History

A torrent of gin and beer: the election defeat in 1874

In January 1874, the Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, approached Queen Victoria to dissolve parliament, surprising both the opposition and his own party. In his election manifesto, Gladstone promised to reduce local taxes, to cut taxes on consumer products and to repeal the income tax. When the campaign was over, the Liberal landslide of 1868 had been washed away and Benjamin Disraeli presided over a Conservative majority of 52, the first since 1841.

1906 Election

In the General Election of January 1906 the Liberals swept to victory in a landslide result, which saw the party win 400 seats. Conservative strongholds such as Bath and Exeter were conquered as Liberal leader, Henry Campbell Bannerman capitalised on the unpopularity of the previous Tory administration, which had been replaced by his new Liberal government in December 1905.

The 1918 ‘coupon’ general election

Just 24 hours after the Armistice had been signed with Germany, Lloyd George announced his decision to hold an election in alliance with his Coalition partners and Parliament was accordingly dissolved on 14 November 1918. The ensuing contest shattered the Liberal Party by formalising wartime divisions and providing a clear distinction between those Liberals who supported Lloyd George and those who continued to stand by Asquith.

The 1923 general election

The 1923 election was sparked in October of that year, when the Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin announced that his government would be seeking a mandate to introduce tariff protection, in order to tackle growing levels of unemployment.

The 1924 general election

In contrast to the contest of 1923, the General Election of 29 October 1924 was an unmitigated disaster for the Liberals and the Party's parliamentary strength was reduced to just 40 MPs. A number of leading Liberal figures failed to emerge victorious from the contest, including the Party's leader, Herbert Henry Asquith, who lost the Paisley seat that he had won in a by-election just four years earlier.

The 1929 general election

The election of May 1929 took place against a backdrop of economic depression, as the Conservative government struggled to stem a growing tide of unemployment in the aftermath of the First World War.

The 1931 general election

The National Government was formed in August 1931, following the failure of Ramsay Macdonald's minority Labour administration to deal with the mounting unemployment that was paralysing Britain. The Conservatives had been pressing for the adoption of protection throughout the proceeding period and the public were becoming increasingly frustrated by the apparent ineffectiveness of the free trade policy, that had underpinned Britain's economic policy since the repeal of the Corn Laws. In contrast, the majority of Liberals remained distinctly opposed to the introduction of protection, which they associated with inflated food prices, vested interests and international conflict. The new administration was therefore far from harmonious.

Journal articles

The language of elections

Review of Luke Blaxill, The War of Words: The Language of British Elections, 1880–1914 (Royal Historical Society, Boydell Press, 2020).

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Analysing the 2015 and 2017 elections

Review of Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh, The British General Election of 2015 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016);
Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh, The British General Election of 2017 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018)

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The shock of coalition

Review of Edward Fieldhouse, Jane Green, Geoffrey Evans, Jonathan Mellon, Christopher Prosser, Hermann Schmitt, and Cees van der Eijk, Electoral Shocks: The volatile voter in a turbulent world (OUP, 2020).

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Chamberlain’s machine

Review of Andrew Reekes, The Birmingham Political Machine: Winning Elections for Joseph Chamberlain (West Midlands History Limited, 2018).

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Landslide

The Labour Party’s performance in the 1997 general election took even its most optimistic supporters by surprise. How does the result look when compared with previous election landslides? And what might happen now?

The 2005 general election

Reviews of Andrew Geddes & Jonathan Tonge (eds.), Britain Decides The UK General Election 2005 (Palgrave, 2005), John Bartle & Anthony King (eds.), Britain at the Polls 2005 (CQ Press, 2005), Dennis Kavanagh & David Butler, The British General Election of 2005 (Palgrave, 2005), Pippa Norris & Christopher Wlezien (eds.), Britain Votes 2005 (Oxford University Press, 2005).

Letters to the Editor: Issue 69

James Bryce (Sandy S. Waugh); Liberals and the left (Peter Hatton); The 2010 election: missed opportunity (Martin Pugh); The Gower primary of 1905 (Kenneth O. Morgan); Samuel Morton Peto and his relatives (Sandy S. Waugh).

