1a: A changing political landscape: Changing party fortunes, 1918-31


Liberal Party in 1918

  • Liberals believed in free trade & limited gov role - party of social reform.
  • Dominated British politics before WW1 - problems e.g. Irish Home Rule & women's suffrage were interrupted by WW1 but returned after 1918.
  • After WW1 appeal to its traditional voters (MC & artisan WC) began to ↓.
  • Labour became perceived party of reform.
  • Liberals were deeply divided during WW1:
  • Many opposed the growth in the power of the state, particularly on conscription
  • War had resulted in coalition w/ Conservatives from 1915 onwards & many Liberal MPs believed Lloyd George had abandoned the principles of the party & become too close to Conservatives
  • 1918 election - Lloyd George campaigned against the many Liberal Party member→ split the vote & Liberals never recovered
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Labour Party in 1918

  • Closely tied to unions as it evolved from the Labour Representation Committee of the TUC.
  • 1906 - Labour had nearly 1m affiliated members & returned 29 MPs to Parliament.
  • Had 40 MPs after 1910 election.
  • After 1911 became much easier for WC politicians to be elected to Parliament when the Liberal gov allowed wages for MPs.
  • ROPA 1918 saw British electorate triple in size from 7.7m to 21.4m → dramatic expansion in Labour's voter base.

Affiliated members - trade union members who support Labour party through donation of part of their membership dues to the party

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Conservative Party in 1918

  • Electoral reform forced the party to change & attract new supporters.
  • By end of WW1, the Conservatives presented themselves as a party of the MC & members of the WC who wanted to 'better' themselves through party ownership.
  • Conservatives were part of Lloyd George's wartime coalition (1915-18) & continued to support him as PM until 1922.
  • After 1918 a large proportion of their votes came from newly enfranchised property-owning women & the party actively encouraged their engagement w/ Conservative ideas.
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Voting rights

  • Pressure for full democracy ↑ in April 1917 when the USA joined the war.
  • 1918 ROPA ensured that:
  • Nearly all British men (over 21) had the vote
  • Women over 30 were enfranchised if they owned property or were a member of a local government register/married to a man who was
  • 1928 - women given vote on same terms as men.
  • 1969 - ROPA extended vote to everyone 18+.
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Decline of Liberal Party - Elections

  • By 1918 Lloyd George had effectively split the party - 1918 election was fought between the ruling Liberal-Conservative coalition & the Labour & Liberal opposition parties.
  • Liberal-Conservative coalition won a landslide victory in 1918 election, however Conservatives within the coalition were more popular (over 3x as many votes as the Coalition Liberals).
  • The opposition Liberals experienced a collapse in their vote - partly due to popularity of Lloyd George's coalition & the promise of social reform, & partly as a result of the rise of Labour.
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Decline of Liberal Party - David Lloyd George

  • 1918 - Lloyd George a national hero & credited by much of the country as 'the man who won the war' & as the tough negotiator who would be able to represent Britain at the Paris Peace Conference.
  • June 1922 - news broke that Lloyd George was involved in a scandal selling knighthoods & peerages - sold 1,500 knighthoods & nearly 100 peerages during 6 years as PM.
  • His decision to go to war with Turkey further dented his credibility & his Conservative coalition partners disagreed.
  • Secret meeting of Conservatives held at the Carlton Club - decided to abandon coalition w/ Liberals → 1922 election=disaster for Liberals.
  • National Liberal Party (led by Lloyd George) reduced to 53 MPs, & opposition Liberals (led by Herbert Asquith) increased to 62 MPs.
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Rise of Labour Party

  • First Labour gov led by Ramsay MacDonald in 1924 & was a minority government - its election seen as deeply alarming by many Conservative-supporting newspapers e.g. The Times.
  • Committed to parliamentary democracy & went to great lengths to demonstrate how moderate it was.
  • Opponents in Conservatives & media often compared Labour to the repressive regime in Soviet Russia & suggested there were Soviet sympathisers among the cabinet.
  • Had strained relations w/ National Executive Committee of the Labour Party - MacDonald had to make harsh economic choices that affected the poorest voters & had to manage threat of industrial action - party critical of him for not being more radical.
  • Dependent on Liberal support because of minority gov, so any attempt to introduce a more radical programme would have resulted in a withdrawal of their support & gov would collapse.
  • Gov lasted for 9 months (collapsed 1924 following motion of no confidence) - not long enough to pass much legislation.
  • August 1924 - MacDonald accused by Liberals & Conservatives of having secret communist sympathies due to his attempts to normalise relations between Britain & Soviet Union - MacDonald forced to resign & call an election.

