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

Makemakean

Rootless Rōnin
#22
You know somehow I'd always assumed the collapse was a little more gradual than that.
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the National Liberal Club when Asquith laid out his brilliant plan to let Labour form a minority government even though the Tories were by far the largest party, on the grounds of "They'll fuck up, everyone will see how incompetent they are, and then the voters will come flooding back to the Liberal Party as the only trustworthy alternative to the Tories".

Asquith was banking on the first MacDonald Ministry meeting the same fate as Bob Rae's provincial NDP government.
 

Makemakean

Rootless Rōnin
#23
I was quite amused by how the Tories only held one seat in Somerset in 1923, and it was Yeovil.
I have been somewhat flabbergasted by how much the Liberal seats in Parliament has shifted since World War II, and how, apart from Orkney and Shetland, they don't really seem to have any "natural hunting grounds", so to speak.

In February 1974, the Liberals won fourteen seats. In 2017, the Lib Dems won twelve. The seats the Liberals won and the parties that held them (or they equivalents) in 2017:

Berwick-upon-Tweed
Bodmin
Ceredigion

Colne Valley
Inverness
Isle of Ely

Isle of Wight
Montgomeryshire
North Cornwall
North Devon
Orkney and Shetland

Rochdale
Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles

Shetland and Orkney is literally the only one that still remains.

I cannot help but think of how Christopher Wylie must have felt when he spent an awful lot of time and energy as a Lib Dem activist trying to find the single common denominator between all Lib Dem voters and discovering that actually, there isn't any, and the reason why people vote Lib Dem seems to be more or less entirely dependent on constituency.
 
#24
I have been somewhat flabbergasted by how much the Liberal seats in Parliament has shifted since World War II, and how, apart from Orkney and Shetland, they don't really seem to have any "natural hunting grounds", so to speak.

In February 1974, the Liberals won fourteen seats. In 2017, the Lib Dems won twelve. The seats the Liberals won and the parties that held them (or they equivalents) in 2017:

Berwick-upon-Tweed
Bodmin
Ceredigion

Colne Valley
Inverness
Isle of Ely

Isle of Wight
Montgomeryshire
North Cornwall
North Devon
Orkney and Shetland

Rochdale
Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles

Shetland and Orkney is literally the only one that still remains.

I cannot help but think of how Christopher Wylie must have felt when he spent an awful lot of time and energy as a Lib Dem activist trying to find the single common denominator between all Lib Dem voters and discovering that actually, there isn't any, and the reason why people vote Lib Dem seems to be more or less entirely dependent on constituency.
I think their main common denominator is class and social outlook. From 2017 onwards, at least, Lib Dems tend to be middle to upper middle class voters either in small cities or on the outskirts, places like Bath and Oxford, and they are particulary popular in universty towns. They are the party of the well-educated middle. But there are outliers, because LD MPs gain significant popular following. Orkney just always votes Lib Dem, but places such as Tim Farron’s seat spring to mind.
 

Ares96

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#26
1929

Stanley Baldwin's second ministry, backed as it was by over four hundred votes in the House of Commons, would last a full parliamentary term, the first five-year parliament since the War. Most of the Constitutionalists went into the Unionist Party after the 1924 election, and Winston Churchill would serve as Baldwin's Chancellor of the Exchequer. Austen Chamberlain was made Foreign Secretary, his brother Neville Minister of Health, and Arthur Balfour Lord President of the Council - all former Coalition supporters, and all supportive of Baldwin's goal of moving the Unionist Party into a new age. In 1925, Parliament passed the Pensions Act, which provided for widows and insured workers to receive ten shillings a week (about £30 in today's money, not accounting for changes in purchasing power) out of state funds. This represented a sea change from the attitudes of earlier Conservative and Unionist governments, and this willingness to engage in constructive reform to improve ordinary people's lives made Baldwin's administration hugely popular.