Events

General Election 2019: Disappointment for the Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats entered the 2019 general election campaign buoyed by their best opinion poll ratings in a decade, a second place showing in the recent European Parliament elections, impressive local election results in England and high-profile defections from the other parties. The party had a dynamic, young new leader in Jo Swinson and a simple, clear message: stop Brexit. But the party’s campaign gained little traction and the results were hugely disappointing.

Discuss the 2019 election with Professor Sir John Curtice (Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde) and James Gurling (former Chair, Federal Campaigns and Elections Committee). Chair: Wendy Chamberlain MP.

The meeting will be hosted online on Zoom and also broadcast to the History Group’s Facebook page. You must register in advance to participate via Zoom (and be able to ask questions); to register, click here.

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting. Participation via Zoom is limited to the first 100 registering.

Update following meeting: John Curtice’s presentation to the meeting is attached here: John Curtice 080720

The 1979 General Election

The 1979 general election inaugurated the premiership of Margaret Thatcher and an eighteen-year period of Conservative government. It took place after the ‘winter of discontent’, marked by public sector strikes which destroyed the Labour government’s social contract. The results signalled the end of the post-World War II political consensus, based on an enhanced role for the state in economic management, strong trade unions, a broad welfare state and the pursuit of full employment.

The election came at the end of a decade that had seen numerous political upheavals, including two hung parliaments and record levels of support for the Liberal Party. But the Liberals’ share of the vote fell sharply in 1979, and two-party politics seemed to be back.

Join Lord David Steel, Professor Sir John Curtice (University of Strathclyde) and Baroness Shirley Williams to discuss the 1979 general election and its significance.

The meeting will start at 7.00pm, after the Liberal Democrat History Group’s AGM at 6.30pm.

The 1918 coupon election and its consequences

In November 1918, just 24 hours after the Armistice had been signed with Germany, the Liberal Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, announced his decision to hold a general election.

Selected coalition candidates received a signed letter of endorsement from Lloyd George and the Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law. The 1918 election thus became known as the ‘coupon election’.

The election saw 133 Coalition Liberals returned to the House of Commons, but the independent Liberals, whom Lloyd George had abandoned, were reduced to a tiny minority, overtaken by the new Labour Party, while the Coalition Liberals increasingly became the prisoner of their Conservative Coalition partners. The election was a key stage in the decline of the Liberal Party; it cemented the wartime split and ensured that the Liberals were eventually relegated to third-party status.

Speakers: Kenneth O. Morgan, Lord Morgan (author of Consensus and Disunity: The Lloyd George Coalition Government 1918-22 and several other books on Lloyd George) and Alistair Cooke, Lord Lexden (official historian to the Conservative Party and the Carlton Club). Chair: Claire Tyler (Baroness Tyler).

The report of this meeting was published in Journal of Liberal History 100 (autumn 2018) and is also available here.

Election 2017 – a missed opportunity?

The Liberal Democrats entered the 2017 general election campaign with high hopes: they were the only major UK-wide party unequivocally to oppose Brexit, and the campaign followed months of encouraging local government by-election results. But the outcome was a disappointment: a further fall in the vote from the catastrophic result in 2015, and four losses out of the eight seats that had been salvaged then – though this was offset by the recapture of eight seats which had been lost in 2015 or 2010.

What went wrong? Was it a failure of leadership, of positioning or of campaigning? Or was the party simply swept aside by the rising Labour tide?

Discuss the result and the implications for the Liberal Democrats with Professor Phil Cowley (co-author of The British General Election of 2017) and James Gurling (Chair, Liberal Democrats Federal Campaigns and Elections Committee). Chair: Baroness Grender (Paddy Ashdown’s second-in-command on the 2015 Liberal Democrat election campaign).

The AGM of the Liberal Democrat History Group will take place first, at 6.30pm, followed by the speaker meeting at 7.00pm.

Catastrophe: The 2015 Election Campaign and its Outcome

NOTE VENUE AND START TIME CHANGE

The venue of this meeting has changed from the National Liberal Club to the House of Lords (Committee Room 1), and the start time from 6.30pm to 6.45pm.

