Today is the anniversary of the 1922 general election, in which the Labour Party overtook the Liberals for the first time. The election was held after the Conservative Party had voted at the Carlton Club meeting to end their coalition with the Lloyd George Liberals.
The Liberal Party was split between the supporters of Lloyd George and Asquith, but the combined wings of the party only managed to secure 116 seats in the 1922 election, 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 much of 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 Labour Party gave them the crucial advantage over the Liberals.
Incidentally, the Conservative Party’s 1922 Committee of backbenchers was only formed in 1923.