The Unbreakable Mould? British Third-Party Politics since 1924

Article excerpt

IT is necessary to understand the role of a third force in British politics over the last century in order to see why the Liberal Democrats may be poised for a significant electoral breakthrough in the next general election which most observers expect to be held in May. The decline of the Liberal Party in the early twentieth century took place at breakneck speed. The party moved from a landslide majority with 400 seats in 1906 to a rump of 40 MPs just eighteen years later. The collapse has been explained in a number of ways. Some talk of the impact of the First World War, others highlight the destructive rivalry between Lloyd George and Asquith or political errors made by the Liberal Party in the early 1920s. But the most obvious explanation of Liberal decline lay in the rise of the Labour Party representing the newly-enfranchised working classes (before the First World War no women could vote in general elections, and only about three-fifths of men).

The 1924 election saw the first-ever Labour administration, a minority government under Ramsay MacDonald. It lasted only a few months, but it arguably succeeded in demonstrating that Labour was the natural alternative to the Conservatives. In the eighty years since, apart from periods of national coalition government in the 1930s and in wartime, Labour and the Conservatives have effectively alternated in office. The Liberal Party has been marginalised.

The fortunes of the third party in British politics after 1924 may be seen in terms of three phases. The first phase saw an attempt to break the duopoly of the other two parties from a radical standpoint. This policy of attacking from the left was first seen under Lloyd George. In the 1929 general election he led a barnstorming campaign around a sixpenny pamphlet entitled We Can Conquer Unemployment, pushing for the sort of public works programme that Ramsay MacDonald's second Labour government of 1929-31 was to reject as too dangerous a departure from economic orthodoxy. But Lloyd George's efforts did not enable him to restore the fortunes of the Liberal Party to any significant degree. His 'radical New Liberalism' of the 1920s won him a mere 59 seats in the 1929 election, though even this is a hill which the Liberals have failed to climb since, (albeit they are currently very close to it at 55). The ideas to which the Liberal J.M.Keynes converted Lloyd George in the late 1920s had to wait until the Labour government of 1945 for implementation.

After a period of coalition government in the 1930s and 1940s, the third party's attack on the ruling duopoly was renewed in the 1950s. Under Jo Grimond the Liberals revitalised themselves as a centre-left party, though once again without significant electoral benefit. Their share of the vote rose from 3 per cent in the 1951 and 1955 elections (6 seats each time) to 6 per cent in 1959 (6 seats again) and 11 per cent in 1964 (9 seats). The famous quip that Liberal MPs could all be fitted into a taxi had to be modified into a minibus (though by 1970 the Liberals were back to 6 seats and taxi status). The leftish Liberal agenda of the 1960s, (not to mention radical Young Liberals like Peter Hain, now a New Labour minister) turned out to pose no threat to a moderate Labour government.

The problem for the Liberal Party, during this first phase of third-party effort at renewal, was not one of policy. It was one of missing a social base. The Liberal Party in the 1920s lacked not radical ideas but enough links with the newly enfranchised working-class movement. The trade unions financed the Labour Party (often shifting their sponsorship of candidates from Liberal to Labour) and maintained a national network of local Labour clubs. This provided the basis for a well-organised electoral organization with funds at its disposal, and it identified support for Labour with a particular social milieu that routinised the Labour vote, even when the policies of the party were arguably no more radical than those of the Liberals. …