There was a dark side, however. Serving as Home Secretary for the entire period was William Joynson-Hicks, a Conservative of the old line and observant evangelical Christian who believed in moral and strict governance. Hicks led the charge against nightclubs and "indecent" literature, both of which were flourishing in the post-war London environment, and his stance made him the enemy of large parts of the cultural scene. He also opposed the revision of the Book of Common Prayer, which required parliamentary approval by tradition, and his forceful arguments against "creeping papistry" ensured that the revision was rejected, leading to an outcry from the Church of England and serious talk of disestablishment.

Most significantly, the middle years of the 1920s saw a rising crisis in the coal industry. British coal had enjoyed a few good years after the end of the War, but the double shock of the Dawes Plan of 1924 (under which Germany was forced to export coal to France and Italy at low prices) and Churchill's introduction of the gold standard in 1925 (which artificially inflated the value of sterling and damaged British exports as a result) caused severe damage to the industry. Production fell, and to maintain their profits, mine owners slashed wages, which by 1926 were only two-thirds of their 1919 levels. When Baldwin came to power, he'd announced a wage freeze aided by state subsidies and a Royal Commission to investigate a long-term solution to the problem, but this ended up recommending a pay cut and extended hours for miners, and in response, the TUC announced a general strike.

The General Strike of 1926 lasted from the 3rd through to the 12th of May, and involved some 1.7 million workers. The Labour Party leadership were lukewarm about backing it, fearing for their reputation as a credible party of government, and while they eventually backed the strike, they kept their heads down for much of it. Instead it came to be seen as a conflict primarily between the unions and the Government, who were determined to fight the strike from the beginning. Baldwin called it “the road to anarchy” in the official government newspaper, and Churchill took a similarly hard line, saying “it is a very much more difficult task to feed the nation than it is to wreck it”. The Government recruited special constables to maintain essential services, and the Army was sent out to keep order in the streets.

While figures like Churchill and Hicks were willing to use force to end the strike, Baldwin and the King were both more conciliatory, and in the end, there was very little violence at all. The general strike was called off on the 12th, and the miners went back to work over the following months. The TUC had decisively lost, but the strike soon came to be seen as a trial by fire for the British labour movement, one that it had passed. Unity had been maintained between trade unions representing vastly different types of worker, and the movement had displayed its combined power for the first time.

As such, it was an empowered Labour Party that went into the 1929 campaign, still led by Ramsay MacDonald. MacDonald had gotten into arguments with his constituency party in Aberavon, who expected their MP to help deal with the serious troubles facing the constituency, and to avoid the spectre of defeat or deselection, he stood down and moved to Seaham in County Durham, an ultra-safe Labour seat even in 1924. Its MP was Sidney Webb, one of the key intellectual leaders of the early Labour Party, who was rewarded with a peerage after giving his seat to MacDonald.

They were further helped by continuing high unemployment – one of the solutions to the mine productivity crisis was mass lay-offs, and many other parts of the British economy were still reeling from the after-effects of the War. Also possibly benefitting the opposition (though we’ll never know for sure) was the Representation of the People Act 1928, another moderate Unionist reform package, which finally gave women the right to vote in general elections on equal footing with men. The influx of young women electors would give the 1929 election its popular nickname, the “Flapper Election”.

The result was disappointing for Baldwin and the Unionists – they narrowly won the popular vote, but lost eight percentage points and a hundred and fifty seats compared with 1924. The major benefactor of this loss were the Liberals, back under the leadership of David Lloyd George, who gained six percentage points but only went up to 58 seats. Instead it was Labour who reaped the benefits and, for the first time ever, became the largest party in the House of Commons.

Ramsay MacDonald was back. And if his first ministry had been turbulent, that was nothing compared to the whirlwind that would be the 1929-31 Parliament…

 

Ares96

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#28
1931

MacDonald’s second administration, like his first, was a minority, but this time Labour were at least the largest party in the House of Commons. David Lloyd George was happy to give passive support to a Labour ministry, and so Labour once again entered Government. MacDonald made sure not to repeat the mistakes of his first term, and declared that his Government’s first priority would be to deal with unemployment and the worsening standard of living of the British working class. Veteran trade unionist J. H. Thomas was appointed Lord Privy Seal (effectively a minister without portfolio) and given extensive power to investigate and propose legislation to deal with the employment, and in 1930, Labour passed laws to clear slums, raise unemployment assistance and stabilise the situation of coal miners (the root cause of the 1926 general strike).

