History question: Was the Representation of the People Act 1918 the main reason for tWatch
Was the Representation of the People Act 1918 the main reason for the decline of the Liberals and the rise of the Labour Party in the years 1918-1929? Explain your answer [20 marks]
I personally do not share the belief that the Representation of the People Act 1918 was the main reason for the decline of the Liberals and the rise of Labour, although undoubtedly it did serve as a catalyst. I believe that there were a combination of reasons for the decline of the Liberal party, most notably the Chanak Incident in Turkey, 1922, and the failure of David Lloyd George’s government to bring about much needed social and economic reform. I only agree with the belief that the RPA 1918 was the main reason for the decline of the Liberals and the rise of the Labour party to a relatively small extent, which I will outline below.
The reason for why I agree with the statement that the main reason for the decline of the Liberals and the rise of Labour to a small extent; is that the RPA of 1918 tripled the electorate; from approximately 7 million in 1910 to over 21.4 million by 1918. Previously, only men over 21 who had some form of property ownership could vote. This limited the vote to gentry, nobility and other wealthy people - as a direct result of this, the elected government would always be most favourable with this small group of people, and hugely unrepresentative of the others. The RPA 1918 meant all men over 21, regardless of whether they owned property or not, were enfranchised, and also gave the vote to women - albeit only women over 30, who owned property, or who were married to men who owned property. Enfranchising all men meant that the working classes got a say in who voted - Britain had a very large working class at the time. The Trade Unions, that represented the workers, supported the Labour Party. As a result of the trade unions endorsing Labour, Labour began to get votes. This change was evident; Labour rose from having just 29 seats in 1906, to 40 seats by 1918. Another consequence of the RPA 1918 was that it gave a salary to MPs. Prior to this, MPs were not paid, so it was more of a hobby, a voluntary role, for the very rich to represent their fellow businessmen and land owners. Giving a salary to MPs meant that working class people were encouraged to take up the role of MP as a career, and these people generally became Labour members. Again, this weakened the dominance of the Liberals in parliament.
In addition to this, as well as the RPA helping Labour gain popularity, a second impact of the RPA 1918 also helped the rise of the Conservative party. The act gave the vote to women over 30 who owned property, or women who were married to men who owned property. As a result of this new legislation, women now made up 43% of the electorate. The success of the Conservative Party was dependent on their campaigns targeting women; the failure of the Liberals was their ignorance towards this new sector of the electorate.
However, there are many more reasons for which are undoubtedly stronger contributors to the fall of the Liberals and the rise of Labour.
One reason for why I disagree with the statement that the RPA 1918 was the main reason for the decline of the Liberals and the rise of Labour is foreign policy. Quite frankly, this may well have been the most significant of all reasons, as it had a very large impact on the future of the Liberal Party. David Lloyd George, the Liberal Prime minister, had been relatively successful in foreign policy; he had shown Britain to be a victorious power and positioned himself as a tough negotiator at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. He was seen as a hero who had brought victory to the country in the aftermath of WW1. However, this legacy would be short lived, and would be overshadowed by the Chanak Incident, in 1922. After WW1, the Ottoman Empire was dissolved and the victorious allied powers had partitioned it, mostly between the British and the French. Large swathes of the empire were under occupation or had been annexed by Britain and France, for example, Palestine and Lebanon. In 1922, Turkish soldiers marched on occupied Constantinople and Eastern Thrace, which were under British and French occupation. When news of this development reached London, David Lloyd George was furious, and was calling for war with Turkey. It was this attitude that led to accusations of him being a warmonger, amongst other things. The British public had already endured 4 years of war in Europe, and the army’s generals also didn’t want another costly war. The impact of his actions were monumental. One impact of his actions was undoubtedly the loss of public support for the Liberals, because the public didn’t want another war. But the second, more lasting impact were to be how the Conservatives reacted to this development. For the Conservatives (who were in a coalition with the Liberals), this was too much. On the 19th October 1922, the Conservatives met at the Carlton Club in London, and decided to end their coalition with the Liberals, triggering a general election. In this general election, the Liberals lost massively.
