The Carlton Club Meeting

This bizarre view of parliamentary politics focused on the political careers of individual ‘top dog’ politicians can be tested  in the light of the Carlton club meeting of 1922. This involved one of Cowlings top dogs,  Austen Chamberlain, who as Conservative leader in the Commons had tried to dictate that Conservative back bench MPs would continue to back Lloyd George, and called the meeting of his Conservative MPs in the Carlton Club on October 19th  to finally force them to go on backing the Liberal War leader.

The Conservatives accepted the coalition  in 1918 because Lloyd George was the successful wartime Prime minister and the Conservatives, despite being likely to win the election, did not want so powerful a figure leading the opposition against them. By  autumn 1922 back bench Conservatives wanted out of the coalition, but their leaders did not. Austen Chamberlain intended to make the MPs accept that the coalition would continue and would fight a general election, due within a year, under Lloyd George.  Cowling  has already dismissed backbenchers as “malignant or beneficient forces with unknown natures and unpredictable wills”, so the Carlton Club meeting is a test of the whether his theory worked. The theory failed.  At the Carlton Club, the back benchers voted to quit the coalition and the ‘top dogs’ of Chamberlain and Lloyd George had to resign.

Cowling knows this and gives a detailed account of how Chamberlain lost the vote, setting the scene accurately in the statement reading “The Coalition was brought down …. By Chamberlain’s, Birkenhead’s and Balfour’s determination to push their critics into a corner and by the refusal of under-secretaries, MPs and leading Conservatives to be pushed into a corner” (p194). Cowling then spends 18 pages describing the battle  and why the rank and file of the Conservative Party in the Commons defeated their leader. Austen Chamberlain found that in a parliamentary democracy, leaders cannot simply give orders to their MPs as though under military discipline. Cowling’s idea that the Conservative Party made the decision to remove Lloyd George is correct- he resigned as Prime Minister immediately after the meeting –  but it was the back bench MPs that made it happen. The Tory back bench committee has been called the 1922 committee ever since.

The Spen Valley Byelection

Cowling writes  accurately how the Carlton Club meeting developed but where there are less clear cut developments he misses important points. Nowhere is this more so than the Spen Valley by election. Why is Labour the central political issue after Spen Valley, especially as data shows that it was Asquith’s Liberals who gained more in the short term? In the text (p112) he argues that the political situation had been defined by Lloyd-George’s reputation, which led to the  coalition, and contends

“This situation was radically altered by electoral defeats in the course of 1919. The first three, suffered by Coalition Conservatives at the hands of Asquithian Liberals, confirmed the impression that the Coalition Liberal support was crucial. Eight out of the next ten by-elections produced striking increases in the Labour vote, culminating in the Labour victory in the Coalition seat in Spen Valley in January. To Salisbury and Joynson-Hicks, but at this time to them alone, this showed that the Conservative Party must free itself from Lloyd-George”.

Why an increase in support for Asquith, whose Liberals did not support the coalition, meant that “Coalition Liberal support was crucial” when this came from Lloyd George Liberals, he does not explain.  Labour did not look bound for glory. The Labour vote was increasing generally and certainly increased in Spen Valley, but it is not the case that the result in December 1919 showed the Labour party on a roll. Firstly, the numerical increase in Spen Valley was not massive – the Labour vote had indeed risen, but only by c2500 votes.

The story of the Spen Valley by election is a fluke win for Labour.  Spen Valley was a Liberal seat, and had been so at every election since 1885. The 1919 by  election, the first time John Simon stood, was the only Labour win up to 1945. The real story of the by election as the figures show was the collapse of  Coalition Liberals and rise of the Aquithians.

Election             Coalition Liberal           Asquithian Liberal   Labour

1918                 10,664                             ——                         8,504

1919                   8,134                            10,244                     11,962

The Aquithian Liberal was Sir John Simon who would go on to win the seat at the 1922 general election and hold it till 1940

The big issue, with the centre vote rising by some 8000 votes, was that this was split. The sensation was caused not by Labour, but the collapse of Coalition Liberal support showing Lloyd George was no longer popular. This was the start of the slide in the fortunes of the Prime Minister and the road to the Carlton Club meeting, and justifies the importance of the by election, for it is not often that a governing party slides to the bottom of the poll in a by election. This was also possibly the first example of a phenomenon in Liberal history, the recovery at a by election. Spen Valley plays a part in Liberal history, but as a false dawn.

We are still looking at why Labour broke through after 1918. The party was doing well in by elections in 1919 and Spen Valley was a useful result. However it won with less than 40%  of the vote in this election and in vote share dropped 5%. What the by election really showed was that when the opposition was split, Labour could win on a minority vote. This remains the case but is not a cause for great celebration.

The book by Maurice Cowling, THE IMPACT OF LABOUR is vastly overrated. John Ramsden (in the book of essays BY ELECTIONS IN BRITISH POLITICS (Macmillan 1973/St Martins Press NY 1973  p18) accepts the psychological impact of a Labour victory and a coalition defeat but thought the victory ‘freakish’ since Labour had less than 40% of the vote. But the enduring legacy may be the widespread failure to understand how First Past the Post works, notably the widely misunderstood fact that the  more candidates stand the less votes are needed to ‘win’ a seat under this system.

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*It was reshaped as Batley and Spen. It was here that the tragedy of the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox took place  in 2016.

** The coalition – National – Government was essentially a Tory one headed by the ex Labour leader MacDonald.

***There was only one candidate – Liberal National – as this was immediately after Churchill formed the wartime coalition