Record

CodeNA6408
Dates1859-1981
Person NameLiberal Party; 1859-1981
ActivityThe Reform Act of 1832 began the process of extending the franchise and, thereby, the need for politicians to engage with both ordinary electors and radical elements outside Parliament. Out of this process grew the establishment of political parties that we recognise today. The significance of the Reform Act is shown by the establishment by radicals of a club for those committed to the principles of the Act - the Reform Club in Pall Mall, London to which many prominent Liberals of the nineteenth century became members.

The Liberal Party itself was formed on 6 June 1859, when Whigs, Peelites (Tory supporters of Sir Robert Peel) and Radicals met at Willis's Rooms in St. James Street, London, to unite in opposition to the Conservatives. The Liberals governed Britain for most of the following thirty years, benefiting from further extensions of the franchise in 1867 and 1885. Liberal leader and four times Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone dominated British politics during this period. However, in 1886 a split in the Party over Irish Home Rule consigned the Party to the Opposition benches for much of the following 20 years.

These years gave the party the chance to renew itself and under the leadership of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman the Liberal party swept back to power with a landslide in 1906. The Liberal government of 1906-15 was one of the great reforming administrations of the twentieth century.

After the First World War the Liberal Party was divided and demoralised. Following Lloyd George’s toppling of Asquith in December 1916 much of the party followed Asquith into opposition. In the election that followed the end of the War the two groups found themselves fighting each other for the support of the electorate. Despite formal reunion in 1923, the factions led by Asquith and Lloyd George fought each other rather than the Conservative and Labour Parties throughout much of the 1920s. The party's organisation fell apart, allowing the Labour Party to capture the votes of the working class and women voters enfranchised in 1918. With Lloyd George’s succession to the leadership in 1926 the Party was to some extent reinvigorated and fought the 1929 general election on a radical platform of Keynesian economics. There was some advance on the previous result.

The economic crisis of 1931 brought about the creation of the National Government and the Liberals returned to Government. However, the experience was not a happy one and the Party split again. Lloyd George and his closest supporters never joined the Government. Those committed to free trade, including party leader Sir Herbert Samuel, left in 1932 following the Government’s introduction of tariffs, whilst the remainder stayed in the Government as Liberal Nationals under the leadership of Sir John Simon. Not surprisingly, the election in 1935 saw the Liberal party lose all the gains it had made in 1929. Churchill’s war time coalition saw the Liberal party return to Government with Party Leader, Sir Archibald Sinclair in the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Air. Unfortunately his ministerial commitments contributed to the loss of his seat at the 1945 election and a further period of decline for the Liberal Party that lasted until the mid-1950s. By 1957, with the loss of a by election, there were only five Liberal MPs and just 110 constituencies had been contested by the party at the previous general election.

In 1956 Jo Grimond was elected leader of the Party. His vision and youthful appeal were well suited to the burgeoning television coverage of politics and began a revival of the Party’s fortunes. In 1958 the Liberal Party won its first by election for 30 years. His unique combination of talents attracted many new members. Unfortunately, the party was hampered by organisational difficulties and progress was slow. Although there was a significant advance in terms of votes in the 1964 election and some gains of seats in 1966, the end of Wilson's Labour government in 1970 saw a loss of both votes and seats.

Disappointment at the 1966 result persuaded Grimond to step down as leader to be replaced by Jeremy Thorpe. Revival came once more with significant by election gains during the last years of the Heath Government, peaking in the two general elections of 1974, with 19% and 18% of the vote respectively. Liberal activists campaigned intensively to empower local communities, and win council seats. This strategy was formally adopted by the party in 1970 and was most successful in Liverpool - though Liberals found it difficult to translate success in local government into parliamentary seats.

The Labour Government’s loss of its overall majority in the House of Commons led to the establishment of the Lib-Lab Pact. Unfortunately, however, the Party was unable to capitalise effectively on its position and withdrew from the Pact in October 1978. Following Labour's defeat in the 1979 election, the internecine strife and growing success of the left within the party alienated many MPs and members. Moderate Labour leaders such as Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers had worked with the Liberal Party during the referendum on membership of the European Community and the Lib-Lab Pact. On 26 March 1981 the ‘Gang of Four’ broke away from Labour to found the Social Democratic Party (SDP). They were joined by a significant number of moderate Labour MPs. The new party attracted ordinary members of both the Labour and Conservative parties and also brought many people into politics for the first time. Following the election of Roy Jenkins as leader, The Liberal Party and SDP formed an Alliance later the same year, agreeing to fight elections on a common platform with joint candidates.

The Alliance's political impact was immediate, winning a string of by election victories and topping the opinion polls for months. The two parties won 25% of the vote in the 1983 general election, the best third-party performance since 1929. Labour won just 27% of the vote, but 209 MPs, compared to 23 for the Alliance, most of which were Liberals. Jenkins resigned as leader of the SDP to be replaced by David Owen.

The Liberal-SDP Alliance struggled to maintain its early momentum and its vote share dropped to 23% in the 1987 general election. The Liberal leader David Steel immediately proposed a merger of the two parties, and following lengthy negotiations and all-member ballots, on 3 March 1988 (the legal 'vesting day' was 8 March) the Liberal Democrats came into existence.
Corporate NameLiberal Party
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