‘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

Friday, 14 June 2013

Did WW1 cause the Liberal decline?

In December 1910, the Liberal Party was in power, cohesive and with Labour as its junior partner under the Gladstone-MacDonald electoral pact agreed in 1903. At that time the likelihood of a large number of defections from the Liberals to the Labour Party seemed very remote. Yet, in the 38 years from the end of the war, 45 Liberal MPs and former MPs defected to the Labour Party. 
Circumstantially, the timing suggested that the war was the cause of the defections. This explanation was taken up by Trevor Wilson and has been accepted, at least in significant part, by other historians such as David Dutton and party officials since then. However, my analysis of the individual defections casts doubt on this theory.

For most of the First World War, the Labour Party was more split over policy than the Liberals and it was not actively trying to recruit Liberal defectors. Neither the war, nor any other cause outside of the Liberal Party’s control or influence, was the cause of any of the defections. The factors which led to the defections included local Liberal associations deselecting candidates who wished to stand again. This was not party policy, and other war policy objectors were re-adopted as Liberal candidates in other constituencies. Some were re-elected. Of the 35 Liberal MPs who had objected to the Liberal government’s war policies, for 28 of them (80%) this did not prevent their continuing to pursue a career in Liberal politics.

The only former Liberal MPs who stood as Labour candidates in 1918 were Edward John and Leo Chiozza Money. John was motivated by Welsh Nationalism and Money by a highly individualistic focus on shipping nationalisation. Neither re-entered Parliament and both later became dissatisfied with Labour’s stance on their chosen topics. Money’s career eventually foundered when he was charged with indecency over an incident on a train. He (unsuccessfully) claimed that he had been wearing a distinctive hat on that day, and, had he done anything wrong, a signalman in one of the signal boxes along the route would have noticed.

Most of the leftward defections which came after the war were motivated more by the problems of the Liberal Party, than by the attractions of the Labour Party – they were a product of a failure of the Liberal Party, not a failure of Liberalism.

For over half of the Liberal MPs and former MPs who eventually defected to the Labour Party, their move was not a success. Some of the dissatisfaction can be attributed to the difficulty for the former Liberals to assimilate themselves socially into Labour circles, where a culture of trade unionism, party discipline, dogged commitment in adversity and, in, some cases, poverty predominated. Many of the former Liberals, generally from wealthy professional backgrounds, found it difficult to make friends with, and to be trusted by, their Labour colleagues. Of the forty-five who had made the transition to Labour by 1956, twenty-four (53%) either left the Labour Party or became seriously dissatisfied with their new party.

So, from the evidence of defections, the First World War was not the reason that the Liberal Party lost its position to Labour. Most of the issues, particularly of leadership, could have been resolved within the Liberal Party, but Asquith and Lloyd George were squabbling like divorcing parents. The Liberal MPs became like their neglected children and many left the family. One later reflected that he would have stayed, had the leadership ‘held out a hand’ to him.

Party culture can be understood more in the light of a family, than a business, as was highlighted by the Morrissey Report.

My book ‘Defectors and the Liberal Party 1910 to 2010’ studies all the defectors and their motives. It is published by Manchester University Press. It was recently reviewed by the LSE Review of Books, as providing ‘a valuable new perspective on the decline of the Liberal Party’..


  1. I'm currently researching this subject to write an essay for my extended project qualification and I was wondering how much, if any, of an effect do you think the 1918 representation of the people act had on liberal decline? Could any of the lib to lab defections have been due to newly enfranchised voters more likely to vote for labour coming into constituencies where MP's were fearing for there seats? Your opinion would be much appreciated since you are such an expert in this field.

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  3. You raise an interesting question. I don’t think that any of the MPs or former MPs who defected from the Liberal Party to Labour went directly because of the issue of female enfranchisement. Although many of the defectors, such as William Wedgwood Benn, were enthusiastic about women’s enfranchisement, all of them had other over-riding concerns. The issue certainly fed indirectly into the decisions of some of the defectors, as they saw increasingly good prospects for implementing progressive policies in the Labour Party and diminishing prospects in the Liberal Party. The largest group of defectors from the Liberals to Labour were disillusioned progressives and the second largest group were war policy objectors.

    1. I am sorry for the late reply. I have recently finished my EPQ and I just wanted to thank you for your insight, it was extremely helpful with regards to my section on Post WW1 Britain (the representation of the people act and the rise of the Labour party).