After studying this section you should be able to:
- outline the development of the political parties in the 1920s
The decline of the Liberals and the rise of Labour
The First World War led to a re-shaping of the party system. In 1915 Asquith formed a coalition but he was widely regarded as the wrong man to lead the country in a war. In 1916, he was overthrown and replaced by Lloyd George. The bitterness this caused ensured that the Liberal Party would never again hold office, though many historians would argue that this was only one, and perhaps not the most fundamental reason for the decline of the Liberals. At the end of the war, Lloyd George was re-elected as Prime Minister with the support of the Conservatives and the Coalition Liberals. By 1922 the Conservatives felt they had no more use for him and he was overthrown. There was then a short period of three-party politics, but by 1924 it was becoming apparent that Labour was replacing the Liberals as the alternative to the Conservatives.
The divisions among the Liberals facilitated the rise of Labour, but perhaps it would have happened anyway as a result of the enfranchisement of the working classes. At the end of the war the Representation of the People Act produced a genuine mass electorate. In 1922 Labour became the official opposition and in 1924, after an election which gave no party a majority, Ramsay MacDonald formed the first Labour government. It depended on Liberal support and lasted for less than a year, but it demonstrated that Labour was now the alternative to the Conservatives. The formation of a second Labour ministry in 1929 – again a minority government but this time with the largest number of seats in a hung parliament – underlined this. In the 1929 election Labour won 288 seats, the Conservatives 260 and the Liberals 59, so no party held an overall majority.
These developments in the Liberal and Labour parties obviously benefited the Conservatives. They were the dominant partners in Lloyd George’s coalition government and then held office themselves until 1929 except for the brief interlude of the first Labour ministry. But this might not have happened if the Conservatives themselves had not adjusted to the new era of the mass electorate. They had a solid basis of upper- and middle-class support, and by the 1920s had clearly become the party of business. Their leaders, Bonar Law and Baldwin, were both industrialists rather than landowners. They also attracted substantial support from the working classes, building on the foundations laid by the Conservative working men’s associations and the Primrose League. Baldwin took pains to present himself as an ‘ordinary’ man. Under his leadership the Conservatives rejected the notion of class war and accepted the need for government to engage in social reform and management of the economy. He also made good use of the new medium of radio.
KEY POINT - Between 1830 and 1931 the electorate had been expanded from a small minority of men to include all adults of both sexes, and government by the landowning classes had therefore given way to democracy. The parties had to develop national and local organisations and draw up programmes to win the support of the electors.
- 1918–22 Lloyd George coalition
- 1924 First Labour ministry
- 1924–29 Baldwin’s Conservative government
- 1926 General Strike
- 1929–31 Second Labour ministry