To understand the emergence of the Labour Party in its current form demands examination of period after the First World War. Before the First World War, Labour was not at the races, with the Liberal and Conservative Parties the only ones that could win an election. The breakthrough happened after 1918, and it is often argued that the Spen Valley by election of 20th December 1919 was crucial. Wikipedia, that far from impeccable source, comments that:
“The by election was held after the death of the incumbent Coalition Liberal MP, Thomas Whittaker. It was won by the Labour candidate, Tom Myers… the result was seen as sensational, the Times describing it as a ‘political event of great significance…’”. In support wiki cites a well known historian, saying “In the view of Maurice Cowling, Simon’s defeat by Labour marked the point at which Labour began to be seen as a serious threat by the older parties”.
An Assessment of Maurice Cowling THE IMPACT OF LABOUR (Cambridge 1971) thesis.
Sub title -The beginning of modern British politics
Both this judgement and the wider assessment offered by Cowling in his book The Impact of Labour need careful handling. Close analysis does not show this by election as a breakthrough for Labour as there were encouraging signs for Asquith’s Liberals and Labour took till 1945 to finally get a hold of this seat, memorable now for tragic reasons*. Cowling’s book is not focused on understanding how Labour came to challenge the Liberals as the main opposition to the Conservatives despite the title. Suprisingly, it also has a great deal less to offer to understanding the success of the Conservatives than expected from a Tory academic of his era.
The political context post war
The political context after the First World War was entirely different from that before the conflict. The electorate was massively expanded, women over 28 and all working class men having the vote (40% of working men had been deprived before 1914), with massive changes in the manual working class due to the War, but this did not mean Labour was bound to benefit. Cowling indicates that the Spen Valley by election was the moment Labour took advantage, but curiously this is not a constituency which changed regularly from a Liberal to a Labour seat – the 1919 result was a fluke.
Cowling’s sub title The Beginning of Modern Politics indicates a focus on the shift from a two party Conservative – Liberal politics to a politics where the Liberals could no longer win elections – and he is clear that “from Spen Valley onwards, the Labour Party was the major problem” (p1). However his approach self limits, shown by “The character of high politics”, being the title of his introduction. As a high Tory politician he interprets politics as dominated by the Conservatives, and the crucial opening sentences of the introduction are “Between 1920 and 1924 the Conservative Party made three long term decisions. The first was to remove Lloyd George from office. The second was to take up the title ‘the defender of the social order. The third was to make Labour the chief party of opposition”. I agree with the first two points, not the third. It is the decision of Asquith to put Labour into Number 10 in 1924 that replaced the Liberals as the alternative to the Conservatives as a governing party, and the Liberals never recovered.
This perspective raises the question of how Labour increased its parliamentary strength, but Cowling is indifferent to election results and he does not see much value in analyzing developments below ministerial level, discussing no election result in detail, not even Spen Valley in 1919. The evidence shows that Spen Valley had been a Liberal seat since 1885 and continued Liberal till 1945. The by election was a fluke. As the following table shows, the only Labour gain in the seat was in the 1919 election. At General Elections the seat was Liberal or a variant of Liberal – centre right not centre left – from its creation in 1885 through the increase in the electorate in 1918 to 1945. The data shows the following:
Year Election winning party
1885 General Liberal
1886 General Liberal
1892 General Liberal
1895 General Liberal
1900 General Liberal
1906 General Liberal
1910 General Jan Liberal
1910 General Dec Liberal
1918 General Liberal
1919 By election Labour
1922 General Liberal
1923 General Liberal
1924 General Liberal
1929 General Liberal
1931 General Liberal National**
1935 General Liberal National**
1940 By election Liberal National***
1945 General Labour
A Top Down Approach
For those looking for clues as to how Labour replaced the Liberals as the opposition to the Conservatives, this book has little to offer and is a classic example of quantity of information and quality of analysis being in inverse relationhip. There is an impressive amount of information but very little analysis – not merely on Labour but surprisingly inadequate on the two major parties they challenged
Cowling’s book is widely quoted, particularly on the Spen Valley by election, but it is important to note that his work is deeply idiosyncratic. Indeed, elitist is hardly the word. He is focused on the Conservative Party, with Labour and Liberal politicians very much marginal elements, and within the Conservative Party only a limited number of the Westminster elite are entitled to have his microscopic examination.
Indeed he is unapologetic about his indifference to modern democracy and perhaps of parliament itself. He defines his approach in the following terms:
“in following this process we (sic) shall concentrate on the high politics of the politicians who mattered. Back-benchers and party opinion will appear off stage as malignant or beneficient forces with unknown nature and unpredictable wills. Civil servants will hardly appear at all except Thomas Jones as speech writers, Hankey and Warren Fisher as wheel oilers and others as possible Labour ministers in 1924. Issues of substance, except about the party system, will be considered so far as solutions, or failure to provide solutions, affected the standing of the governments or politicians concerned …. The political system consisted of fifty or sixty politicians in constant tension with one another whose accepted authority constituted political leadership” (pp3-4)