One of the greatest political events of 20th-century British history was the twin rise to prominence of the Labour Party and the sudden demise of the Liberal Party. This transformation occurred in the course of only a generation, and caused a prominent historian, George Dangerfield, to write, as early as 1935, his seminal work, The Strange Death of Liberal England. But just why did the Labour Party supplant the Liberal Party to become the second major political party in Britain’s two-Party political system??
Well, Dangerfield makes the argument that the central reason for the Liberal Party’s demise was that it stopped being the party of the left. (1) Prior to 1906, the Liberals had been the traditional party of the left, and had competed on a pretty much even-keel with the right-of-center Conservatives. In the January 1906 General Election, however, a new party – the Labour Party – emerged as a credible alternative, a new party on the left.
The Labour Party was the first socialist party in Great Britain to have any degree of success. This was partially because it wasn’t all that much socialist. (2) Instead, it was a genuine working-class political party, initially formed for the sole purpose of electing working-class MPs.
The Party’s roots go back to 1893, when Keir Hardie, a Scottish miner, formed the Independent Labour Party. (I.L.P.) Two years later, in the 1895 general election, it elected two MPs, one of whom was Hardie. Unfortunately, the fledging party had few financial resources and couldn’t afford to undergo general election campaigns, nor afford to pay MPs (as MPs were until 1911, unpaid). Thus, on February 27, 1900, 129 delegates from the I.L.P., the Trades Unions Congress (T.U.C.), (3) the Fabian Society, (4) and other leftist and worker groups met at the Congregationalist Memorial Hall in London and created the Labour Representative Committee (L.R.C.), in order to facilitate the election of MPs sympathetic to the working-class cause(s). (5)
The organization was founded in a rather disadvantageous political climate. Britain was in the midst of fighting the Boer War in South Africa, which the Party strenuously opposed. Thus, the Party did not do well in the 1900 “Khaki Election,” returning just two MPs. (6)
Six years later, however, the Party returned 30 MPs, most through a secret political pact with the Liberal Party. The pact led to Liberal candidates withdrawing in several Labour-leaning constituencies and Labour candidates from several Liberal-leaning constituencies. As a result, the parties of the left magnified their election totals, with the Conservative Party going down to its worst defeat up until last year.
While this was good short-term politics for the Liberal Party, it was disastrous in the long term, as Labour established itself as a credible third party. In 1906, this posed no immediate threat to the Liberal Party, so long as the Edwardian England and Europe that existed in 1906 would continue to exist. When World War I broke out eight years later, and continued beyond expectations, however, the Liberal Party’s days of hegemony were numbered.
In November 1918, the war finally ended. Three days later, Prime Minister David Lloyd George dissolved Parliament and called new elections. This posed a problem for the Labour Party. It had been part of Lloyd George’s Wartime Coalition, and thus, could have fought the General Election as part of the coalition. If they did this, they would undoubtedly increase their share of seats somewhat, but they would be continuously overshadowed by the Liberals. They might never become a serious political party.
The other course of action was to withdraw from the coalition and fight the General Election by themselves. This also had its many risks. They would be by themselves, and have a limited campaign treasury. They could end up losing seats, and thus, disappearing entirely as a political force. But to many, it was a risk worth taking, and on November 14, 1918, the Labour Party decided, in a momentous debate, to fight the election independently. (7)
In the ensuing General Election, the Party increased its share of the vote dramatically, going from 400,000 votes and six percent in December 1910 to 2.4 million votes and 21 percent. (8) Yet it only elected 15 more MPs than in 1910, and lost most of its leaders. Nevertheless, the Party demonstrated that it should be taken seriously. As a result, less than six years later, it formed its first Government, a stellar record for a political party which began only 24 years previously. This should be coupled with the fact that 1922 was the last year Britain had a Liberal PM!!
- (1) George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England, 2nd ed., (New York: Capricorn Books, 1961), p. 10.
- (2) It wasn’t until 1918 that the Labour Party adopted, as part of its Constitution, the famous Clause 4, pledging the Party to eventual socialism. The Clause was removed in 1995.
- (3) The British equivalent of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
- (4) An intellectual organization that consisted then of such intellectuals as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, and many others. The organization is still in existence today.
- (5) Carl F. Brand, The British Labour Party, (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1974), p. 11.
- (6) Peter Clarke, Hope and Glory: Britain, 1900-90, (NY: Penguin, 1996), p. 405.
- (7) G.D.H. Cole, A History of the Labour Party From 1914, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1948), pp. 43-44.
- (8) Clarke, p. 406. See also Charles Loch Mowat, Britain Between the Wars: 1918-40, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 7.