Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
The election, a term on from the financial crisis and Labour losing office, saw the Conservatives consolidate their control of government, even though the Labour vote rose a bit. While there were economic problems, most voters thought the post-slump recovery was well underway. The ex-coalition Liberals tried to differentiate themselves from the Tories, but got little electoral benefit.
So far, so 2015 – but there are other contemporary echoes: Labour had taken a turn to the left, and elected a leader well out of the party’s previous mainstream, who tried to put principles first and recruit a new mass membership. So let us step a few years further back from last month’s reflections on the non-election of 1940, and think a bit about the election that Stanley Baldwin called for 14 November, 1935 – 80 years ago tomorrow.
Labour’s lurch to the left, signalled particularly in 1932 by its conference voting to nationalise the banks, and by the election of George Lansbury as leader, did not prove incompatible with mid-term electoral recovery. The party’s performance in local elections and by-elections in 1932-34 was often very good, and was crowned by Herbert Morrison leading the party to its first ever majority on the London County Council in 1934. Labour also added members in droves: 100,000 joined in 1932, and the party set a target of ‘A Million Members and Power’. By the end of 1934, with the increasingly decrepit figurehead of Ramsay MacDonald, the Government was starting to look stale.
However, its fortunes improved during 1935, with a successful reshuffle in June in which Stanley Baldwin returned to the post of Prime Minister. There was continued economic recovery, and Baldwin cited, in particular, the success of the steel industry after tariffs had been imposed on foreign competition. Wages were rising, and some of the early austerity measures such as civil service pay cuts were reversed.
Some of Labour’s structural weaknesses also emerged: general disunity, the perception that the party had ‘run away’ from the financial crisis in 1931, and divisions over welfare reform. The ‘means test’ on unemployment benefit had been discussed by the outgoing government in 1931, but opposed by the unions, and was legislated for by the National Government. The 1932 Labour conference voted to oppose it entirely, despite Herbert Morrison’s plea that there was some merit in considering the income of the applicant. A sympathetic journalist noted that the party’s press office was in difficulty because ‘on any single issue no two speakers appeared to say the same thing’.
Labour’s internal problems came to a head during the 1935 conference. Lansbury had run into internal dissension after saying in September that ‘in no circumstances could he support the use of armed force either by the League of Nations or by individual nations,’ which goes rather further than reluctance to push a nuclear button. He lost the confidence of the unions and resigned after a brutal rebuke from Ernie Bevin. Labour selected, as a stopgap leader, Clement Attlee – another demonstration of the principle that in politics that which is intended to be temporary is long-term, and vice versa. But it was hardly advantageous to go into election season with an unknown and admittedly temporary candidate for Prime Minister, in contrast to the experienced, well-known and emollient Baldwin.
Also up in the air during the autumn 1935 was the foreign situation, through which prism most retrospective views of the election have been seen. The main matter of the moment was the aggression of Fascist Italy against Ethiopia, an independent nation and member of the League of Nations. By calling the election during a ‘diplomatic lull’, Baldwin and Samuel Hoare, the Foreign Secretary, could maintain the pretence that they were interested in collective security while negotiating to sell out Ethiopia in what, after the election, became known as the ‘Hoare-Laval pact’. There was a deluded belief that Mussolini might be kept out of alliance with Hitler with a bit of flattery and a pusillanimous response to aggression: France under Pierre Laval was an obstacle to taking any action that would offend him.
British public attitudes to foreign affairs and defence in 1935 were, as they often are, confused and contradictory. Many in the mainstream of British politics put their faith in collective security through the League of Nations, a cause that was fading but did not then seem altogether hopeless; during the summer, over 11 million voters expressed support for the principle in a ‘Peace Ballot’. If collective security had worked properly, it would have served the same role as nuclear deterrence did after 1945 – to keep the peace without it ever having to be used in anger. To the left, there were some outright pacifists such as Lansbury who would not countenance even collective force. To the right, there were those – well-represented among the press barons – who sympathised with the dictators or supported Beaverbrook’s call for ‘Splendid Isolation’ to be Britain’s main policy on European quarrels.
Contemporary observers felt the 1935 election was dull, polite and lacking in the passion that had spiced up previous elections. The municipal elections took place mid-campaign, and produced some Conservative gains compared to last time the same seats were fought in 1932; they did nothing to disturb expectations. Attempts to launch scare stories about whether building society deposits would be seized by a Labour government, or the Tories would introduce conscription, fell flat. A commentator in Nineteenth Century wrote that:
“By common consent the 1935 election was the quietest and most orderly ever held. There were no riots, hardly any broken heads, and the election egg is no longer a marketable commodity.”
