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The History of One-Party Dominance in Wales, Part 1: the Rise and Fall of the Liberals

This is the first of three posts on the history of electoral politics in Wales, which focus on the lop-sided nature democracy has tended to take here.

Vaguely modern political parties in Britain emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century. As elsewhere, in Britain the development of parties was inextricably linked to mass participation elections: key stages in the UK were the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872 and the expansion of the electoral franchise – to approximately 16 percent of the adult population in 1867, and then to more than a quarter of all adults in 1884. It was at this time that the party politics of Wales developed a pattern distinct from England and Scotland. (Ireland’s politics were even more distinct, but for reasons well beyond the scope of this discussion).

The 1859 general election was the last time the Conservatives scored a higher percentage of the vote in Wales than England. As the proportion of the population eligible to vote increased, the Conservatives’ plight in Wales worsened. After the 1885 election, the Tories’ vote share in Wales also fell below that in Scotland (where it stayed until 1979, by which time the long, sad decline of Scottish Conservatism was well under way.) And the obverse of Conservative weakness was Liberal strength: from 1885 until the very last pre-World War I election in December 1910, the Liberal party won an absolute majority of both votes and parliamentary seats in Wales at every election. This dominance in Wales was not simply a reflection of the wider UK picture. As Table 1 illustrates, even in times of great difficulty for the Liberals across the UK and in years of sweeping Conservative election victories in 1886, 1895 and 1900, in Wales the Liberals remained the dominant political force.

Table 1: General Elections Results in Wales, England and Scotland 1885-1910

 

Wales

England

Scotland

1885

% Vote

MPs

% Vote

MPs

% Vote

MPs

Conservative

38.9

4

47.5

213

34.3

8

Liberal

58.3

29

51.4

238

53.3

51

Others

2.8

1

1.1

5

12.4

11

1886

Conservative

46.1

8

52.6

322

46.4

27

Liberal

53.9

26

47.2

123

53.6

43

Others

0.2

1

1892

Conservative

37.2

3

51.1

261

44.4

19

Liberal

62.8

31

48.0

190

53.9

51

Others

0.9

5

1895

Conservative

42.4

9

51.9

343

47.4

31

Liberal

56.8

25

46.6

112

51.7

39

ILP

1.1

0

0.8

0

Others

0.3

1

1900

Conservative

37.6

6

52.4

322

49.0

36

Liberal

58.5

27

45.6

121

50.2

34

Labour

3.9

1

1.3

1

Others

0.6

2

1906

Conservative

33.8

0

44.3

122

38.2

10

Liberal

60.2

32

49.0

306

56.4

58

Labour

3.5

1

5.3

26

2.3

2

Others

2.5

1

1.4

2

3.1

0

1910 (Jan)

Conservative

31.9

2

49.3

233

39.6

9

Liberal

52.3

27

43.0

188

54.2

58

Labour

14.9

5

6.9

33

5.1

2

Others

0.8

2

1.1

1

1910 (Dec)

Conservative

33.8

3

48.8

233

42.6

9

Liberal

47.9

26

44.4

187

53.6

58

Labour

17.8

5

6.4

34

3.6

3

Others

0.4

2

Various factors have been used to explain the Conservatives’ persisting weakness, and the strength of the Liberals, in Wales. The Tories were strongly identified with the dominant economic classes, the English language, and with an Anglican church whose establishment status was resented by most Welsh people. The Liberals became, for many, the authentic voice of Welsh nonconformity, the Welsh language and even of Wales itself. The Anglican-nonconformist religious cleavage helps explain why, in stark contrast to Scotland, Welsh Conservatives were unable to exploit the Irish Home Rule issue to draw many lower-middle and working class Protestants into a powerful Unionist bloc. Thus, compared to the rest of Britain, politics in Wales was heavily and consistently slanted against the Conservatives.

In years like 1895, when the Conservative electoral tide was running particularly strongly across Britain, Welsh politics could look reasonably competitive – though Conservative seat wins still tended to be confined to the more anglicised parts of Wales. But at times of greater Liberal strength in general, Wales looked almost like a one-party state.

