Party like it's 1923
Everyone is talking about hung parliaments, and the rise of the Liberal Democrats (bounce, blip or surge) certainly does seem to indicate that one is on the cards. But commentators are all talking about the last hung Parliament in 1974 as the relevant precedent. I don’t think it is. That election saw a virtual dead heat between Labour and the Tories, with the Liberals left holding the balance of power with only 14 seats to do it with.
That, to put it mildly, ain’t gonna happen this time. The election we ought to be looking was the one held 51 years before, in 1923. This election, fought on the rather abstruse issue of Tariff Reform, saw the Tories lose their majority but remain as by far the largest party, with 258 seats compared to Labour’s 191 and Asquith’s Liberals’ 158. Despite their largest party status, the Tories accepted that they had ‘lost’ the election, and Stanley Baldwin advised the King to call for HH Asquith. Asquith, however, recommended that the Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald, should be invited to form a minority Government (incidentally, thereby destroying the Liberal party forever as a party of Government).
Are there any useful lessons from this? Well, one might be that a Government that loses its majority will be seen as having lost the right to govern – something for Brown to ponder as he hopes desperately for the yellow peril to rescue him from a Tory majority. The other, however, is that the slide from Government to irrelevance can be remarkably quick. In 1922 the Liberals were in power – albeit as part of a coalition. In 1923 they garnered nearly 30% of the vote overall, and were evenly split with Labour. In 1924 they plummeted to 18%, and lost all but 40 of their MPs.
A series of elections (three in three years) hammered the Liberals – above all because their finances were shaky. Once they lost the aura of a serious party of Government, they tumbled down into minor party status very quickly. A lesson to be learnt there for Labour, especially if funding reforms sever their umbilical link to the Unions’ cash.