares96

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#2
1922

The Coalition, which by now consisted only of the Unionists and the half of the Liberal Party who still followed Lloyd George, spluttered on for another three and a half years. It fell apart because, well, there was very little left for it to agree on after the peace was secured. Lloyd George wanted to use the massive mandate given to the Coalition in 1918 to enact sweeping social reforms, to which his coalition partners said "um, what part of 'Conservative and Unionist Party' do you not understand". It was really sort of astonishing in light of this that it went on as long as it did, and its collapse only came about after it was revealed that Lloyd George had used his position as Prime Minister to sell baronetcies and knighthoods to Liberal kulaks.

The cash for honours scandal combined with the Chanak Crisis, where Lloyd George nearly provoked war with Turkey against the will of the war-weary armed forces, to force an election in autumn 1922. Unionist leader Austen Chamberlain was still cautiously willing to campaign as a Coalition, planning a joint speaking tour with Lloyd George, but on the 19th of October a meeting of Unionist MPs at the party-affiliated Carlton Club in London voted against continuing the Coalition by a three-quarters majority. Chamberlain resigned and was replaced by Andrew Bonar Law, the previous Unionist leader in the House of Commons, who had led internal opposition to the Coalition within the Unionist Party. The Unionist backbenches, newly empowered, formed a committee to discuss political matters independently of the party leadership, and over time this morphed into the '1922 Committee', the modern Conservative Party parliamentary group.

With the breakdown of the Coalition, a unified Unionist Party went to the country under Bonar Law's leadership seeking a mandate for a single-party majority. However, Lloyd George still held out hope for a new Coalition, and took about half the Liberal parliamentary party with him into a new "National Liberal" organisation. The National Liberals (not to be confused with the 1930s-50s party of the same name) campaigned on carrying on the Coalition, even though it was patently obvious that this wasn't going to happen. They still won about fifty seats, nearly as many as the main Liberal Party (theoretically led by a very tired and irrelevant H. H. Asquith) - largely because the two parties only stood against one another in about thirty constituencies.

In general, the culture of "everyone stands everywhere" was a lot less developed in 1922, and most seats were two-way contests between any two of the three major parties. There were a few places where the Liberal vote split allowing Labour to squeak through the middle, and in general, Labour had a very good election. They won 142 seats on just under thirty percent of the vote (about the same as the two Liberal factions combined), and formed the Official Opposition for the first time. J. R. Clynes, who led the party into the election, was replaced as party leader in the House by Ramsay MacDonald, who'd been out of favour up until this point because he opposed the war. Within eighteen months, MacDonald would be Prime Minister.

Oh, and the Irish thing happened. In 1920, the Irish Government Act had divided the island into Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. The idea was for these to be temporary units, with an all-Ireland cooperation body called the Council of Ireland set up to facilitate cooperation and eventual merger into a united home-rule Ireland. But by this point there had been all-out war between Dáil Éireann and the Crown for a couple of years, and neither side was too keen on trusting the other side with any sort of authority over them. So, the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which came into effect in March 1922, allowed Southern Ireland to go its own way, merge with the Dáil authorities and become the Irish Free State, while Northern Ireland opted out of the Free State and carried on as an autonomous part of the UK.

Confused yet? Well, it doesn't quite stop there, because Northern Ireland also had its parliamentary representation reduced, and for some reason, decided to go back to 1868-1885-style constituencies. Solidly Protestant counties Antrim, Down, (London)derry and Armagh became constituencies of their own, while the more marginal Tyrone and Fermanagh became one single massive two-seat constituency. Belfast, meanwhile, was brought back to its old four-seat division. All these seats were unopposed in 1922 except Derry, which was won by the Unionists on a huge margin, and Tyrone-Fermanagh, which was narrowly carried by the husk of the IPP. The Irish Nationalists also held Liverpool Scotland, an overwhelmingly Irish Catholic part of the city.

val-uk-1922.png
 
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Ares96

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#3
1923

Andrew Bonar Law, who had just ridden a backbench revolt all the way to 10 Downing Street and led his Unionist Party to an overall majority in the House of Commons, would end up a footnote in history. After just over six months in office, the 64-year-old Prime Minister was diagnosed with throat cancer in May 1923 and resigned from office. He would die that autumn.

