The general election of 1885 was the first fought on the enlarged franchise of the third reform act and the first in which the parties competed for the votes of large numbers of agricultural workers. This stimulated both a new political debate and the development of campaigning techniques which would inform the next election.
The Liberal Party’s leading pioneer of organised campaigning was Joseph Chamberlain, a businessman who brought to politics the drive and innovation that had made him a commercial success. In 1877, Radical Joe founded the National Liberal Federation. He intended using its mass membership to push the Liberal party in a more radical direction, to repeat the success of his Birmingham Caucus on a national scale. In 1885, he put forward The Radical Programme, unauthorised by the party leadership, as an election manifesto for using the constructive power of the state. In both cases W E Gladstone subverted Chamberlain’s efforts. In addressing its first major meeting, he helped co-opt the NLF for mainstream Liberalism. By adopting Home Rule for Ireland as his banner, Gladstone trumped The Radical Programme, driving Chamberlain out of the party. In the great schism of 1886, over Home Rule, the NLF deserted Chamberlain to remain loyal to Gladstone.
Between 1886 and 1891, Home Rule dominated Liberal policy debates but two events damaged their Irish allies. In 1887, The Times published letters, implicating Charles Stuart Parnell, the Irish party leader, in the Phoenix Park murders of a government minister and a civil servant, although a high profile government inquiry later discovered the letters to be forgeries. In 1890, the divorce of Katherine OShea, which identified Parnell as Mrs OShea’s lover, split the Irish party and scandalised non-conformist Liberals. With an election due shortly, the Liberal leadership recognised their vulnerability. Home Rule had been presented as the great obstruction, which blocked the way to all other reforms and which must have absolute precedence. As Gladstone put it, ‘You must clear the line. You must dispose of the Irish question.’ However, Ireland also served the purpose of postponing any decision on the next great crusade and prevented dissension over the priority to assign to policies proposed by the party’s various segments. The Newcastle Programme was to be the solution to these dilemmas, a manifesto for British government.
Each year the National Liberal Federation met for debate in what may be seen as the forerunner of today’s political party conferences. The NLF developed a process by which it passed an omnibus resolution incorporating all the policies that had been agreed in debate. In the autumn of 1891, the Federation met in Newcastle. In addition to Home Rule, the policies, which were crowded onto the omnibus, may be divided into three main areas: rural, religious and electoral reform.
In 1885, the Party’s rural policies had been sold under the slogan Three Acres and a Cow and, at Newcastle, the Party still sought compulsory powers for local authorities to acquire lands for allotments, small holdings, village halls, places of worship and labourers dwellings; a policy to turn agricultural workers into small-scale tenants. But Liberals also sought rating reform, a just taxation of land values and ground rents, repeal of the laws of primogeniture and entail, freedom for tenants to sell or transfer their interest, together with compensation for both disturbance and improvement. These tenant freedoms were to appeal to more middle class farmers and were analogous to Irish land reforms, which had been secured despite considerable opposition from aristocratic landlords.
For non-conformists, the party offered disestablishment of both the Welsh and Scottish Churches, removing their legal privileges and putting them on the same footing as other protestant sects. In addition, there would be a direct popular veto on the liquor trade, a localised prohibition on the sale of alcohol to alleviate what Liberal temperance campaigners condemned as a cause of poverty as well as a social evil.
Electoral reforms were among the most developed of the Newcastle policies. At a local level, popularly elected district and parish councils were offered. Nationally, reform would secure faster registration of those who moved home, more equal treatment of lodgers and simultaneous voting at national elections while abolishing plural voting. These proposals would increase the number of poorer electors and diminish the power of larger property owners. To encourage more working class candidates, MPs would be paid and the cost of polling transferred from the candidates to the rates. Parliamentary terms would be shortened from seven to three years and the House of Lords ended or mended if it interfered with Liberal legislation.
While rural concerns were extensively covered, the party still lacked an urban cow reform for the majority of the population who were more likely to work in factories than fields. The Newcastle programme did include changes in Death Duties and made nods in the direction of limiting hours of work and making employers liable for accidents to employees. Urban workers would also gain from the Free Breakfast Table the ending of duties on tea, cocoa, coffee and chicory. But this miscellaneous collection of ideas failed to add up to a comprehensive package for the towns and cities.
On 2nd October 1891, Gladstone spoke to the Federation and in the lead up to his central theme, Home Rule, touched on the main components of the Newcastle resolution. For the first time, a Liberal Party leader had lent support to a programme proposed by the party’s grass roots. A few weeks later, on 25th November, Lord Hartington, the leader of the Liberal Unionists, announced that there was no longer any hope of re-union with the Gladstonian Liberals.
The Liberal Party won the 1892 election, although its majority relied on Irish Nationalist support. This obliged Gladstone to put Irish legislation ahead of British, but gave him insufficient strength to ward off a Lords veto of Home Rule. Of The Newcastle Programme, the government’s principal achievements were Employers’ Liability, parish councils and Harcourt’s 1894 budget, which introduced graduated death duties. When the efforts at temperance reform and Welsh disestablishment ploughed into the sands of opposition, a disunited cabinet, now led by Lord Rosebery, were almost anxious for an excuse to resign.
The 1895 defeat condemned the Liberals to a decade in opposition for which critics blamed The Newcastle Programme’s attempt to run half a dozen omnibuses through Temple Bar at the same time. Nevertheless, a precedent had been established. Today all major political parties expect ordinary members to participate in policy development and to present the electorate with a programme for constructive government.
Tony Little is a pension fund manager and has been a student of Victorian politics for more than thirty years. He is Chairman of the Liberal History Group.