H.C.G. Matthew, R.I. McKibbin and J.A. Kay suggest that “it was the 1918 Representation of the People Act – the ‘Fourth’ Reform Act – that was of first importance in Labour’s replacing the Liberal party as the principal party of progress”1 and thus best explains the advances made by the Labour party between 1918 and 1929. This observation undoubtedly has value. The 1918 Act of enfranchisement fundamentally transformed the nature of the franchise system from one that clearly discriminated the working class and the poorest in British society to a more class-inclusive and equal structure. Pre-1918, in spite of the Reform and Redistribution Acts of 1967-8 and 1884-5, the right to vote remained a privilege purchased through poverty but the Representation of the People Act 1918 ensured that enfranchisement levels quickly rose very high – in England and Wales enfranchisement increased from 68.0 per cent to 94.9 per cent – and in urban areas, where there was a high working class concentration, yet enfranchisement was particularly low, the level of adult male enfranchisement doubled.2 This would suggest that, as the party representative of the interests and needs of the urban working class, Labour was able to exploit a fully democratic franchise and that the Representation of the People Act was central to Labour’s rise to one of two major political parties in Britain.
Nevertheless, there are two challenges to this assertion. Firstly, Martin Pugh3 argues that the impact of the 1918 Act of Enfranchisement on the growth of the Labour Party between 1918 and 1929 is overstated, given that it is questionable how many of the new voters saw themselves as particularly ‘socialist’, since much of the working-class, enfranchised by the reform, were in fact Conservative. Full enfranchisement had little impact on the Tories – the party of property but also hierarchy and respectability – who were able to gain the support of the working class by strong appeals to deference and existing cultural relationships. This is evident by the fact that by 1926, Labour had still not won a majority of the working-class vote.
Duncan Tanner provides an alternative counter argument to the work of H.C.G Matthew et al., maintaining that the pre-war franchise imposed random inequality, given that both middle and working-class adult males were deprived of the vote. Tanner himself estimated that over “350,000 single middle-class men must have been either voteless or registered under some other heading”, because lodgers were denied the vote under the pre-1918 franchise system. Since many of these disenfranchised male voters who lived in lodges or at their parental home came from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, there is reason to question the supposed high proportion of disenfranchised men before 1918 would have voted for Labour if they had the chance. Nonetheless, a substantial weakness to such an argument is that, although around a third of a million unmarried middle-class men had no vote, the total population of disenfranchised men was more than five million before 1918, revealing that, according to Tanner’s own estimates, at least ninety per cent were working-class. It is evident that the inequality of the franchise system was not random, since the middle-class constituted 20 per cent of the British population. And whilst one cannot say what proportion of these disenfranchised male members would have supported the Labour Party, it would not be unwise to suggest that a significant number would have voted Labour given their social class and the expanding role of trade unions within the Labour Party.
However, H.C.G Matthew et al.’s argument remains the more convincing since through comparison of the elections of 1910 and 1918, it is clear that the expanded electorate had a detrimental impact on Labour’s predominant opponent as the party of ‘progress’, Liberal party. Despite the Liberals viewing themselves as the party of democracy and of a democratic electorate, in 1908 A. L. Lowell wrote that “neither political party (Conservatives and Liberals) is now anxious to extend the franchise … and leading Liberals have come to realise that any further extension would be likely to benefit their opponents”.4 When combined with the fact that in 1910 the greater proportion of Labour votes was obtained in seats where there was no Liberal opposition and the turnout was 86.6 per cent, the highest at any modern election, one comes to the conclusion that the latency of Labour votes was limited in the pre-war electorate and there was some but little weakening of Liberal voter commitments that gave a net advantage to the Labour party. Thus, it is clear that the substantial post-war growth in Labour’s relative strength must largely stem from the mass extension of the franchise of 1918. Furthermore, this argument gains further validity when one considers that under the first-past-the-past election system it is normally difficult for a third party to make such significant advances and in fact the Liberal votes of 4.1 million in 1922 and 4.3 million in 1923 compare favourably with the pre-war maximum of 2.9 million in January 1910.
Overall, it is clear that the 1918 Representation of the People Act was the fundamental factor in explaining the advances made by the Labour Party between 1918 and 1929. Enfranchisement of many working-class men and women, excluded under the pre-war franchise system, ensured that the Labour electorate expanded greatly, damaging the Liberal Party’s proportion of the electorate and resulting in Labour replacing the Liberals as one of Britain’s two major political parties.
A view closely linked to the Franchise factor argument of H.C.G Matthew et al. is that of Ross McKibbin who purports that Labour’s rise between the years of 1918 and 1929 are best explained by the party’s growing alliance with the increasingly influential trade union movement which assured the support of and developed class-consciousness and intense class loyalties within the working-class population. Within that period, the trade union movement was fundamental to the development of the Labour party at two stages: firstly between 1918 and 1924 and afterwards from 1927 to 1929. In the few years following the First World War the British trade unions experienced a veritable explosion in their strength during WW1, in terms not only of their membership and finances but also of the extent of consultation and concession from governments desperate to maintain war production. Membership grew from 4.1 million in 1914 to 6.5m in 1918, peaking at 8.3m in 1920. Wartime requirements also led to a major expansion of the sector of the economy controlled and regulated by the state, and this combination of growth in Trade Union strength and the scale of public-sector employment gave the unions an increasingly important role in Labour party policy making. As the most industrialised nation in Europe, Britain had the largest hereditary working-class and the powerful, much of which was organised by a powerful and rapidly growing trade union movement. Furthermore, the rising division between capital and labour during the 1910s and early 1920s fundamentally altered the patterns of politics in Great Britain by creating social classes that expanded out from the traditional organisations. Consequently, the combination of a developing working-class and a strengthening of trade unions ensured that a positive class consciousness and identity began to emerge, along with culture of working-class solidarity. Moreover, given that, in comparison to the rest of western Europe, Britain had a trade union movement more numerous than any on the continent before the First World War, it is not unwise to suggest that the limited expansion of the Labour Party is not explained by ‘natural’ social and political shortcomings, rather the pre-1918 franchise and registration system that denied the vote to much of Labour’s likely support. Therefore, the importance of the Representation of the People Act is substantiated further.
