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In the period from 1846 (when the Conservatives split following the repeal of the Corn Laws) until 1886, the Liberals were the natural party of government, but after 1886 the Liberals failed to win an election until 1906. One interpretation of the main cause of this decline was the rise of the Labour movement and the greater appeal they held for the working classes. Another interpretation is that there were other threats to the Liberal Party which were greater than the labour movement, most prominently the Conservatives and Liberals themselves (that is to say, Liberal weaknesses). In truth, all of these factors played a role in the Liberal decline, but it was ultimately the Liberal’s own failings which not only lead to their own decline, but also fuelled the rise of the Labour movement and the Conservative resurgence which hastened the decline.
On the surface, it would appear that the interpretation that it was the rise of the labour movement which posed the most significant threat to the Liberal Party and was the largest factor in its decline has much to commend it. After the ineffectuality and passiveness of the craft unions, 1888 ‘New Unionism’ had an actively militant outlook, with a membership of unskilled, low-paid labourers and a readiness to use force against non-unionists and ‘blacklegs’. Relatively low subscription fees also encouraged the working classes to join. For all these reasons, the working classes may have felt that this burgeoning labour movement would represent them in a better manner than the Liberal Party had in their time of dominance.
Furthermore, the success of high-profile strikes like the 1888 Bryant & May match girls strike and the 1889 Gas Worker’s Union strike gave confidence to other unskilled workers and this led to more unions, and showed the tangible effectiveness of this new militant unionism, showing its ability to displace the Liberal Party as the champion of the working classes. In addition to the established effectiveness of this movement, the emergence of leaders enabled the movement to become a real political force; people like Ramsay MacDonald and Keir Hardie gave greater strength to the movement, with Hardie being elected as an MP for South West Ham in 1892. Despite this apparent progress, though, the Independent Labour Party won no seats in the 1895 election.
From this it can be inferred that the continuing Liberal decline in 1895 was not a result of increasing support for the ILP. However, this inference doesn’t show the incorporate the whole labour movement, and this is another problem with the labour movement which meant it couldn’t pose as big a threat to the Liberal Party as it might have done if it was a completely unified force. The movement was fractured between the trade unions and the ILP, meaning that it lacked cohesion and couldn’t serve as a viable alternative to the Liberal Party at the time. This would suggest that the labour movement, while holding wide support for its militancy in strike action, didn’t serve as a great threat to the Labour Party at this particular time, although the goings-on in this period did serve as a foundation for later progress.
There is, however, a view that the weakness of the labour movement was a threat to the Liberal Party. The historian Laybourn cites the “almost endemic weakness of organised labour” as something which “deluded the Liberal Party into thinking that it could stand still in the face of the ‘little breezes’ of discontent that occasionally emerged”, despite the “seething discontent which had erupted among working class unionists from the late 1880s onwards”. Laybourn states, then, that the loose organisation of the labour movement gave the Liberals a false sense of security and a sense of complacency, thus it could be said that the labour movement indirectly and unintentionally threatened the Liberal Party. However, for the most part, it must be said that, at this juncture, the movement lacked the necessary focus to act as any kind of real alternative to the Liberals, and thus probably did not serve as its greatest threat.
With the labour movement’s infancy rendering it incapable of posing any great threat to the Liberal Party, other threats must be assessed in deciding which was the greatest. The most obvious threat here is that of the Conservative Party, which had patiently rebuilt itself in the aftermath of its 1846 split. One way in which the Tories hindered the Liberals was through their control of the House of Lords: with this, much Liberal reform was blocked, leading to greater public discontent with the Liberal Party. Another way in which the Conservatives threatened the Liberals in this period was through Villa Toryism. This refers to the fact that, following the 1884 Redistribution Act, ironically a Liberal reform, the Tories were able to “create a political structure of single member, middle-class urban and suburban constituencies on which the basis of their subsequent political success has consistently rested” (Matthew, 1986). This bolstered the Conservative performance at elections greatly, which inevitably meant a respective decline in the electoral fortunes of the Liberals.
Revamped Conservative organisation under Richard Middleton and the Primrose League also meant that the Tories were far better equipped to devise a coherent strategy to win over the electorate than the Liberals, again clearly to the Liberals’ detriment. The Conservative stance on Imperialism also won them support, at the Liberals’ cost. The Tories trumpeted the “Age of Imperialism”, appealing to the patriotism of the electorate, which the Liberals failed to do. This can be seen through the results of the 1900 election, the so-called ‘Khaki Election’, on the wave of patriotism which came with the Boer War. Furthermore, the Tory reform programme after 1886, while unsatisfactory for the demands of Socialism, was better than anything on offer from the rudderless Liberal Party.
While the list of reasons why the Conservatives threatened Liberal security seems long and impressive, upon closer inspection it is clear that, with the exception of Tory dominance in the House of Lords, all of the Conservative ‘strengths’ were in some way Liberal failings. The electoral success Villa Toryism brought for the Conservatives was only possible because the Liberal-devised Redistribution Act. Gladstone’s obsession with Home Rule not only meant that the Liberal’s domestic reform programme was exceedingly weak, creating a reform vacuum of sorts which the Conservatives filled gladly and moderately, but also led to personal rivalry between himself and the radical Chamberlain, who would later defect to the Conservative Party with his ‘Liberal Unionists’.
These splits contrast starkly against the unity and organisation of the Tories and their Primrose League. Liberal splintering can also be observed in the split Liberal stance on imperialism, again in stark contrast to Conservative jingoism. Furthermore, post-Gladstone Liberal leader Lord Rosebery was weak and lacked support; indeed, the only reason he was selected as Prime Minister following Gladstone’s retirement in 1894 was that Queen Vicotria disliked the other Liberals. His unpopularity and inexperience is a far cry from the vast experience and solid fortitude of Conservative leader Lord Salisbury. It is clear, then, that it was more the case that Liberal failings both enabled and flattered Tory achievements (enabling Villa Toryism and flattering modest but steady Tory reform, as examples) rather than any great political masterstrokes from the Conservative Party.
It may be most prudent, then, to suggest that the Liberal Party debilitated their own progress from 1886-1901 and were the greatest threat to themselves in this period, as they allowed for the Conservatives’ success by failing to offer a credible alternative. As Blewett states: “the Liberals appear to have done their best to lose the elections of 1886, 1895 and 1900… the hegemony (conservative success) was sustained not primarily because of any positive enthusiasm for the Unionists but because the Liberals were considered ‘impossible’.” Liberal decline occurred because of Liberal failings, and these failings enabled the Conservatives and the sapling labour movement to gain ground on them. In a prime example of negative politics, the Liberal’s distinct lack of cohesion, unity and purpose led to their own decline; they were truly their own worst enemy.