The second reason for why I disagree that the Representation of the People Act 1918 was the main reason for the decline of the Liberals and the rise of Labour was that the Liberal party was weakened ever since the national government ended in 1918. The party was split between Asquith and Lloyd George after the Conservatives gave their backing to Lloyd George in the coalition, forcing Asquith to the backbenches. Lloyd George had taken a very pragmatic approach in his government, abandoning traditional liberal principles such as Laissez-Faire government for the sake of war efforts, whereas Asquith was much more principled. A divided Liberal party meant a weak Liberal party, the party couldn’t unite and as a result it was easily defeated by a strong Labour or Conservative party.
The third reason for why I disagree that the Representation of the People Act 1918 was the main reason for the decline of Liberals and the rise of Labour was the unpopularity of David Lloyd George. Whilst Lloyd George was very popular at first, his administration had largely failed in its social and economic reforms. David Lloyd George promised to “fix” Britain, and pledged money towards housing, healthcare, and education. However, he made a dramatic u-turn when he decided to redirect that money elsewhere. By the time the 1922 election came, unemployment had risen to 2.5 million people. As if this wasn’t enough, the administration was plagued with accusations of corruption, most notably when David Lloyd George was found to be selling patronages to raise money for the Liberal party. This was also to silence journalists from reporting negatively on him. People began to lose faith in him, and this revelation was shocking given how much he had been praised for, particularly for his humble roots which seemed incompatible with the corruption in his administration. This also reinforced the Asquith - Lloyd George split in the party and further divided it.
The fifth reason for why I disagree with the reason that the RPA 1918 was the main reason for the decline of the Liberals and the rise of Labour was that the 1923 election was a turning point in British politics, for both the Liberal and Labour party. It also marked a slight decline in support for the Conservative party which had also become popular after the decline in Liberal support. Overall however, it resulted in the first ever Labour government. Stanley Baldwin had been appointed as the successor to Bonar Law. He had attempted to introduce protectionist policies to safeguard British industry; due to political infighting, he called an election to consolidate his position. This proved to be a fateful mistake; the Conservative party lost their power and 100 of their MPs, with Labour making huge gains. Asquith, the new leader of the Lib Dems, said that there were no “safer circumstances” for a Labour government - this was because they would be in a minority government with the Lib Dems. On the 17th January 1924, the first ever Labour government came to power.
Whilst the RPA of 1918 may have not been the main reason for the decline of the Liberals, it was a very significant reason for the rise of Labour. Without it, the working class would not have been emancipated through their suffrage, which meant that working class politics now existed. Labour positioned itself as a democratic, constitutionalist party that could manage a mixed economy under the leadership of James Ramsay Macdonald. He also wanted to relegate the Liberals to the middle playing field, with Labour as the only real alternative to the Conservatives. This was certainly achieved. The Liberal Democrats were never in power again, other than in coalitions. This Labour Government was short lived however, for just 9 months it stayed in office, facing many issues, such as industrial action from workers becoming even more militant, and accusations of the party being sympathetic to the Soviet Union. The Zinoviev letter published in the Daily Mail just days before the 1924 election (which was a hoax, alleging support between the party and the USSR) played a major role in the downfall of the party. The Conservatives, under the leadership of Stanley Baldwin, went on to win the 1924 election and stayed in power until 1929, when Labour won once again.
Overall, the RPA 1918 was definitely not the main reason for the decline of the Liberals and the rise of the Labour Party in the years 1918-1929. There were many other factors that led to the downfall of the Liberals, most notably the split in the party between Asquith and Lloyd George, the abandonment of traditional liberalism by Lloyd George in favour of more pragmatic policies, and of course, Lloyd George’s response to the Chanak incident. Furthermore, the public loss of faith in the Liberals after Lloyd George was found out to be corrupt tarnished the Lloyd George faction of the Liberals forever. However, the RPA 1918 proved to be a catalyst for both the decline of the liberals and the rise of the Labour party even if it wasn’t for the main reason. If it wasn’t for the RPA 1918, the working classes would not have got the vote, which would have meant either a Conservative or Liberal government rather than a Labour one.