The Daily Express was even more annoyed:
“Nobody cares… there’s no fire, no faith, no truth in the contest. Politics will live again when men care all and dare all… Stir yourselves, Tories who believe in Empire! Rise up, Radicals who want the soil for the peasant!”
In retrospect, Britain was very lucky and unusual to have a calm, mannered election during the mid-1930s: even where democracy still reigned in France and, for a moment, Spain, elections were bitter, extreme and violent. In Britain the Fascists opted out of the entire election, and although the Communists elected one MP (from the coal country of West Fife) they were negligible in 99 per cent of the country.
Although, on the face of it, 1935 was a very two-party election, there was a general perception of a submerged Liberal vote, most of which had voted National in 1931 but was now up for grabs and had swung massively to Labour in some mid-term by-elections, like that in East Fulham during 1933. Lloyd George, stalking the wilderness, came up with a Roosevelt style New Deal of loan-financed public works and a non-party liberal Council of Action for Peace and Reconstruction prepared to intervene.
The ‘National’ branding of the government was therefore threadbare, but still useful in 1935. The 1933 defection to the Opposition of the mainstream Liberals under Herbert Samuel was probably the point where one can stop regarding it as a coalition government, since the Liberal Nationals were hard to tell apart from Tories and National Labour scarcely existed outside the MacDonald household. But the infusion of some elements of Labour in support of the Chamberlain’s collectivism could be seen in policies such as the creation of the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933. The Liberal Nationals added some small business sensibility to the mix; it was a broadly successful political synthesis that was not as far from One Nation and a property-owning democracy as its post-war reputation suggests.
While the Conservatives could undoubtedly have won a majority on their own in 1935, the National synthesis gave credibility to their claim to represent the whole nation and get around the deep resistance felt in many working class and traditional Liberal areas to the thought of identifying with the Conservatives. In 1935, it was still possible for voters who regarded themselves as Liberal, independent or even moderate Labour to cast a vote for the National candidate (who was a Conservative in all but 68 constituencies) without thinking of themselves as supporting the Tories.
Nearly every observer expected the same result – a Conservative win with a reduced majority. The Express and its correspondents surveyed the field seat-by-seat and on the weekend before the poll came up with figures of Government 392 (Con 355, National Labour 6, National Liberal 29, Indepedent National 2), Opposition 223 (Lab 204, Liberal 15, ILP 2, Independent 2) – a ajority of 169. Ladbrokes market makers put the majority a bit higher, with the mid-price at 195-200.
As with many works of election prediction, the Express and the markets were found to be in error when the votes were counted. The Tories held all three seats in Salford early in the night, signalling a large majority, and Harold Macmillan, whom the Express had expected to lose by 3,700 votes to Labour’s Susan Lawrence, came back with a 4,000 majority of his own.
A ‘magnificent triumph’ boasted the Daily Mail, as the Labour gains were mostly to be found in London or in hard-core seats that the party should never have lost in 1931; coal and cotton were still troubled industries and contributed a number of those gains. Labour did worse than expected in Scotland where the Independent Labour Party had split off; as Tom Stannage notes ‘compared with 1929 the Scottish movement now suffered from Socialist critics who were constantly deprecating Labour’s achievements and pouring scorn on its ability to govern.’
Baldwin won a broad and deep victory in 1935. Only in the context of the colossal landslide of 1931 could it have been an election at which the government lost ground – that a government could survive a swing of nearly 10 per cent and more than 100 Opposition gains with a landslide majority is extraordinary. Neither the government share of the vote, nor its popular vote lead over the opposition, has been equalled since. A weird footnote to election day came with the story printed at the bottom of the front page of Friday’s Express:
‘The very young and the very old went to the polls yesterday – the young because someone had blundered, the old in defiance of their years.’ Noella Adam, aged twelve, voted at Watford; a ten year old schoolboy made his first marks in politics at East Edinburgh; four year old Judith Brooks of Epsom went to polling booth because her name appeared on the register; was refused a ballot paper.’
One frequently hears of mistaken register entries for children or pets, but this is the first time I can recall hearing of a British election at which children have been allowed to cast ballots. By 1945, Ms Adam could cast her first legitimate vote, but the Edinburgh lad would have to wait until February 1950. I do hope both are still with us, and that Ms Brooks enjoyed her first exercise of the franchise in May 1955.
Tom Stannage: Baldwin Thwarts the Opposition. Croom, Helm, 1980.
William Thomas Morgan: The British General Election of 1935, The South Atlantic Quarterly Vol 37, No 2, April 1938.