History lessons for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats

Russell Deacon examines the long fall out from the Conservative by-election victory in Newport 90 years ago today

The Newport by-election of 18 October 1922 has gone down in history as the only one to directly lead to the fall of a government. This may be a bit of an exaggeration. However, the fact that an unofficial Conservative candidate won the seat instead of the expected win by the Labour Party did have a profound affect on Conservative backbench opinion which helped end a Coalition government.

The Conservative leadership had expected a Labour win. They were going to use this fact at a meeting of backbench MPs the following day to reinforce the need for the Conservatives to stay in the Coalition, in order to defeat the growing threat of Labour. The fact that a Conservative won the Newport seat, without any official backing, only reinforced Conservative arguments in favour of leaving the widely despised Lloyd George led Coalition and fight the next election alone.

The Coalition had been brought about by the failures of the former Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith during the early years of the First World War, the ambitions of David Lloyd George and his followers, and the necessity for political collaboration during wartime. Lloyd George’s premiership had the direct result of splitting the Liberal Party between those who followed him (Coalition or Lloyd George Liberals) and the former Prime Minister Asquith (Liberals or Asquithian Liberals).

After the war had ended, loyalty to the Coalition was maintained mainly through the desire of Lloyd George to stay in power and the Conservatives’ fear that Labour would gain power without a Coalition. Lloyd George had expected Labour to remain in the Coalition and even thought there might be a Liberal reunion with the Asquithan Liberals. In the event, neither occurred and only the Lloyd George Liberals and Conservatives remained together. The 1918 election resulted in a Coalition landslide with 472 MPs. However, most of those were Conservative rather than Liberal, Even so it was the Liberal Lloyd George, the ‘man who won the war’, who became Prime Minister.

There had been nine by-elections in Wales during the 1918-1922 parliament before the Newport contest. This represented over a quarter of Welsh seats. All of the by-elections, bar one in Cardiganshire were in industrial, mainly working class south Wales seats. With the exception of one election in Ebbw Vale, which Labour won uncontested, all other by-elections were contested by both government and opposition candidates.

Labour did not contest the 1921 Cardiganshire by-election when a Coalition Liberal succeeded in beating an Asquithian Liberal candidate. Of the other seven by-elections, only the mining seat of Rhondda West was contested by a Conservative candidate. It was a seat which had no Conservative tradition but nonetheless the party gained a respectable 41.5 per cent of the vote, an indication the Conservative’s electoral strength in Wales was rising in working class areas.

The first of the by elections was in Swansea in July 1919. It was held by the Coalition Liberal candidate, albeit with a greatly reduced majority from the year before. A majority of 27.2 per cent was reduced to one of just over six per cent. The first Coalition government loss in Wales didn’t occur until over three years into the Coalition government. Then, in July 1922, in the nearby Pontypridd constituency, Labour beat the Liberal Coalition candidate by a sizable 4,080 (14 per cent) majority.  This was almost an exact reversal of the majority the Liberals had enjoyed over Labour in the 1918 election.

In Pontypridd the sitting MP, Thomas Arthur (T.A.) Lewis, was forced to resign and stand for re-election because he had been appointed a Junior Lord of the Treasury. In the subsequent by election, the Labour campaign was based mainly on painting Lewis as a ‘war profiteer’. It was an accusation that appeared to stick. This loss in Pontypridd led many senior figures in the Coalition government to believe that Newport would be won by Labour too. Indeed Labour itself used the slogan: ‘As goes Pontypridd, so goes Newport’.

On 12 September 1922, the Newport Liberal Coalition MP, Lewis Haslam, died after an operation for gastric problems. The South Wales Argus noted that whilst Haslam was a good constituency MP, working behind the scenes on case work:

“Mr Haslam’s qualities were not on the surface. He always seemed a little remote, he lacked humour. He was not expansive in manner or outlook. He had none of the arts of self-advertisement. To use a common phrase he ‘could not put the goods in the shop window’.”

As was common with MPs of that period Haslam did not live in the constituency but at his home in Bignor Park House, Sutton, Sussex. It was here that this uncharismatic MP was buried in the presence of leading Liberals and representatives of the Newport Town Council. As the Liberals mourned, the other political parties prepared for the forthcoming election.  On the day before the funeral T.S. Gower, secretary to the Newport Liberal Association put out a statement condemning the Labour Party for holding a selection meeting for the forthcoming Newport by-election before Haslam had been buried.

Whilst Labour was pushing ahead with their selection the Newport Liberals still had no clear idea of whom would be their candidate. They called an executive meeting for the Monday following Haslam’s funeral. Before this had occurred the South Wales Argus reported on 20 September that in London, one of Lloyd George’s secretaries, Evan R. Davies, had been in discussion with the Coalition Liberal Chief Whip, Charles McCurdy, to produce a report on the negotiations underway for the by election to avoid a ‘three cornered contest’.