In the absence of other significant political forces until the rise of the Labour movement early in the 20th century, the Liberal and Conservative parties were the only significant entities. But it would be stretching things to describe Wales during 1885-1914 as experiencing two-party politics. Rather, Wales could more accurately be described, in Giovanni Sartori’s terms, as a Predominant Party system – one where other parties exist, and compete in reasonably free and fair elections, but where one party is consistently successful: “the predominant-party system actually is a more-than-one party system in which…[i]t simply happens that the same party manages to win, over time, an absolute majority of seats (not necessarily of votes) in parliament”.[1] Sartori suggested that three successive majorities indicated a dominant party system. The Liberals won the majority of Welsh seats in every one of the eight general elections prior to World War I. As K.O. Morgan summarises the situation, “[a]t no stage in this period did Wales enjoy real two-party politics, nor did Welsh Toryism at any time present an enduring threat to the domination of nonconformist Liberals”.[2]

The harbingers of change in Welsh politics can (with the benefit of hindsight) be seen in the two 1910 elections. In both of these, five Labour MPs were elected. And in the latter of the two, Labour’s rising support saw the Liberal vote share in Wales fall below 50 percent, a level it would never again attain. But it was World War I and its aftermath that transformed much of Welsh society and led to fundamental changes in its politics. The period after the war saw a catastrophic decline in the extractive industries around which the prosperity of the Welsh economy had hitherto been based; and a severe decline in the dominance of nonconformity within Welsh society. A united Liberal party might have been able to recover from these significant blows to key pillars of their old dominance of Welsh society. But the stark internal divisions that the war had opened up within the party rendered them newly vulnerable. These splits permitted the further substantial expansion of the franchise which occurred after 1918 to feed not Liberal strength, as pre-war observers might have expected, but rather to boost the rise of Labour.

With hindsight, the rise of the Labour party across Britain, and particularly in Wales, can often appear wholly inevitable. It did not necessarily seem that way at the time. For much of the inter-war era, Wales (indeed Britain as a whole) experienced a genuine three-party politics. But in retrospect, this period appears as an interregnum not only between two cataclysmic conflicts, but between two periods of partisan hegemony in Wales. As Table 2 shows, the Liberal vote in Wales declined at every general election, barring very modest rises in 1923 and 1929. By the 1935 election, the Liberals were polling just 18 percent of the vote in Wales – more than 30 percent lower than the support level they had enjoyed as recently as 1918. At the same time, the Labour vote share had risen in every election, except for a slight fall in 1924. Even in the disastrous National Government election of 1931, Labour’s proportion of the popular vote in Wales actually increased, and by the final pre-war election in 1935 its support had climbed above 45 percent. Meanwhile, the Conservatives continued to garner significantly lower levels of support in Wales than elsewhere in Britain, although in a more balanced party system they were able to win a greater number of seats in Wales during the inter-war years than they had pre-1914.

Table 2: General Elections Results in Wales, England and Scotland 1918-1935

 

Wales

England

Scotland

1918

% Vote

MPs

% Vote

MPs

% Vote

MPs

Conservative

11.3

4

42.4

315

31.8

30

Liberal

48.9

20

26.5

107

34.2

33

Labour

30.8

9

22.5

42

23.6

6

Others

9.0

2

8.6

21

10.4

2

1922

Conservative

21.4

6

41.1

307

24.2

13

Liberal

34.3

10

27.5

75

39.3

27

Labour

40.7

18

28.8

95

31.9

29

Others

3.6

1

2.6

8

4.6

2

1923

Conservative

21.1

4

39.7

221

31.2

14

Liberal

35.4

11

30.0

123

28.2

22

Labour

42.0

19

29.8

138

35.5

34

Others

1.5

1

0.6

3

5.2

1

1924

Conservative

28.4

9

47.6

347

40.1

36

Liberal

31.0

10

17.6

19

16.7

8

Labour

40.6

16

32.9

109

40.6

26

Others

1.8

10

2.6

1

1929

Conservative

22.0

1

38.8

221

35.3

20

Liberal

33.5

9

23.5

35

18.1

13

Labour

43.9

25

37.0

226

41.8

36

Others

0.7

3

4.7

2

1931

Conservative

31.3

11

63.5

436

54.3

57

Liberal

21.0

8

5.6

19

9.4

7

Labour

44.1

16

30.2

29

32.0

7

Others

3.6

0

0.7

1

4.3

0

1935

Conservative

33.6

11

54.7

357

48.9

43

Liberal

18.0

6

6.1

11

7.5

3

Labour

45.4

18

38.6

116

37.2

20

Others

3.0

0

0.7

1

6.5

5

To summarise, during the period from the emergence of modern party politics until the end of World War II, we see in Wales the development of a distinctly different shape to partisan politics than in the rest of Britain. To a degree unknown in England, and increasingly was also foreign to Scotland, Wales witnessed persisting Conservative weakness. For much of this period, Conservative weakness was coterminous with Liberal dominance; party politics in Wales was a Dominant Party system. But the rapid decline of the Liberals after World War I, and the brief period of Three-Party politics that ensued, saw Wales increasingly moving towards the Labour party. My next blog post will examine how these trends solidified into an era of entrenched Labour hegemony in Wales.


[1] Sartori, Parties and Party Systems, p. 173, emphasis in original.

[2] Morgan, Rebirth of a Nation, p. 46.

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