Law's resignation caused a leadership struggle between Foreign Secretary the Earl Curzon of Kedleston and Chancellor Stanley Baldwin. The choice would formally be up to the King, who appointed a Prime Minister on advice from a "Magic Circle" of Unionist grandees who then confirmed his choice as leader of the party. Curzon, a nobleman and old-school Tory, believed himself to be Law's natural successor, but the choice of the Magic Circle fell on the more middle-class Baldwin, who came from a prosperous background but had made his own fortune and political career. In an age where working-class resentment was clearly rising, the upwardly-mobile MP for Bewdley (his actual hometown, no less) simply looked better as the face of the Unionist Party than the brash, divisive and aristocratic Lord Curzon.

Baldwin proved a good choice, and despite only being a few years younger than Law and Curzon, had an image as a "new man" who understood the tools available to modern politicians. In his fourteen-year stint at the head of the Conservative and Unionist Party, Baldwin would massively expand the party organisation, transforming it into every bit as much of a mass party as the Liberals and Labour, incorporate films and radio broadcasts into campaign strategy, and raise millions of pounds for the party war chest.

For now, however, Baldwin focused on his legislative agenda, and one item topped the list: tariff reform. Baldwin was a convinced protectionist, believing higher tariffs would help curb unemployment by encouraging British industry, but in 1922 Law had promised the electorate that no new tariffs would be raised without fresh elections. So it was that Parliament was dissolved and fresh elections called for the 6th of December, 1923.

As it turned out, neither the Unionist Party nor the people were decisively behind Baldwin's protectionist agenda, and the Unionists lost eighty-six seats and their majority in the House of Commons. They remained the largest party in the House by some margin, and the House of Lords retained a safe Unionist majority, but Baldwin was nevertheless voted out of office when the new Parliament opened. Labour, still the second party in the House despite the Liberals reuniting, formed a shaky minority Government with Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister. It was a new age indeed...

 
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Nanwe

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#7
I'm not sure, but it looks like between 1918 and 1922, Ulster started to elect way less MPs, is there a reason or that? Like a reverse West Lothian question?
 

Ares96

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#8
I'm not sure, but it looks like between 1918 and 1922, Ulster started to elect way less MPs, is there a reason or that? Like a reverse West Lothian question?
The Government of Ireland Act reduced Irish representation at Westminster from 101 to 42, and its recommendations were implemented in NI alone after the rest of the island left the UK. My guess is there was overrepresentation before then, but I really can’t imagine 42 MPs being sufficient for all of Ireland.
 

Thande

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#9
The Government of Ireland Act reduced Irish representation at Westminster from 101 to 42, and its recommendations were implemented in NI alone after the rest of the island left the UK. My guess is there was overrepresentation before then, but I really can’t imagine 42 MPs being sufficient for all of Ireland.
I wonder if that was meant to go alongside Home Rule, so it was like how Scotland's number of MPs was cut down between 2001 and 2005, and Wales...they never did get around to doing Wales, did they?
 

Nanwe

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#10
The Government of Ireland Act reduced Irish representation at Westminster from 101 to 42, and its recommendations were implemented in NI alone after the rest of the island left the UK. My guess is there was overrepresentation before then, but I really can’t imagine 42 MPs being sufficient for all of Ireland.
Yeah, it is too little. I just ran the numbers quickly from the UK 1911 Census, and Ireland had 9.71% of the population, which would translate to roughly 68 seats for the entire island.
 

Ares96

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#11
I wonder if that was meant to go alongside Home Rule, so it was like how Scotland's number of MPs was cut down between 2001 and 2005, and Wales...they never did get around to doing Wales, did they?
Yeah, exactly.

Wales does still have noticeably smaller electorates than the rest of the UK, as you say. I believe the Zombie Review was going to bring it down to 30 seats.
 

Alex Richards

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#15
That would be amazingly hilarious if true. After all that.
Among other things, Boris has got a lot more MPs now who would quite like not to be fighting it out for less seats- who would have thought, for example it would be the Conservatives having a fight over which MP gets to contest Redcar and East Cleveland?
 

