Policy Reform and the Politics of Housing in the British Conservative Party 1924-1929

By Macintyre, Clement | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Policy Reform and the Politics of Housing in the British Conservative Party 1924-1929


Macintyre, Clement, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


This paper examines an important period in the development of the modern British Conservative Party. The changing patterns of electoral support in the first decade after the first world war required the Conservatives to recast their policies to appeal to the new electorate. Many historians of this period see the development of policy at this time as signalling a shift in the Party that constituted a form of `new Conservatism'. This paper looks at on the substance of the welfare policy reforms and, concentrating on housing policy, argues that there is little evidence of fundamental reform. It is argued that far from constituting a reformist agenda, the Conservative welfare policies of the time in fact reflect a simple and pragmatic reading of the fluid and unpredictable political circumstances of the time.

Introduction -- the importance of reform

As the Conservative Party in Britain faced up to the scale of the defeat they suffered in the General Election of 1 May 1997 it was inevitable that among their first thoughts in opposition would be the need for structural reform and policy revision.(1) There is nothing surprising in this. There is a natural tendency for political parties to let policy and organisational matters drift while they are successful and winning elections: it is generally only after defeat that some evaluation of strategy and policy is necessary. Accordingly, after two successive defeats in 1974, there was a period of reform for the Conservative Party when Margaret Thatcher initiated sweeping changes to the process of policy formulation and to the approach the Party took to political debate when she was elected as leader.(2) Similarly, after the unexpected defeat by Labour under Clement Atlee in 1945 there was a substantial debate within the Conservative Party over the appropriate policy priorities for the post-war years.(3) While it is still too early to determine the outcome of the current revisions, it is clear that the reforms in the 1940s and 1970s left the Conservative Party well placed to dominate British politics for the subsequent generation. The Conservatives were re-elected in 1951 and held office until 1964 and, after Thatcher's victory in 1979, they remained in office until 1997.

In the mid- to late-1920s, there was an earlier period of reform for the Conservative Party. This time, however, the stimulus for change had a much broader base and the immediate outcomes were less clear. As well as reacting to their brief time in opposition (January-November 1924), Party strategists faced the need to adapt to the new electoral environment that emerged after World War I. The extension of the franchise and the broader social and political changes that came as a consequence of World War I meant that all parties were forced to adapt to a new and unfamiliar electoral environment. As the size of the electorate increased nearly three-fold, the patterns of support for the main political parties were far from predictable. For the Conservatives this meant, on the one hand, dealing with a new political opponent, the Labour Party, and, on the other, as the post-war coalition fell apart in 1922, moving to isolate the Liberals so as to emerge as the dominant anti-Labour party. The old familiar and secure world of two party electoral battles between the Conservatives and the Liberals had gone and, after 1918, there was a less predictable electorate choosing between three parties.

The size of the electorate at the last election before the war (December 1910) had been just under 8 million. At the December 1918 election it was over 21 million. Between the 1918 and 1923 elections, support for the Labour Party increased by over two million. At the same time, their Parliamentary representation had increased from 57 to 191.(4) By 1923, Labour had clearly replaced the Liberals as the principal alternative party of government. In the aftermath of the 1923 election the Conservative Party confronted a dilemma.

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