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To what extent was the development of the Labour movement the most significant threat to the Liberal party (1886-1901)?

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Introduction

TO WHAT EXTENT WAS THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE LABOUR MOVEMENT THE MOST SIGNIFICANT THREAT TO THE LIBERAL PARTY (1886-1901)? 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'. ...read more.

Middle

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. ...read more.

Conclusion

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. ?? ?? ?? ?? ...read more.

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