Labour Might Never Again Form a Majority Government | Adam Garrie
The election of 1900 was a triumph for the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists whose landslide victory would be a towering swan song for the mighty 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. This Khaki election, so-named for the uniforms worn by soldiers in the ongoing South African War, pitted a pro-Empire Conservative and Liberal Unionist alliance against a Liberal party awash in the anti-war and anti-imperial “Little England” ideology. A refreshed brand of patriotic Unionism won easily against what appeared to be the last vestiges of a Gladstonian Liberal party without Gladstone.
This victory was ultimately short lived. In 1903, the unsinkable Lord Salisbury died after having resigned the previous year. His nephew Arthur Balfour replaced him at No. 10, but in spite of his high intellect, Balfour proved to be a less than commanding leader.
Even as public opinion began turning against the war after 1900, it was the issue of trade which ended up sealing the fate of the Balfour ministry. Just as it had done in the 1840s, the issue of free trade vs. protectionism split the Conservatives (and moreover their Liberal Unionist partners). Multiple pro-free trade Conservative MPs crossed the floor of the House of Commons to sit with the Liberals, most famously Winston Churchill who “ratted” in 1903.
Balfour grew exhausted after failed attempts to hold his party together. As such, the tariff reformer Joseph Chamberlain appeared more and more to be the true leader of the Unionists whilst the less charismatic Balfour remained in office but not in power.
In 1905, Balfour resigned. This paved the way for a Liberal landslide in the subsequent 1906 election. The Liberals under Henry Campbell-Bannerman fought the election on a traditional Gladstonian manifesto of “”peace, retrenchment and reform”.
But just as the Conservative and Unionist victory of 1900 proved short lived, so too did the Liberal victory of 1906. The elderly Campbell-Bannerman died in 1908 and his successor H. H. Asquith proved to be even less like his predecessor than Balfour was in respect of Lord Salisbury.
Asquithian Liberalism eschewed the anti-interventionist, low-tax “classical Liberalism” of Gladstone and embraced a much more radical interventionist programme. This proved controversial as Chancellor David Lloyd George’s so-called “people’s budget” was infamously rejected by the House of Lords in 1910. This led to Asquith asking His Majesty to dissolve Parliament in January of 1910, in an attempt to gain a fresh mandate from the public. The Liberals however fell short of a majority of seats and instead formed a coalition with Irish Nationalists after gaining a razor thin plurality over the Conservative and Unionist Party (2 seats to be precise).
The deadlock continued and consequently led to another election in December of 1910. The result yet again was that of a hung parliament which forced the Liberals into another coalition with Irish Nationalists.
At this point, one might ask what this has to do with the Labour Party of 2020? The answer is that after January of 1910, the Liberals were never again to form a majority government. Future Liberal front-benchers were relegated to govern from coalitions and later, the National Government of the 1930s. As time went on, the Liberal influence slipped ever further from government. Lloyd George’s ouster from No. 10 in 1922 by a Conservative and Unionist majority marked the final year that a Liberal would ever be Prime Minister. Even prior to this, the Unionist machine had been the engine which drove the post-1915 wartime coalition.
Between 1910 and the end of Churchill’s wartime coalition in 1945, many prominent Liberals continued to dominate politics – albeit much less so than prior to the Great War. But the fact remained that the party was no longer considered a natural party of government, nor even one that could realistically form His Majesty’s Opposition (Her Majesty’s Opposition after 1952).
Today, Labour appear to be on a similar path to infamy. Having lost every general election since 2010 and with their last Prime Minister to lead the party to victory having done so in 2005, the party nevertheless remains Her Majesty’s Opposition, but the question is: for how long?
In many ways, Labour’s fall from the mainstream of politics is even more dramatic than that of the Liberal Party of the 20th century. Between 1910 and 1922, a Liberal sat in No. 10 in spite of not being able to lead a majority government. Labour by contrast haven’t been near the government benches since May of 2010.
With the Conservative Party of Boris Johnson riding high in the polls in spite of a controversial approach to the present pandemic, Labour may well be relegated to a party of the past, one that like the Liberals will not disappear, but one that will be unlikely to form a government on its own at any time in the foreseeable future. In fact, even the prospect of a Labour coalition feels more remote than the same would have felt in respect of the Liberal party in the late 1920s. The National Liberals did after all play a role in the National Government of the 1930s.
It is time for objective observers to acknowledge that whilst Labour remain the second biggest party in the Commons, the most influential opposition political figure in the land is Nigel Farage. Farage’s brand of mostly Asquithian Liberal Unionism could potentially present a far greater threat to the Conservatives than could a listless Labour party.
The decline and fall of the Liberal Party makes it clear that once titanic political forces can fall with remarkable rapidity. Insofar as this is true, Labour have fallen and continue to fall with even more rapidity than the Liberals did in the 20th century…and this is before one compares the dynamic David Lloyd George to the bland and downright boring Keir Starmer.
Photo by Brendan Mulcahy on Flickr.