Saturday, 2 May 2015

Labour's Greatest Victory - What Went Wrong?

With the general election only a few days away now, although it is unclear who will win (and indeed, what "win" means in this context), one thing is certain - Labour will not get the landslides it did in May 1997 and June 2001.

What would be Labour's greatest victory? Surely it must be October 1951 - with little over 6 years in power, this election gave Labour 48.78% of the vote, ahead of the Conservatives & allies, and the highest share of the vote Labour ever achieved.

And as a result of this stratospheric level of Labour support, the sitting Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, had to move out of 10 Downing Street and return to being Leader of the Opposition.

The February 1950 general election gave the following result:

  • Labour - 315
  • Conservative - 298* (includes 26 Scottish Unionist, 17 National Liberal** and 10 Ulster Unionist)
  • Liberal - 9
  • Irish Nationalist - 2
  • The Speaker*** - 1

[* Includes Florence Horsbrugh, who had failed to capture Midlothian & Peebles from Labour, was elected in a postponed poll in Manchester Moss Side a fortnight after the general election]

[** In the days before the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998, it was not always clear whether a candidate was from a party or not. I have included John MacLeod of Ross & Cromarty as a National Liberal]

[*** Douglas Clifton-Brown in Hexham, who is the only Speaker of the House of Commons to have met my dad]

Prior to dissolution, Clifton-Brown had 2 Labour Deputy Speakers - James Milner (Leeds South East) and Frank Bowles (Nuneaton). After the election, Bowles - despite being re-elected - stood down as a Deputy Speaker and was replaced by Charles MacAndrew, the Scottish Unionist MP for Ayrshire North & Bute. This gave Labour 314 of the 622 voting MPs - a majority of 6.

With what was - for the era - a small majority (in those days it was normal for one party to win over half the seats and have what was called a "majority", which meant it could - and I appreciate this sounds very odd to modern ears - form a Government on its own, without any coalition partners), it was clear that Attlee would want another election (which in those days a Prime Minister could do) with the aim of increasing its majority.

In 1951, 29 seats changed hands:

Seat 1950 1951
Anglesey Liberal Labour
Barry Labour Conservative
Battersea South Labour Conservative
Bedfordshire South Labour National Liberal
Belfast West Ulster Unionist Irish Labour
Berwick & East Lothian Labour Scottish Unionist
Bolton East Labour Conservative
Bolton West Labour Liberal
Buckingham Labour Conservative
Conway Labour Conservative
Darlington Labour Conservative
Doncaster Labour Conservative
Dulwich Labour Conservative
Eye Liberal Conservative
Hexham The Speaker Conservative
King's Lynn Labour Conservative
Manchester Blackley Labour Conservative
Merioneth Liberal Labour
Middlesbrough West Labour Conservative
Newcastle-upon-Tyne North Conservative National Liberal
Norfolk South West Labour Conservative
Oldham East Labour Conservative
Plymouth Sutton Labour Conservative
Reading North Labour Conservative
Rochdale Labour Conservative
Roxburgh & Selkirk Liberal Scottish Unionist
Rutherglen Labour Scottish Unionist
Wycombe Labour Conservative
Yarmouth Labour Conservative

Overall, the Conservatives gained 18 seats from Labour, 1 from the Liberals and 1 from the Speaker, while losing 1 seat to the National Liberals* - a net gain of 19 seats.

The Scottish Unionists gained 2 seats from Labour and 1 from the Liberals - a net gain of 3 seats.

The National Liberals gained 1 seat from Labour and 1 from the Conservatives - a net gain of 2 seats..

Irish Labour gained 1 seat from the Ulster Unionists.

The Ulster Unionists lost 1 seat to Irish Labour.

The Liberals gained 1 seat from Labour while losing 1 seat to the Conservatives, 1 to the Scottish Unionists and 2 to Labour - a net loss of 3 seats.

Labour gained 2 seats from the Liberals while losing 1 seat to the Liberals, 1 to the National Liberals, 2 to the Scottish Unionists and 18 to the Conservatives - a net loss of 20 seats.