Motion of no confidence - vote in Parliament against the gov, usually giving them no choice but to resign

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Rise of Labour Party - General Election, Oct 1924

  • Labour's election campaign ruined by publication of damaging story in Daily Mail - claimed that a letter from Gregori Zinoviev (Russian communist revolutionary) to the British Communist Party had been discovered.
  • The letter was forged & appeared to be an incitement to revolution, telling British communists to prepare to overthrow the gov - Daily Mail hoped it would dissuade people from voting left-wing.
  • Labour lost election & Conservative gov (led by Stanley Baldwin) able to form a majority.
  • Conservatives took seats from Liberals & Labour - first-time Labour voters who were now disappointed in MacDonald switched to Conservatives & so did Liberal voters who had lost faith in the party's ability to revive itself.
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Reform to Labour's funding

  • Many Conservatives believed the gov should use all methods at its disposal to weaken Labour (despite Baldwin's appeals for peaceful coexistence), as well as the trade unions.
  • 1925 - private member's bill opposed by Baldwin in House of Commons & failed - bill wanted to prevent Labour from receiving a political levy from trade unions however Baldwin more concerned w/ political stability than party conflict.
  • Following General Strike, Baldwin yielded to pressure to introduce laws ↓ Labour's funding from the unions.
  • 1927 amendment to 1906 Trade Disputes Act - political levy on union members could no longer be automatically deducted from union membership & passed onto Labour - members had to agree to pay it & 1/3 chose to opt out → Labour's finances decreased 35%.
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Conservative dominance, 1924-29

  • New Conservative gov formed by Stanley Baldwin presented itself as an alternative to Labour & the 'threat' of socialism in Britain.
  • However, Baldwin wanted to be seen as a moderate politician who could appeal to all social classes - believed 'class war' that had emerged during MacDonald gov was damaging to Britain & he discouraged Conservatives from attacking Labour as secret agents of the USSR.
  • When he defeated the general strike in 1926, he said 'Our business is not to triumph over those who have failed in a mistaken attempt.'
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Social reforms, 1929-31

  • MacDonald's lack of an overall majority made him dependant on Liberal support again to pass legislation, though he had a largely cooperative working relationship with them.
  • The gov was able to pass some social reforms:
  • 1930 Housing Act - cleared 3/4 of 1m slum houses & replaced them w/ modern homes by 1939
  • 1930 Coal Mines Act - attempted to ensure better pay for workers & more efficient pits, but mine owners could ignore this weak legislation
  • Amended the Unemployment Insurance Act - gave gov powers to create public works schemes to alleviate unemployment - funded w/ £25m of gov money
  • As well as Liberal dependence, gov also limited by the growing economic crisis - MacDonald referred to the next two years of crisis in Britain as an 'economic blizzard'.
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Economic problems, 1929-31

  • Summer of 1931 - rumours that the forthcoming budget would be unbalanced, leading to an increase in borrowing - caused banks in USA to panic sell the £ → £ slumped in value.
  • Gov proposed spending cuts & tax hikes to reassure financiers, inc. introduction of a 10% cut in unemployment assistance - kept value of £ stable but caused hardship for poorest Brits.
  • Threat of the cut split Labour & MacDonald's cabinet →  gov resigned on 24th August 1931.
  • MacDonald formed a National Government (urged by King George V) from the 3 main parties with himself as PM.
  • MacDonald & Lord Philip Snowden (chancellor of the exchequer) viewed as traitors to the Labour Party who passed a motion expelling them - Labour formed a new National Labour Committee designed to sponsor Labour parliamentary candidates who supported the National Government.

MacDonald and the American banks

  • By 1931, gov under pressure from international banks, particularly USA, who didn't want the gov to spend large sums on welfare despite rising unemployment.
  • These banks held significant power over Britain as they held large currency reserves of the £ & the banks didn't want a high-spending British gov as this would lead to tax/borrowing, which would reduce £'s value & cause Gold Standard to be readjusted.
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