‘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

Sunday, 27 October 2013

1931 election - not what it seemed at the time

Today is the anniversary of the 1931 election, which took place soon after the formation of the National Government at a time of economic crisis.

The Conservatives won 55.2% of the votes and 473 seats, but their leader, Stanley Baldwin did not become prime minister.

For the Conservatives, what looked like an overwhelming victory, was not an outright win. The party continued to form part of a coalition.

The Liberals entered the election divided into three factions – Liberals who won 33 seats, National Liberals who won 35 seats and Lloyd George’s family group of MPs who held a further 4 seats. The combined Liberal strength amounted to 72, which was an increase from the last election in 1929. Initially the divisions between the Liberals and Liberal Nationals were not very clear and some MPs swapped between the groups, both of which sat on the government side of the Commons.  Only in November 1933 did the divisions become institutionalised when the Liberal group, led by Herbert Samuel crossed the floor to join the opposition.

For the Liberals, what looked like a boost in their numbers in 1931 turned out to be a permanent split and another step backwards.

The Labour Party crashed from being the largest party with 288 seats at the previous election to only 52 seats in 1931.

For the Labour Party, it looked like ruin, less than eight years after their first term in office.

The key to all the strange fluctuations and re-alignments was Ramsay MacDonald. Former Labour prime minister, expelled from his own party for forming the National Government, but kept in office with the support of a few National Labour colleagues, Liberals and Conservatives.
Ramsay MacDonald’s reputation was more or less sealed at that point. Despite being the first, and at that point only, Labour prime minister he was disowned by the Labour Party. The National Government, of which he remained head for another four years, did manage to turn the economy away from the abyss. Fourteen years later, the Labour Party was to win its first overall majority in the 1945 election.

So, the bare results of the 1931 election do not tell anywhere near the whole story. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can see its true significance.

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