The Liberals won the election held in 1918. However, the party was now severely split and it looked as if the damage caused would never be repaired. It is noted quite clearly that, at this time, the split in the party was due to a major personality clash between Lloyd George and Asquith. This made the party look unprofessional and petty in the voters’ eyes. Labour had successfully recovered after their split at the beginning of the war. There had been a large growth in the Labour Party membership during the war, and Henderson, Labour Party leader, wanted to concentrate on uniting his own party, in order to take advantage of this growth with a view to becoming a serious threat to the Liberals. Henderson was helped in this aim by the divisions in the Liberal Party. Also the Representation of the People Act of 1918, created many new voters, the majority of which were working class. This, together with their 1918 Constitution had a large impact on the Labour Party. The Conservatives’ popularity had also risen during the war as they were seen as a patriotic party. The problems they had before the war with Balfour had long been forgotten by the majority of people. Also, after 1918 they were the major party in the post-war coalition.
One of the major effects of the war was party division. Before the war the Liberals were doing very well. They had held together well during the House of Lords crisis, and Asquith had a period of 6 years in government with practically no resignations. However, in 1916 they encountered a huge split where their two leaders became enemies. This rift carried on in 1918 during the Maurice Debate and Coupon Election and there was no sign of the split healing. The Conservatives experienced no splits during the war and they remained strong and united. Labour endured a small split at the beginning of the war between the patriots and the pacifists, like MacDonald. This was not severely damaging as, before the war had ended, Labour left the coalition and re-joined. Their split was seen to be much more professional than the Liberals’ personal squabbles.
The war also affected the leadership of the parties during the war. After working well together during the period of 1908-14, there was an extremely damaging and lengthy leadership battle between Asquith and Lloyd George in 1916. Lloyd George didn’t have very strong morals. He wanted to win the war with himself as leader so in 1916 he split the party. He also assured the split in 1918 when he continued to be the Prime Minister of a coalition that was lacking in Liberal support. Asquith wanted to keep his party united throughout the war. The Conservatives had no problems with their leadership during the war. Bonar Law was party leader and Balfour, former Conservative Prime Minister, modestly served under him. Labour changed its’ leader at the beginning of the war. MacDonald was removed as party leader due to his anti-war views. However, Henderson showed that he was able to take part competently as Labour leader in the War Cabinet. This showed the public that Labour were responsible and so the leadership change did not hurt them.
The publics’ “popular vote” changed greatly during the war. Prior to the war in 1910, the Liberals received 44% of the vote. After the war the party was still split and so the Asquith Liberals obtained 19% of the vote and the Lloyd George Liberals obtained 10% of the vote. This was a terrible blow to both sections of the party. The Conservatives remained a substantial party, gaining 47.1% of the vote in 1918. The Labour Party, like the Liberals, had also incurred a major change in popularity. In 1910, they had received 6.4% of the vote, whereas, in 1918 they obtained 20.8%, this was a major rise in support. Their percentage of the vote had more than trebled making them the second largest party. Their popularity was greatly helped by the war as it led to the extension of the right to vote to all working class people.
The parties’ ideas changed, some dramatically, during the war. Before the war the Liberals had new ideas of social reform. They had lots of drive to achieve their new ideals that came under the heading of “New Liberalism”. After the war, their split meant that the party were no longer united on any points and all of their previous impetus was lost. The Conservatives ideas had not changed during the war. Their views were clearly suited to war, as they were nationalistic and disciplined. Labour left the war coalition early to prepare them for peacetime and to organise their new constitution. The Labour 1918 Constitution, including Clause Four, contained all of their new ideas and stated that they were both a Trade Union and a Socialist party.
In conclusion, I would say the most important effect of the war was the Liberal split. This was one of the major causes of the Liberals’ downfall and it allowed Labour to become the United Kingdom’s second largest party. Also, the Liberals had big problems with the new “class cleavage” that arose after the war. War was a major turning point in all of the parties’ functions.
14th March 2003 page