[*Newcastle-upon-Tyne North is a technical gain - Cuthbert Headlam, the sitting Conservative MP, retired, and the Conservatives and National Liberals chose the National Liberal Gwilym Lloyd-George as their combined candidate]

This gives us:

  • Conservative - 321 (includes 29 Scottish Unionist, 19 National Liberal and 9 Ulster Unionist)
  • Labour - 295
  • Liberal - 6
  • Irish Nationalist - 2
  • Irish Labour - 1

After the election, William Morrison, the Conservative MP for Cirencester & Tewkesbury was elected Speaker, with MacAndrew reappointed as one deputy, and Rhys Hopkin-Morris, Liberal MP for Carmarthen, as the other. Hence, out of 622 voting MPs, 319 of them were from the Conservative benches, meaning that Winston Churchill returned as Prime Minister with a majority of 16.

Not only was this Labour's highest ever share of the vote, but they were also ahead of the Conservative grouping, which was on 47.97% (of which 3.88% belonged to the Scottish Unionists, 3.70% to the National Liberals and 0.96% to the Ulster Unionists).

This was the last general election with uncontested seats - in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionists won 4 seats (Antrim North, Antrim South, Armagh and Londonderry). But, even if these had been contested (in May 1955, Sinn Féin contested all of Northern Ireland's seats, with their highest share of the Province's vote until May 2005), this would not be enough to pull the Conservative grouping ahead of Labour in votes.

Could the explanation be the one we were given in A-level History - that Labour's record in Government saw its vote increase in its heartlands while losing marginals to the Conservatives?

The problem with this is that out of the 293 seats that Labour won in both 1950 and 1951, its majority decreased in 225 of them.

We need to look for another reason, and for this we will pay a visit to the Lancashire town of Bolton.

1951 was a bad election for the Liberals - the landslide election of January/February 1906 was 45 years in the past, with only older voters being able to remember it. During the inter-war period, the Liberals were able to maintain a place as a reasonable-sized third party. But even that was gone.

We can look at the 9 seats the Liberals had won in 1950:

Seat MP 1951 outcome Conservative challenger
1950 1951
Anglesey Megan Lloyd-George Lost to Labour Yes Yes
Cardigan Roderic Bowen Liberal hold Yes No
Carmarthen Rhys Hopkin-Morris Liberal hold No No
Eye Edgar Granville Lost to Conservatives Yes Yes
Huddersfield West Donald Wade Liberal hold No No
Merioneth Emrys Roberts Lost to Labour Yes* Yes
Montgomeryshire Clement Davies** Liberal hold Yes No
Orkney & Zetland Joseph Grimond Liberal hold Yes*** Yes***
Roxburgh & Selkirk Archie Macdonald Lost to Scottish Unionist Yes*** Yes***

[*In 1950 Roberts also faced a Plaid Cymru challenge, which was not there in 1951 - his vote fell by just 0.21%, but 1951 saw an increase in both the Labour and Conservative share of the vote]

[**Davies was the Liberal leader, and turned down Churchill's offer to be Minister for Education, which went instead to Horsbrugh]

[***Scottish Unionist]

There is a pattern noticeable - out of the 5 seats which the Liberals held, in 4 of them there was no Conservative challenger. And with this, we are starting to see why the 1951 election produced such a peculiar result.

At the July 1945 election there were a few 2-member constituencies around, one of which was Bolton, won by Labour's Jack Jones and John Lewis. For 1950, the seat was divided, with newcomer Alfred Booth winning Bolton East for Labour and Lewis winning Bolton West - both seats which saw the Conservatives second and the Liberals scoring a good third place.

If we move forward to 1951, we can see the total number of votes scored by the parties across the Bolton seats:

  • Labour - 50,274
  • Conservative - 27,106
  • Liberal - 26,271
You might expect that Labour would hold both seats, but they lost both - Bolton East fell to the Conservatives' Philip Bell, while Bolton West was won by the Liberals' Arthur Holt (who had contested the other seat in 1950). In Bolton, the Conservatives and Liberals formed an electoral pact which involved each standing down in one constituency, and which led to the Liberals' sole gain.

We can look at the number of seats not contested by these parties in Great Britain:

Nation Party Total constituencies in nation
Conservative* Liberal
England 4 415 506
Scotland 1 62 71
Wales 3 27 36
Great Britain 8 504 613

[*including Scottish Unionist and National Liberal]

As we can see, the Liberals had given up any pretence at being a national party, contesting just under 18% of the constituencies in Great Britain - equivalent to a party contesting 112 seats next week.