If MacDonald had looked forward to a quiet term in which to carry out the Labour programme, however, it was not to be. In October 1929, the New York Stock Exchange crashed, ending a near-decade of continuous economic growth. It took a while for the effects to reverberate in the less interconnected global economy of the time, but through 1930, Britain’s economic situation became worse and worse. The Labour Government, like most other governments of the day, was totally unprepared for this, and faced a dilemma as to how to resolve it. There was a rising clamour for interventionist state spending, led by Cambridge economist John Maynard Keynes, but those ideas were extremely radical for the time. Chancellor Philip Snowden, a classical liberal at heart, refused to countenance deficit spending, and clung to austerity as the only acceptable course of action.

Opposition to this was swift and harsh from the Labour backbenches. One of the leading Keynesian voices in Parliament was Oswald Mosley, MP for Smethwick and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (another de facto minister without portfolio), who wrote up the “Mosley Memorandum” outlining a policy of protectionism, nationalisation and extensive public works. The Memorandum further called for a synthesis of government, business and organised labour, in order to “obliterate class conflict and make the British economy healthy again” – a view that contrasted quite sharply with those of most Labour and Unionist MPs. Mosley would resign from Cabinet in May 1930, launching the “New Party” with the goal of uniting the left and right behind the programme laid out in the Mosley Memorandum. Because of its corporatist orientation as well as Mosley’s increasing respect for Benito Mussolini, the New Party would soon drift toward fascism, but the process was not yet complete by the 1931 election.

Mosley, the Unionists, and indeed Labour were all overtaken by events in the summer and autumn of 1931, as Britain further sank into economic depression and the standing of the pound sterling became more and more threatened. Hitherto, the pound had been backed by gold, which aided international trade and was useful as long as Britain’s economy remained strong. In times like this, however, when the British economy was weak but the value of gold remained high, it was incredibly risky – the pound couldn’t adapt to changes in the economy, and became the target of speculation, reducing available gold reserves and further threatening the economic stability of the Government. Snowden, true to form, refused to abandon the gold standard, and instead plans were made for massive austerity measures in the 1931 budget, including cuts in public-sector wages and unemployment assistance. While a narrow majority of Cabinet backed the budget, a large minority did not, and threatened to resign if it were carried out. Seeing a split that would likely doom his government anyway, MacDonald decided to instead submit his resignation as Prime Minister on 24 August 1931.

The King wanted nothing more than to avoid chaos and division in this time of crisis, so in place of sending for Stanley Baldwin, he encouraged MacDonald to form a new government – a grand coalition, with ministers from across the political spectrum. This “National Government” would be able to take firm action, backed by thumping majorities in both houses of Parliament, to see Britain through the crisis and restore the pound to a solid footing. MacDonald liked the idea, and as it turned out, so did both Baldwin and most senior Liberals. The only party that was not convinced, embarrassingly for MacDonald, was Labour – to the unions and the Labour backbenches, this “National Government” sounded a lot like a plot to get austerity through behind their backs even though they’d just won the election.

The Labour executive, shortly after rejecting MacDonald’s plan for government, removed MacDonald himself from the leadership and replaced him with Arthur Henderson, a former party leader who had led opposition to the austerity plan inside Cabinet. When MacDonald accepted the King’s invitation to head the National Government over his party’s objection, he was expelled from the Labour Party altogether, and Snowden and Thomas as well when they joined his new Cabinet.

