The biggest landslide ever: the general election of 1931
This article first appeared in Conservative Home on 12 May 2017. It ended up having rather fewer contemporary echoes than seemed probable at the time of writing…
Tracing the roots of the election back to the start, it was mostly down to May – although events rapidly gained their own momentum. The Conservatives ran on the basis of a ‘doctor’s mandate’, asking for national unity and a free hand to address the pressing problems of the time. The Labour vote dropped sharply and the Tories sucked up the votes that had gone to other parties in the previous election, producing an extreme landslide.
This, then, is the story of the October 1931 election which began with the report of the May committee recommending various austerity measures including cutting unemployment benefit. The Labour Cabinet could not agree on a response to the crisis and broke up; instead, an emergency ‘National Government’ was formed in August from Labour, Conservative and Liberal elements and passed a supplementary budget introducing the cuts in September. The government had a perfectly adequate majority in parliament (59 at its first confidence vote test) and there was initially no talk of an early election. But events piled on, notably the forced departure from the Gold Standard, and the temptation of going for an election and getting a huge mandate to tide the Conservatives through what looked like a turbulent few years and extend the end of the parliament from 1934 to 1936 eventually became too much.
The government asked for a ‘doctor’s mandate’ – the freedom to do what was necessary to tackle the economic crisis. The formula covered the hitherto transgressive Conservative dream of introducing protective tariffs, which had doomed the Tories in 1906 and 1923 but which were at last legislated in 1932 (and little good they did). They got what might have better been called a surgeon’s mandate – a completely comatose and compliant patient on which to operate.
Contemporary observers were awe-struck by the scale of the landslide, but the ability of the electoral system to produce wildly unbalanced results when one party has a large lead in votes was not properly understood at the time – concepts like uniform national swing and the cube law had not been refined yet. But the old-fashioned cube law would suggest that a party or alliance with better than a 2:1 advantage in votes should get a better than 8:1 advantage in seats, which is what happened in 1931. The National alliance beat Labour with 67 per cent of the vote, of which 55 per cent was cast for its Conservative members, to 30.6 per cent, a lead – depending on how one counts it – of either 36 points or 24 points. For comparison, the Tories led by 17 points in 1935, 15 points in 1983 and 1924, and Labour’s margin in 1997 was 12.5 percentage points. A 37-point Tory lead on uniform swing since 2015 would reduce Labour to around 94 seats.
It was unsurprising that Labour lost the election badly; that was going to happen in any circumstances because of the economic collapse that had happened since 1929 and the feebleness of the government’s response to the unemployment and misery it caused. For the party to split, and for the main bit of the party to leave in a way that could credibly be represented as running away from a national crisis, added a heavy anvil to the defeat that was coming. The scale of the National win was augmented by the circumstances of the election; the other electoral event when ‘all the sensible chaps’ were on the same side, the Europe referendum in 1975, produced a similar result (a 67 per cent win). There was a fierce and bitter tone to the contest, particularly between National Labour and their recent colleagues. The National government’s electoral appeal had unusual levels of overt support from the traditional Establishment, such as the Church of England; after all, the formula for its creation had a lot to do with the intervention of Buckingham Palace. Even Cabinet Secretary Thomas Jones, who had greeted the unexpected Labour successes of 1923 with glee, felt ruefully that Labour needed to lose this one.
The results of the 1931 election were the most extreme in the history of Parliament. This went further even than the elections with outsized landslide margins such as 1906, 1924, 1935 and 1997. The Unionists won 471 seats and there were 50 more who were unambiguous allies (35 Liberal National, 13 National Labour, 2 National). There were 33 Liberals who retained more independence and eventually left the government over tariffs. Against 554 government MPs the opposition could muster 56 – 46 Labour, 6 Independent Labour who disaffiliated in 1932, and four Lloyd George Liberals (and there were five Independents). The government majority was nearly 500. The City of London had housed what was effectively a spread betting market on the results and while the government was expected to increase its majority the sheer scale of the liabilities involved made or ruined many of the people involved in this market.
