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The General Election: a Hundred-Year-Old Lesson

Sir Vince Cable
July 2, 2024

Innumerable polls and electoral statistics are being pored over in anticipation of the 2024 General Election. One of the more instructive sets of data is, however, to be found in the archives: the 1924 election (or more precisely the three elections between November 1922 and October 1924).

100 years ago, the Liberal Party, which had ruled Britain since the emergence of electoral politics, albeit on a limited franchise and without women, was eclipsed as a political force. It was caught in a downward spiral of decline and disintegration. It could now happen again: this time to the Conservatives.

It should be said at the outset that such a scenario is unlikely to be realised in one clean break with the past. But my own doorstep campaigning as a foot-soldier in the current battle tells me that something big is happening. It may even be as substantial as what Dangerfield called the ‘strange death of Liberal England’ (it died in Scotland and Wales too).

The Liberals offer a case study in how to destroy a seemingly invincible political party. In October 1924 they were led by Asquith and fielded Lloyd George: the two leading figures from the reforming pre-war Liberal administration, elected in 1906. That government had been constructed on the back of one of the great landslide victories in British politics with just short of half the popular vote.

In office the Liberals laid the foundations of the modern welfare state introducing the state pension, free school meals and national insurance. They established Britain as an open, free trading, economy, turning its back on Tory protectionism. They asserted the supremacy of an elected parliament over hereditary entitlement. And they upheld basic trades union rights.

From the pinnacle of popularity and political achievement, however, they were reduced in 1924 to a hapless rump: 40 seats and 18% of the vote; behind Labour with 151 seats and 33% and the Tories with 412 and 47%. The party leader lost his seat. There was no recovery.

Autopsies carried out on the Liberal corpse revealed more than one cause of death. There was a bitter clash between Asquith and Lloyd George resulting from the latter replacing the former during the War and becoming a great war leader in the Churchill mould. The two titanic egos led to an open split and two competing Liberal Parties in the 1918 and 1922 elections. Reconciliation and repairs came too late to save the ship from sinking.

Personalities apart, there was also a deep and fatal structural flaw. The Liberal Party was a coalition as most parties are, but it was trying to be a coalition of opposites which wasn’t possible. At a time of growing class consciousness, it was trying to be a bourgeois party of the middle class and a party of the working class. It was the party of the bosses and of the workers. Unfortunately for the Liberals there was a more authentic and less compromised party of the working class waiting in the wings. And so to today.

Boris Johnson’s historic victory in the 2019 election was achieved by creating a remarkable coalition, sometimes caricatured as consisting of ‘Red Wall’ and ‘Blue Wall’ voters, though there was a mixture of red and blue bricks in both ‘walls’: also with the ’Red Wall’ running through Southern sea-side towns and the Blue Wall through posher Northern suburbs.

The ‘Blue Wall’ voters were (and are) relatively prosperous, middle class, well educated, socially liberal and in favour of smaller government and less tax. Also Remainers. The ‘Red Wall’ voters were not merely different but opposite: from relatively poor towns, working class, less well educated, somewhat socially illiberal (especially on immigration) and in favour of bigger government (if reluctant about extra tax). And Leavers.

To make this coalition work would have required inspirational leadership, high administrative competence, low political cunning and good luck. Instead, we got Johnson, Truss, Sunak and a succession of nasty global shocks.

We got Johnson, Truss, Sunak and a succession of nasty global shocks. Quote

The party supporting them has become a hollowed-out club of geriatric silliness. And just as the old Liberal Party faced an authentic working-class party which better represented half of its coalition, the modern Tory party has faced Farage’s seductive bundle of prejudices.

The Labour and Liberal Democrat opposition have also been well disciplined, well prepared, inoffensive and happily complementary. It might just have been possible for Sunak to escape fatal damage with a good, well-timed, election campaign. But a poorly timed, terrible campaign has ensued.

The Liberal Party died a slow and painful death in the inter-war period. The Tories look set to benefit from quick, assisted dying with help from their friends on the populist right.

We shall then get what the public is clamouring for: change. But there is a risk that a reorganised right will focus around the nastier end of identity politics. Liberal voices will be needed more than ever to counter it.

Vince Cable profile

Sir Vince Cable is a former Secretary of State for Business, and led the Liberal Democrats from 2017-19.

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