MacDonald and his allies immediately formed a new party, the National Labour Organisation, to support the National Government. No trade unions backed it, leaving it essentially at the mercy of the other Government parties, of which the most powerful by far was the Conservative and Unionist Party – the label “Unionist” was gradually replaced with “Conservative” over the course of the interwar period, and it’s hard to pinpoint a date when one name definitively overtook the other. For our purposes, though, the creation of the National Government is as good a place as any. The Scottish branch of the party would carry on using “Unionist” until centralising reforms in 1965, while the Ulster branch would never change names and eventually spin off into a separate party altogether in the 1970s (already being essentially independent from partition onward).

The formation of the National Government was transformative for all three major parties, but the Liberal split was probably the deepest-seated and most disastrous in the long term. The party had been rudderless ever since Lloyd George’s Coalition fell apart, and would split into three factions for the 1931 election. The first, under Deputy Leader Herbert Samuel, went into the National Government hoping to advance the Liberal programme of free trade and public spending, while a minority under John Simon drifted towards the Conservative protectionist position. Simon had resigned the whip as early as June, and with his participation in the National Government, a rival Liberal faction was formed dubbed the Liberal Nationals (changed to National Liberals after 1945). Finally, there was David Lloyd George, who remained leader of the Liberal Party through all of this, although a wounded prostate kept him hospitalised through most of the fateful days in August. He initially gave the National Government his support, but later pulled out and formed his own “Independent Liberal” party, which famously stood six candidates in 1931, four of whom were related to Lloyd George by blood or marriage (the other two were junior minister and future Evening Standard editor Frank Owen, who had been elected as MP for Hereford at age 23 and remained Baby of the House, and science-fiction writer Edgar Wallace, the only Independent Liberal candidate who wasn’t a sitting MP).

Most expected the National Government to sit for a few weeks, sort out the economy, then disband and return to normal party politics. This was probably also its goal, but it would soon turn out that the economic situation was far more dire than anyone had expected. The public-sector pay cuts advanced by Chancellor Snowden included a pay cut for Navy personnel of between 10 and 25 percent. On 11 September, the Atlantic Fleet pulled into harbour at Invergordon, in the Scottish Highlands, and its sailors received the rude shock of reading about the pay cuts in the previous day’s London newspapers. The Fleet was due to sail again on the 15th, but only one capital ship actually left port – on the others, the sailors mutinied and refused to set sail unless the pay cut was rescinded. The Invergordon Mutiny lasted about thirty-six hours, and caused panic both in Cabinet and on the London Stock Exchange. Banks continued to hoard gold, and the pound continued to plummet, until Snowden was finally forced to concede defeat and take the pound off the gold standard on the 21st.

The National Government now found itself without its key policy promise, and Britain found itself in uncertain economic waters. Both the Conservatives and MacDonald now wanted an election, and one where the National Government would go to the country as one unit, as the Coalition had in 1918. There were two major stumbling blocks: the end of the gold standard meant the major unifying factor in the Government was gone, and the Liberals still disagreed with everyone else on trade. The solution was childishly simple: the National Government would not campaign on any policy promises, instead seeking a “doctor’s mandate” to do whatever it deemed necessary to restore the economy to good health. Individual candidates were free to support protectionism or free trade, and protectionist Conservatives were frequently opposed by Liberal candidates, making 1931 not quite a full “coupon election”.

Despite the vagueness of its platform, it can’t be denied that the National Government did extremely well out of the 1931 election. Held on 27 October, six weeks after Invergordon and just over a month after the end of the gold standard, the election saw Labour reduced to just 52 seats, its worst result since the war, although its voteshare remained relatively healthy at 30.6%. Nearly all the rest of the votes went to the National Government, however, including the Conservatives, who won an outright majority of the popular vote for the last time (to date) in British political history. The National Government would take over ninety percent of seats in the House of Commons, and the Conservatives alone won a three-quarters supermajority.

As in 1924, the biggest losers in terms of votes were not Labour but the Liberals. The three factions of the Liberal Party increased their share of seats compared to 1929 (indeed, they won more seats put together than Labour did), but because of the National Government electoral pacts, there were only Liberal candidates in some 150 constituencies. Everywhere else, the local party branches had nothing to fight for and no funding, and the once-proud Liberal ground organisation continued to atrophy.