Their plans were to stop the Conservatives contesting the seat and select their own Coalition Liberal candidate. Both objectives failed. Whilst the Conservative leadership agreed not to put forward a candidate, the local Newport Conservative Association went ahead anyway. There would therefore be a ‘three cornered fight’. The Newport Liberal Association also rejected external efforts to impose a ‘Coalition Liberal’ candidate and insisted on finding their own standard bearer who would represent both wings of the party. They approached a host of notable Liberals, all of whom declined on various grounds. In event they selected a somewhat reluctant local Newport Liberal, Lyndon William Moore.

Moore was the Deputy Chair of Newport Liberals. He was a solicitor and coroner for Newport. According to the Liberal press, Moore had all the virtues of a present day Liberal Democrat. He was an advocate for women’s rights and equality, in favour of proportional representation, generally ‘pro reform’, pro business and for minimal public expenditure – altogether a modern day Orange Book Liberal.

As Moore declared neither for the Coalition nor for the Asquithian camps camps he allowed Liberals from both sides to campaign on his behalf. Their slogan became “Moore for Newport and Newport for Moore”. The opposition press, however, painted him as ineffective and out of his political depth, as have a number of academics who have studied the by election.

The local Conservatives selected Reginald Clarry, director of Dyffryn Steel and Tin Works in Morrison. They disputed the national agreement not to contest Coalition Liberal candidates, declaring that it was only ever meant to have applied to the 1918 election. Senior Newport Conservative Sir John Wyndham Beynon also declared, “The Coalition is dead, it has failed in its objectives to provide peace and stop the rise of Socialism”. Consequently, he said, the choice was between Conservatives and Labour. In response, the Labour Party reselected their 1918 general election candidate, John William Bowen, who was the General Secretary of the Post Office workers union.

In part the campaign revolved around squabbles between the three parties over whether the election should be held on the old electoral register or a new one and whether the election should be held at the same time as the forthcoming local government elections. In the event it used the old register and was held on its own. Local campaign issues also included whether Newport should remain included in the Sunday Closing (Wales) Act 1881.

Generally, however, national issues loomed larger. There was a possibility that the Coalition government could soon be at war with Turkey over the so-called ‘Chanak crisis’ and this became a major issue in the campaign.  All candidates were all also keen to distance themselves from the record of the unpopular Coalition government. No Government Ministers were invited to the hustings. The Newport by-election was unique in that no candidate supported the government.

Labour’s win in Pontypridd had followed a string of by-election victories over Coalition candidates. So it was expected that Labour would win in Newport as well. In the event the Conservative, Clarry gained a majority of 2090 votes (6.2 per cent) over Labour. Moore the Liberal candidate came a poorly placed third.

It appeared that the Newport electorate had backed the candidate they felt most able to defeat Labour – Clarry rather than Moore. As a result the Conservatives concluded they had been the beneficiaries of an anti-Labour rather than an anti-Coalition vote.

The importance of the result was that it helped persuade the Conservatives that they should go it alone in the next election. This was decided the following day, against the wishes of the Conservative leadership, at a meeting of the party at the Carlton Club in London. The by-election didn’t cause a general election in 1922, because the Cabinet had already decided to call one 12 days earlier, on 10 October. However, it did have at least six historical impacts:

  • Despite the fact the Lloyd George never laid foot in the constituency nor issued any statement during the campaign the result was bound up closely with the fall of his Coalition government.
  • For the Coalition Liberals Newport was seen as the Tories excuse for breaking up the Coalition. It proved that Conservatives couldn’t be trusted as Coalition partners because in the end their own party was always more important than the Coalition.
  • The Liberals and Conservatives also learnt that it is the smaller party in a Coalition government at Westminster that gets squeezed electorally rather than the bigger one.
  • For the Conservatives it was the moment when the party reconnected with its grass roots.
  • It was the first modern by-election in which all three main parties fought, apparently with an equal chance of winning.
  • Finally it was also the by election that set the Liberals up as the third party of British politics. After Newport the main national contest would always be between Labour and the Conservatives.

So what happened to the three candidates after the Newport by-election? The Conservative Clarry was the most successful politically. He won the seat once more in a November 1922 general election, this time in a straight fight with Bowen in which he gained 54 per cent of the vote. The Liberals didn’t even put up a candidate for this election. Clarry kept the Newport seat until 1929 when it was lost to Labour. He regained it in 1931 and kept it until his death in January 1945. He was knighted in 1936.

Labour’s Bowen later became the MP for Crewe between 1929-31. He was also knighted in 1953 and died in 1965. The Liberal, Moore, never stood for Parliament again but he did lead the Liberals on Newport council until he died in 1935.

The Newport by election holds out a number of lessons for today’s coalition between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives at Westminster. For the Liberal Democrats it provides a warning, if they need one, that the smaller coalition partner tends to fare less well electorally. For the Conservatives, it should be a reminder – if, indeed, they want one – that they should put their party interest ahead of that of the coalition.

Professor Russell Deacon works in the Department of History and Classics at Swansea University.

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