There are several votes in the Lords on Monday, and our chair and one of our speakers are both Liberal Democrat peers who need to be in Parliament at the time. Entry is via Parliament’s public entrance, opposite Westminster Abbey – tell the police officers you are going to a meeting hosted by Baroness Grender in Committee Room 1, and they will direct you. You should allow at least 20 minutes to go through the security check.

Please also note that the room is smaller than our original venue, and we cannot guarantee to be able to seat everyone; we suggest you turn up early. Our apologies for any inconvenience.

The 2015 election is the most catastrophic in the history of the Liberal Democrats and its predecessor parties; in no other previous election has the party lost such a high proportion of its votes and seats.

Entry into coalition with the Conservative Party in 2010 meant that the party always knew it would lose a good number of those who had voted for it in 2010, but Liberal Democrats hoped that they could replace at least some of them with new supporters who had not previously believed the party had a realistic chance of power. The party also assumed that the incumbency factor would save many of their MPs even though the national vote was falling. Neither of these things happened, despite a campaign that was generally recognised as well organised and well funded. Discuss why everything went wrong with Phil Cowley (Professor of Parliamentary Government, University of Nottingham and co-author of The British General Election of 2010) and Baroness Olly Grender, Paddy Ashdown’s second-in-command on the ‘Wheelhouse Group’ which ran the Liberal Democrat election campaign.

All welcome, whether or not you are a member of the Liberal Democrat History Group.

Decline and Fall: the Liberal Party and the general elections of 1922, 1923 and 1924

For the Liberal Party, the three general elections of 1922,1923 and 1924 represented a terrible journey from postwar disunity to reunion, and near return to government to dramatic and prolonged decline. Arguably, this was the key period which relegated the Liberals to the third-party status from which they have still never escaped.

The Liberal Democrat History Group winter meeting on 10 February 2014 will look in detail at these elections and what they meant for the Liberal Party and the changes they brought about in British politics.

Speakers: Michael Steed, Honorary Lecturer in Politics at the University of Kent and noted psephologist; Professor Pat Thane, Professor of Contemporary History at King’s College, London.

Chair: Dr Julie Smith, Cambridge University.

(The event will be preceded by the Liberal Democrat History Group’s AGM at 6:30pm.)

Blissful Dawn? The 1906 Election

On 7 February 1906, the counting of votes was completed in the 1906 general election, and the Liberal Party had obtained a majority of 132 over all other parties. In addition, for the first time, 29 Labour MPs were elected and shortly afterwards the Parliamentary Labour Party was founded. To mark this anniversary, the Corporation of London is organising a lecture to which all Liberal Democrat History Group members are invited.

Speaker: Lord (Kenneth) Morgan, author of definitive biographies of Keir Hardie and Jim Callaghan, and one of the foremost historians of twentieth-century Britain.

Election 2005 in historical perspective

The 2005 election saw the Liberal Democrats win a higher number of seats than at any time since 1923, and, for the second election in a row, gain both votes and seats after a period of Labour government – a historically unprecedented achievement.

Yet many had hoped for an even better result, and the election campaign itself saw relatively little movement in the Lib Dem standing in the opinion polls. Did 2005 represent steady progress, or a missed opportunity?

1974 Remembered

The two elections of 1974 formed a peak of the second post-war Liberal revival, giving the party six million votes but no more than fourteen MPs. Participants in the campaigns – including Tim Beaumont, Viv Bingham, Adrian Slade, Sir Cyril Smith, Paul Tyler MP and Richard Wainwright – shared their recollections of the elections.

Election 2010 in historical perspective

The 2010 election must rank as one of the strangest in the history of the Liberal Democrats or its predecessor parties. Britains first-ever television debates saw the party catapulted into the front rank of news coverage. Yet after successive opinion polls regularly showed the Lib Dems in at least second place, the result was a crashing disappointment; although the party gained almost a million votes, the vagaries of the first-past-the-post electoral system meant that it lost a net five seats.

Yet in losing, the party won. The outcome of the election – a hung parliament – at last gave the Liberal Democrats a chance of power, and led to Britains first coalition government for sixty-five years.

Discuss the election campaign and its outcome with John Curtice (Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University), Dennis Kavanagh (author, ‘The British General Election of 2010’) and James Gurling (Chair, Liberal Democrat Campaigns & Communications Committee).