In 1950 they had contested 475 constituencies.

We can now look at the 8 constituencies without a Conservative candidate:

Constituency Outcome Candidate in 1950 Liberal share of vote
1950 1951
Bolton West Liberal gain from Labour* Yes 20.46% 52.76%
Cardigan Liberal hold Yes 52.17% 67.30%
Carmarthen Liberal hold No 50.19% 50.46%
Colne Valley** Labour hold Yes 19.16% 47.84%
Dundee West Labour hold Yes 1.86% 45.72%
Fulham West Labour hold Yes 4.95% 3.18%***
Huddersfield West Liberal hold No 58.23% 58.50%
Montgomeryshire Liberal hold Yes 50.03% 68.49%

[*Liberal gain from third place]

[**The Liberal candidate was Violet Bonham-Carter, daughter of former Prime Minister Herbert Asquith]

[***Third place. The runner-up to Labour's Edith Summerskill was William Brown, who had been Labour MP for Wolverhampton West between the May 1929 and October 1931 general elections, before returning as Independent MP for Rugby at a by-election in April 1942, holding his seat at the 1945 election, but losing to Labour at the 1950 election]

So it is clear that in some seats the Conservatives were standing down to give the Liberals a chance - successfully in 5, unsuccessfully in Colne Valley and Dundee West (where the Liberal candidate was the Mail on Sunday's John Junor).

One thing that is now quite common is for a party to win a seat on less than half the vote, thanks to a divided opposition. In 1951, Labour won 13 seats this way (in all but one of them the Labour vote was less than the combined Conservative and Liberal vote):

Constituency Labour Conservative Liberal
Anglesey 40.19% 21.65% 38.16%
Bradford South 47.16% 39.43%* 13.40%
Carlisle 46.79% 39.19% 14.02%
Falmouth & Camborne 46.29% 44.07% 9.64%
Gloucester 48.81% 43.58% 7.62%
Hornchurch 47.37% 45.60% 7.04%
Merioneth 42.94% 18.41% 38.65%
Nottingham East 47.77% 47.17% 5.06%
Pembrokeshire** 48.45% 31.63% 19.92%
Sowerby 46.03% 42.70% 11.27%
Uxbridge 49.14% 45.56% 5.29%
Walthamstow East 47.54% 44.99% 7.03%
Western Isles*** 48.77% 40.70%* 5.56%

[*National Liberal]

[**This was the constituency which saw the greatest increase in majority for Labour (from 129 to 9,026). However, the Labour share of the vote went down in 1951. In 1950 Labour's Desmond Donnelly had unseated the National Liberals' Gwilym Lloyd-George]

[***The Scottish National Party came fourth with 4.97% of the vote, and the Labour vote is higher than the combined National Liberal and Liberal one. In 1950 Labour's main challenger was the Liberals, with neither the National Liberals nor the Scottish Unionists fielding a candidate]

Fighting two elections close to each other had clearly hit the Liberals, and they were not able to field as many candidates. Hence the need to select which seats to fight - and when you compare the results, it appears that they concentrated on seats they had done better in at the 1950 election when deciding where to contest in 1951, which is quite logical. This then reduces the number of unwinnable seats where they have a spoiler effect which enables Labour to win on a minority of the vote.

The near-collapse of the Liberals in such a short space of time must have hit Labour this way, with the anti-Labour vote becoming concentrated around one candidate, normally Conservative, making this election the closest we have seen to a straight two-party fight.

Yes, Labour was ahead of the combined Conservative, National Liberal, Scottish Unionist and Ulster Unionist grouping in votes. But when you throw the Liberals into the mix, something different is seen.

Across Great Britain, Labour won 49.36% of the vote. The Conservatives, National Liberals and Scottish Unionists won, between them, 47.78%. Adding in the Liberals to this brings it up to 50.38%. On a proportional system you would expect Labour to have 304 seats (rather than 295), and the Conservative grouping, along with the Liberals, to have 309 (rather than 318). So we are 9 out each way. The real disproportionality crept in with Labour avoiding Northern Ireland, allowing the Conservatives to have 9 allies from the Province.

While this was Labour's greatest triumph, they could no longer benefit from a divided opposition, and the anti-Labour vote was expressed as nearly as efficiently as it could be, sending Labour into 13 years of Opposition.

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