The National Government, intended to last a month or so, would continue in one form or another until 1945.

 

Makemakean

Rootless Rōnin
#31
I always did find it odd how Sir John Simon became the leading force of the Liberal Nationals and was so keen to remain in alliance with the Tories that he was willing to give up on the Liberal dogma of Free Trade, when just a decade earlier, he had been one of those Liberals who had remained with Asquith, and actually been an opponent of Lloyd George's coalition.
 

Yokai Man

Well-known member
#32
I always did find it odd how Sir John Simon became the leading force of the Liberal Nationals and was so keen to remain in alliance with the Tories that he was willing to give up on the Liberal dogma of Free Trade, when just a decade earlier, he had been one of those Liberals who had remained with Asquith, and actually been an opponent of Lloyd George's coalition.
Trust no one,not even yourself
 

Makemakean

Rootless Rōnin
#33
I cannot help but find it kind of weird how the Conservative Party managed to remain intact through this tumultuous period. Both Lloyd George and Ramsay MacDonald were the single most radical PMs in British history at the time they took office, and the Conservative Party was willing to let them lead the government on two different occasions when the Conservatives on their own had a majority. Sure, there were grumblings, the 1922 Committee for one, but there is yet something about the fact that they never split off and founded their own party, on the grounds of refusing to sit in a government headed by a socialist or something of the sort. I mean, at the time, Lord Curzon happily serving as Foreign Secretary under PM Lloyd George must have seemed as bizarre in 1919 as it would have seemed in 2019 to have Jacob Rees-Mogg agree to serve as Jeremy Corbyn's Foreign Secretary.
 

von mises

Due to a failure to create eye holes
#34
I have been somewhat flabbergasted by how much the Liberal seats in Parliament has shifted since World War II, and how, apart from Orkney and Shetland, they don't really seem to have any "natural hunting grounds", so to speak.

Montgomeryshire
This is a bit late, but I wonder how Montgomeryshire would have stood up without the intervention of Öpik. This was very solid Liberal territory up until 2010, and it says everything about Lemsip that he lost it during Cleggmania. Don't take it quite so much for granted, get an MP more in tune with the place and, well, I wonder.

Mind you, I doubt the Lib Dem Brexit strategy would have helped here.
 

Alex Richards

She needs an artificial Mountain, not AV
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#35
This is a bit late, but I wonder how Montgomeryshire would have stood up without the intervention of Öpik. This was very solid Liberal territory up until 2010, and it says everything about Lemsip that he lost it during Cleggmania. Don't take it quite so much for granted, get an MP more in tune with the place and, well, I wonder.

Mind you, I doubt the Lib Dem Brexit strategy would have helped here.
Gut instinct, we lose it along with Brecon in 2015 and it's basically OTL from there.
 

Ares96

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#37
1935

With a huge majority in hand, the National Government carried on under MacDonald’s leadership for four years. However, MacDonald himself was in his late sixties, and increasingly showed the signs of twenty-five years in national politics, in addition to which his National Labour group only controlled thirteen seats. So in practice, the majority of government policy was controlled by the Conservatives, who would’ve been able to comfortably govern alone if they’d wanted.

Stanley Baldwin, as Lord President of the Council, increasingly became Prime Minister in all but name as the National Government carried on, and was responsible for a great part of the Government’s policymaking. He negotiated with Walter Runciman, President of the Board of Trade and high-profile Liberal National, to secure a tariff increase to 10%, which stopped short of what Conservative protectionists wanted but was also a move away from the free-trade policy of the 1920s. The other major achievements of the National Government were all in foreign policy. The 1931 Statute of Westminster secured legislative independence for the Dominions (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Newfoundland and the Irish Free State), and the Government of India Act 1935 began (or was supposed to begin) the transition to Dominion status for India, reducing the power of British officials and increasing the power of elected assemblies.