Additionally, the significance of the increasingly powerful trade union movement in explaining the advances made by the Labour Party between 1918 and 1929 can be seen through examination of Labour’s growth between 1927 and 1929, a consequence of the General Strike of 1926. As a great proportion of working-class men became disillusioned with and no longer remained loyal to the Conservative and Liberal parties following the workers’ strike against wage reduction and worsening labour conditions, the Labour party made extensive gains in local government elections from 1927 onwards, highlighting the importance of a powerful trade union movement aligned with a growing, yet disgruntled, working-class. Furthermore, an acceleration of the working-class move towards the Labour Party in 1927 occurred partly due to the determination of the unions to treat the Trade Disputes Act of 1927 – legislation outlawing general strikes and sympathetic strikes, and banning civil servants from joining unions affiliated to the Trade Union Congress – as a symbolic blow against their movement and to unite behind then-Labour leader Ramsey MacDonald in order to get the act repealed by returning Labour to power. Labour MP John Bowen described the Trade Disputes Act as “a cold, callous and deliberate intention of securing revenge” and “a vindictive Act and one of the most spiteful measures that was ever place upon the Statute Book”5. This quote clearly reveals the high level of resentment towards the Act and the Conservative government. Nonetheless, one might question whether the Labour MP might have been keen to undermine the Tory government and its policies in order to promote the success of his own party. However, it remains more probable that there was considerable discontent towards the actions of the Conservatives as seen through the revitalisation of Labour in the 1929 general election in which the party’s vote increased from 33 to 37 per cent and its seats from 151 to a staggering 288 – just short of an overall majority – and, therefore, it is clear that the growth of trade unions had a significant role in Labour success between 1918 and 1929.
The less convincing revisionist argument maintained by Trevor Wilson is that “the outbreak of the First World War initiated a process of disintegration in the Liberal party which by 1918 had reduced it to ruins”, leaving a vacuum for Labour to fill as one of the two major British political parties and thus, best explains the growth of the Labour party between 1918 and 1929. In order for such an argument to be valid, it is necessary to prove that the Liberal Party was politically healthy in 1914, that the Labour Party was performing badly and that the First World War brought about fundamental cultural and social change to Great Britain. It could be argued that a Liberal revival occurred between 1906 and 1914 since Liberalism remained a strong ideal and the Liberal Party had adapted to and survived the emergence of class politics. It did so because it embodied ‘New Liberalism’: new progressive ideals with their connotations of social justice and reform, state intervention and alliance with Labour, the basis of Liberal policy after 1906. Arguably, the strength of the new Liberal approach lay in the framework of their policies in which harmony rather than class or sectional conflict was promoted and thus, for a party reliant upon industrial and capitalist wealth, it was possible to win support amongst the working-class. Ramsey MacDonald, reveals the changing approach of the Liberal Party in a speech to the House of Commons that gives weight to the revisionist interpretation: “Mr. Lloyd-George’s Budget, classified property into individual and social, incomes into and unearned and follows more closely the theoretical contentions of Socialism and sound economics than any previous Budget has done”.6 The fact that such a quote comes from a leading member of one of the Liberal’s opposing parties indicates that the view that the Liberal Party had adapted to the rise of class politics is rather telling and it would appear that pre-1918, the Liberal Party was in a politically sound position.
Equally significant to the revisionist argument of Trevor Wilson is that the Labour party was in decline in the years leading up to the First World War and there is evidence to suggest that this was true to a certain extent. A proponent of this argument is Michael Hart who argues that “it seems scarcely possible that, even on a much wider franchise, Labour could have secured the support of more than 15-20 per cent of the electorate before 1914. As their 21 per cent vote in 1918 yielded them only 58 seats it is unlikely that they could have escaped before the war from the position in which the Liberals found themselves in 1924 (18 per cent of the vote and 41 seats) and in 1929 (23 per cent for a return of 59 seats)”. This argument gains further merit when looking at Labour’s parliamentary by-election performances between 1910 and 1914 where Labour came third in fourteen three-cornered contests in industrial constituencies between that period and only 4 of its candidates won offices in these by-elections7. Such results suggest that before the First World War, Labour was gaining significant headway over the Liberal Party and that the claim that class politics was pushing support towards the Labour Party and away from the Liberals is rather limited.
1 Matthew, H. C. G. et al. “The Franchise Factor in the Rise of the Labour Party”, The English Historical Review, 1976, pp. 723-752.
2 Taken from the 1921 Census, England and Wales, Table 16.
3 Pugh, M. (2011). Speak For Britain!. London, Vintage, 2011.
4 Lowell, A. L., The Government of England, 1910, i. 214
5 Hansard, House of Commons, 5th Series, vol 247, col 458
6 Frank Owen, Tempestuous Journey: Lloyd-George and his Life and Times
7 F. W. S. Craig, British Parliamentary Election Statistics 1832-1987