Ares96

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#16
1924

The MacDonald ministry marked a turning point in British political history. For the first time, a socialist party formed the government, and besides MacDonald himself, ten other cabinet ministers came from working-class backgrounds. The ministry's main priority was to reassure the country that, despite this, they would govern responsibly and were not about to overturn the apparatus of the state. In this they were fairly successful, but their rule would still be short-lived.

The main achievements of the MacDonald administration in domestic politics were the extension of benefits and state pensions, long-held Labour goals, and the Wheatley Housing Act, which extended state subsidies for council housing and enabled the construction of half a million new affordable homes. A high tempo of reform was carried on throughout 1924, but the Labour ministry would soon be overtaken by foreign affairs.

The Soviet Union, which had been founded in 1922, had still not been formally recognised by the UK when MacDonald entered office. Though far from a communist himself, the new Prime Minister wanted to settle any diplomatic conflicts with the new country, and to this end recognised them as one of his first acts in office (he was Foreign Secretary as well as Prime Minister). In February, negotiations were started on a treaty which would open up international trade between the two countries and settle debts owed to British bondholders who had invested in the pre-revolutionary Russian government. The Soviets, conscious of their difficulties trading abroad, wanted to include a loan in the treaty, which caused both the Unionists and Liberals to balk, and the non-Labour majority became increasingly united against the Government as negotiations carried on.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the Campbell case, a trial brought against Communist newspaper publisher J. R. Campbell in August for an open letter to all British servicemen published in his Worker’s Weekly. In this, Campbell called on soldiers and sailors to defy any order to open fire on striking workers, and instead “turn their weapons on their oppressors”. This was considered incitement to mutiny, a felony under British law, but to Labour MPs it was a flagrantly political affair. Under pressure from his backbenchers, MacDonald’s Attorney General withdrew the charges against Campbell within a week of their announcement. The House of Commons passed a censure motion in response, and MacDonald, considering the matter a confidence question, resigned and requested the dissolution of Parliament. The election was set for 29 October.

The Unionists, having found a strong line of attack, continued to accuse MacDonald of being a closet Communist throughout the campaign. On the 25th of October, just before the election, the Unionist-supporting Daily Mail published the now-infamous Zinoviev letter. The letter, purportedly sent by Comintern chairman Grigori Zinoviev, called on British communists and Labour Party members to fight for the ratification of the Anglo-Soviet treaty as soon as possible, and said this would “make it possible for us to extend and develop the ideas of Leninism in England and the Colonies”. Today, it is mostly agreed that the letter was a complete forgery, but it became the culmination of the 1920s Red Scare in Britain and remains a byword for red-baiting.

The short-term effect of the Zinoviev letter on the campaign, however, was probably not significant. In any case, Labour increased its voteshare compared to the previous year and held on to three quarters of their seats. What caused the great Unionist landslide that the 1924 election produced was the collapse of the Liberal Party. It had been in dire financial straits since the end of the Great War, and Lloyd George’s questionable financial dealings had only slightly extended its lease on life. Three general elections in two years, however, had taken a toll, and in 1924 the Liberals were only able to raise deposits for 339 candidates, or just over half the seats on offer. Of these, they won forty, a loss of three-quarters compared with 1923, and party leader H. H. Asquith lost his seat in Paisley to Labour. The ongoing realignment to a Unionist-Labour duopoly carried on apace, and there would in fact never again be a Liberal Prime Minister.

The great winner, then, was Stanley Baldwin, who could return to Government with fully two thirds of the House of Commons behind him. Whereas the 1922 parliament proved short-lived, the 1924 parliament would serve out its full five-year term, and by then, the situation was hardly recognisable.

 
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Ares96

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#17
Oh, and the Irish Nationalists seem to have boycotted the 1924 election everywhere but Liverpool Scotland. Liverpool Exchange, where they nearly won in 1923, was unopposed Unionist in 1924, while Belfast West saw NI Labour and Sinn Féin stand against the Unionists and lose, and F&T only Sinn Féin (whose two candidates got about 10% of the vote combined).
 

Ares96

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#19
You know somehow I'd always assumed the collapse was a little more gradual than that.
They still polled around 20% of the popular vote in both 1924 and 1929 - what really did them in was the National Government, which basically killed off the Liberal organisation everywhere that wasn’t already a Liberal (or Liberal National) seat.

This is another big WI connected to wider electoral reform after the war, of course.