The completeness of the sweep was astonishing. Every seat in Manchester, Sheffield, Salford and Birmingham went Tory, as did both banks of the Tyne, where Jarrow elected a Tory MP with a majority of over 3,000. In Rotherham the little known Tory candidate George Herbert overturned a 1929 Labour majority of 16,836; marginal Birmingham Erdington went from a Labour majority of 133 to a Tory majority of 18,996. Herbert resigned from the House in 1933 but lived until 1982. Labour’s leader Arthur Henderson was defeated in his Burnley constituency. The main areas that held out were the core mining districts of South Wales and Yorkshire. Of the ministers of the Labour government who had not followed MacDonald there was only one Cabinet-level survivor, George Lansbury, and a couple of junior ministers called Clement Attlee and Stafford Cripps. From little acorns that survive a sharp frost…
One of the side-effects of the 1931 landslide was that the number of women Conservative MPs rose from three to thirteen. Startlingly, the same number of Conservative women MPs – thirteen – were elected in the 1983 high water mark and the number only climbed out of the mid-teens in the 2010 election. Several of the women elected in 1931 were surprise winners in unlikely seats, such as Norah Runge (Rotherhithe) and Mavis Tate (Willesden West). Thelma Cazalet (Islington East) was not alone in regarding herself as an avowed feminist. In her memoirs From the Wings she notes that:
When I entered the House there was still something slightly freakish about a woman MP and I frequently saw male colleagues pointing me out to their friends as though I were a sort of giant panda. The House has often been labelled ‘the best Club in the world’, but it was nothing of the sort to women.
The women MPs, and their multiply more numerous male colleagues, elected in 1931 were generally a fairly moderate lot, in contrast to 1918’s ‘hard faced men who looked as if they had done very well out of the war’. They owed their election to Baldwin and to the crumbling figurehead of MacDonald, and owed nothing to the press barons who had made 1929-31 such a miserable term of opposition for Baldwin. Many of the victors in normally Labour constituencies knew that although they were Conservatives they were only in parliament because normally Labour voters had supported them, and they had to try to satisfy this extended base of support by introducing moderate and pro-working class measures. Harold Macmillan, returning as MP for Stockton after a two-year absence, was confirmed in his moderate views which he expressed in his 1938 book The Middle Way – a path between the excesses of unregulated capitalism and bureaucratic socialism. Right wing discontent did surface from time to time, particularly on the issue of India, but it was split between old fashioned reactionaries and people who sympathised with the apparently invigorating force of fascism.
It may appear that there was little in the 1931 election result that could console the Labour Party. Its parliamentary representation had been smashed and it was so far behind that the prospect of it being able to govern again seemed extremely remote. The crisis had also inflicted damage on the party’s reputation that would be hard to repair. But despite the electoral disaster, the foundations of the Labour Party were shaken rather than destroyed. The trade union movement was powerful, in heavy industry and mining which were the backbones of the economy despite the ravages of the Depression and in the new industries that grew during the 1930s. The unions were well-led and could command a hearing within government. The Labour movement was still an estate of the realm after 1931. Labour’s vote share was still 30.6 per cent even at this moment of extreme weakness. It was the first election in which Labour’s share of the vote had fallen. Even in the electoral arena, there were soon signs that Labour was on the way back – a series of by-election gains crowned by the first-time victory in Fulham East (1933) on a 29 per cent swing, and the capture of the London County Council in 1934.
However, even with the strong foundations it had, 1930s Labour could only rebuild as far as a position as a credible opposition rather than a possible government. The 1931 realignment had created a stable pattern in which a moderate, mildly statist bloc led by the Conservatives had a lock on power and Labour MPs represented the constituencies that were nearly exclusively manual working class and suffering from unemployment. It made Labour, until total war changed society and politics, a party whose electoral appeal was mostly confined to the organised working class which was a source of some strength but insufficient to be a platform for government. The stifling complacency and unimaginativeness of 1930s government, and the policy and leadership failures that resulted, dates back to the nearly opposition-free parliament of 1931-35 and the uncompetitive state of electoral politics.
Further reading: Andrew Thorpe The British General Election of 1931 (Oxford University Press, 1991).