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Thursday, 20 December 2012

When was the Liberals’ turning point? Grimond’s arrival? Torrington?

The Liberal Party’s fortunes fell dramatically from their peak of 400 seats in 1906 to a low point in the 1950s, with only six seats in general elections. There has been a long, slow, but fairly steady, recovery to the point where the Liberal Democrats now have 57 MPs – roughly the same figure as 1929.

At some point the party’s fortunes must have turned. But, was there a date or an event which marked the change of the tide? Many people assume that the arrival of Jo Grimond as leader in November 1956 must have marked the turn-around. Others date the start of the recovery to the Torrington by-election victory in March 1958.

Of course, turning points are usually only visible after they are passed and so it would be natural that the watershed went unnoticed at the time. The graph below shows the Liberals’ share of the vote in post-war by-elections. In the middle of the chart is a sudden step change. Torrington is not the first of these new peaks, or even the highest – and the step happened in 1954, nearly two years before Jo Grimond took over the leadership.

Liberal Party By-election Share of Vote 1945-1960

The step change was the Inverness by-election of 21 December 1954 – neither famous nor a victory. The Liberals’ share of the vote at 36% gave them a very close second place to the winning Conservative candidate in this previously-Conservative held seat. The result was therefore not a dramatic upset. It took place in Scotland in the middle of winter and the results came out on Christmas Eve. Hardly surprisingly, not many people noticed. However, it was the Liberals’ highest share of the vote in a three-way by-election since 1932 and the improvement was sustained. In the 19 by-elections fought by all three major parties since the war leading up to Inverness the Liberals had averaged only 9.3% share of the vote, but in the 19 by-elections from Inverness onwards the Liberals averaged 25.2%.

Clement Davies, ageing and alcoholic party leader, had had a torrid time leading the Liberals through their darkest years, but in the last two years of his leadership the party averaged 26.5% in by-elections, but when Jo Grimond succeeded, the comparable figure for his first two years was slightly lower at 24.7%.

In retrospect, the Inverness result could be regarded as the Liberals’ turning point. Parties which do less well than expected often draw spurious conclusions about the reasons for their lack-lustre performance. The Conservatives blamed the fragility of their Inverness victory on the weather and the size of the constituency. I wonder how much better the weather was for the Liberals or the Labour Party and how much smaller the constituency!

1 comment:

  1. The rise in the Liberal vote in the 1950s has often been ascribed to a middle-class revolt over a Schedule A income tax assessment which treated rising house values as income but this is more likely to have affected English suburban seats like Orpington rather than a largely rural seat like Inverness which did not benefit as much from the post-war recovery and the rise in living standards as the rest of the country did.

    1954 marked the end of post war rationing. It also marked the climax of the split between the Bevanites and the Gaitskellites in the Labour Party with Bevan quitting the Shadow Cabinet in April over Labour's support for the Government's decision to adhere to SEATO (the Asian equivalent of NATO) as well as support German rearmament and admission to Nato.
    The third party generally benefits when the major opposition party is seen as either divided or too radical and unlikely to win power as occurred in the 1980s.

    However there was a much older phenomenon specific to both Scotland and the Liberal Party that had been noted as early as Mr Gladstone's first election victory in 1868 - the relative strength of the Liberal Party in the Celtic fringe (including the south-west of England) compared to its relative weakness in metropolitan England largely due to the identity of Liberal support with Nonconformism which tended to be most marked in these areas.

    In 1951 the Conservatives had tied with Labour in holding 35 seats in Scotland but their support in Scotland had always been tenuous - in both 1910 elections they had only succeeded in winning 9 seats. The 1955 election was to be the last where the Conservatives succeeded in winning a majority of the seats in Scotland when they won 36 to Labour's 34 (and Jo Grimond's Orkney & Shetland which he had wion in 1950). In 1959, unlike the rest of the country (except for Lancashire), they lost seats in Scotland (they also regained Torrington but lost the neighbouring seat of North Devon to a young barrister named Jeremy Thorpe).

    The Liberals had had a Celtic leader since 1935 and were to do so until 1967. They had been the first party to embrace devolution, as opposed to separation or integration, as a policy to apply particularly to Scotland which would have appealed to a large outlying rural constituency, perhaps the largest of all in size of area, almost equalling Yorkshire. The SNP had briefly held a seat in 1945 during the twilight period at the end of the Coalition and Churchill's caretaker Conservative government but their rise with the Hamilton bye-election was 13 years off.

    Labour was still seen as a largely urban party based on the Clydeside metropolis antipathetic to a separate political Scottish identity (indeed it was the last major party to embrace devolution). Thus it should have come as no surprise that the Liberals (who had not even bothered to put up a candidate in Inverness in 1951) should do so well. Nor was it a "flash in the pan" election. 10 years later the seat was to be won by Sir Russell Johnston and it has remained a Liberal (or Liberal Democrat) seat ever since.