Most infamously in hindsight, the Government pursued a policy of disarmament. In 1932, Baldwin made a speech in which he used the phrase “the bomber will always get through”, which was taken to mean that any air defences were considered futile, and while Government policy was always a bit more nuanced than that, it did continue to push for disarmament at international conferences through 1932 and 1933. Policy changed somewhat after October 1933, when Germany withdrew from the League of Nations, its new leader Adolf Hitler considering it a waste of resources and an affront to the German people. Hitler openly stated his desire for war and revenge for the humiliation at Versailles, and this evidently did cause the British Government to sit up and take notice. Baldwin seems to have believed that some rearmament was necessary, however, he and the Government were scared into inaction by the Fulham East by-election later in October, when the Labour candidate defeated the pro-rearmament Conservative on a swing of nearly thirty percentage points.

Labour, of course, bears its share of blame for the foreign policy of this era, which needs to be seen against the background of the First World War being in recent memory. Britain had been seriously affected, its working classes especially so, and many were desperate to avoid another war like it. This included Labour leader George Lansbury, a staunch socialist and pacifist who represented Bow and Bromley in the East End of London. Lansbury had an impeccable record as a campaigner for poor law reform, women’s suffrage and workers’ rights, and had participated in the Poplar Rates Rebellion of 1921, all of which made him attractive to a party in need of direction after the disaster of 1931. His activism would also be the major problem with his leadership, however, as he’d been an opponent of both the Boer War and the First World War, and now pledged to fight anything he saw as movement towards another great power conflict. This pacifist stance sent him on a collision course with the trade unions, which were bastions of anti-fascism above pacifism and supported rearmament. At the 1935 party conference, TGWU chairman Ernest Bevin slammed into Lansbury for failing to support rearmament in a way above and beyond the normal policy disagreements expected in such a context, and Lansbury resigned soon after the conference, to be replaced by barrister and Limehouse MP Clement Attlee.

By the time Lansbury went, MacDonald had already stepped back from the premiership. He and Baldwin switched places, Baldwin becoming Prime Minister and MacDonald becoming Lord President, a position now reduced to its ceremonial role of chairing the Privy Council. As he’d done in 1923, Baldwin decided that it would be best to call an election to cement his mandate, and this was announced for 14 November. Senior Conservative figures including Neville Chamberlain (Chancellor of the Exchequer and widely seen as Baldwin’s right-hand man) urged Baldwin to campaign on rearmament or risk being seen as a pledge breaker when it was inevitably implemented, but Baldwin refused, and made commitment to the League of Nations a central plank of the National Government campaign.

The result was perhaps more surprising at the time than it seems in hindsight. Essentially, the 1924 situation was restored, with the Conservatives on a significant but not 1931-huge majority, Labour as the uncontested opposition, and the Liberals (now outside the National Government) in third place. National Labour was reduced to eight seats, MacDonald losing his own seat of Seaham to trade union stalwart Manny Shinwell. The labour movement in Scotland was fracturing somewhat, with the ILP breaking off from the main Labour Party and taking four seats in Glasgow with them, while the Communists won the mining seat of West Fife. In spite of this, it was a huge victory for Clement Attlee, who secured his leadership of the Labour Party after only a few weeks on the job and saw his parliamentary party increased by over a hundred seats. Labour also beat their 1929 voteshare by nearly a percentage point, and at 38%, achieved their best vote ever up to that point – of course, their opponents were also more united than ever under the National Government.

The Parliament elected in 1935 would outlast even the 1910-18 one, sitting for nearly a full decade until July 1945. Because once more, war was looming over Europe…

val-uk-1935.png
 

Ares96

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#39
The Valleys look like [INSERT AMERICAN STATE HERE].
It is of course worth noting that a couple of the contested seats there weren't contested by the Tories. The majority in Merthyr was over the ILP, in Gower it was an Independent National and in Rhondda East it was Literally Harry Pollitt.