‘Honoured that you are writing my father’s biography’ the late Tony Benn, ‘...wonderfully written’ Hilary Benn

‘Sparkles with fascinating detail…a remarkable story of Liberal and Labour politics in the first half of the twentieth century.’ Michael Crick, Political Correspondent, Channel 4 News

‘Casts much light both on the evolution of British radicalism, and on the legacy which he bequeathed to his son, Tony. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, King's College, London

‘Brilliant biography…wonderful reading about the father and...discovering more about the son.’ Steve Richards of The Independent

‘Well-written and carefully researched, this fascinating biography brings to life a major figure in British political history…an excellent job of weaving together the strands of a complex life…as well as filling in the background of the Benn family’ Richard Doherty, military historian

Thursday, 15 November 2012

90th anniversary of Labour overtaking Liberals

Today is the 90th anniversary of the 1922 general election, in which the Labour Party overtook the Liberals for the first time.

The Liberal Party was split between the supporters of Asquith and Lloyd George, but the combined wings of the party only managed to secure 116 seats, to Labour’s 142. The Conservatives emerged as the winners with 345 seats. 

The Liberal split was eventually healed before the next election, which took place only just over a year later in December 1923. Although the re-united Liberals recovered to 159 seats in 1923, Labour continued to make gains, staying ahead with a total of 191. The outcome of the 1923 election was the first ever Labour government.

Historians still debate the timing and causes of the Liberals’ decline. George Dangerfield argued that the decline had started in Edwardian times, later historians such as Trevor Wilson and David Dutton put the blame on the First World War. Michael Hart agreed with Asquith that it was the 1918 coupon election which caused the damage. My own research into political defections shows that Liberal MPs themselves still generally had confidence in their party’s recovery until after the 1918 election. Only two former Liberal MPs stood as Labour candidates in 1918. However, by the time of the 1922 election a serious exodus of Liberal defectors had begun and the reunification of the party in 1923 was too late to repair the damage.

The Labour Party had also been seriously split during the war, but had begun to re-unite and organise effectively in the constituencies before the 1918 election. This speedier regrouping by the younger, more tribal, Labour Party gave them the crucial advantage over the Liberals. In good times tribalism can be seen as an unattractive feature, but in a crisis it can help a party to regroup and stick together.

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