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January 2012: Ross McKibbin’s “Parties and People: England 1914-1951”

Reviewed by:  Peter Catterall, Queen Mary University of London

Ross McKibbin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 224 pp. £20 (hardback).

Some twelve years later this book seeks to explore how the social changes examined in McKibbin’s Classes and Culture: England 1918–1951 impacted in the political sphere. There were certainly substantial political upheavals between 1914 and 1951: the effect of the First World War and the subsequent franchise reform and implosion of the Liberals; the electoral dominance of the Conservatives in the inter-war years; and the advent of the first majority Labour government in 1945. These developments can broadly be explored through four principal and inter-related prisms. One is high politics, focusing upon the role of the parties in structuring the political marketplace and the resulting forced choice offered voters in a political culture which, as the Royal Commission on Electoral Systems pointed out in 1910, treats general elections ‘as practically a referendum on the question which of two Governments shall be returned to power’.[i] Then there is electoral geography, analysing how local characteristics and boundaries can both have broader effects and embed distinctive voting cultures. McKibbin’s conclusions, however, particularly emphasise the final two factors, which are contingent events such as war or the 1931 budget crisis and electoral sociology, reflecting influences such as generational change or social class.

Issues such as foreign policy, which might have been expected to play a role in voter choice in such a difficult period internationally, are seen as marginal (p. 192). This was a problem for the Liberals who, as Richard Grayson has persuasively argued,[ii] were increasingly distinguished by the 1930s primarily by their approach to this field as other distinctive policy positions, such as Free Trade or Irish Home Rule, passed out of the realm of practical politics. Even before 1914 Protectionism had a cross-class appeal that enabled the Tories to make inroads in northern cities like Sheffield. It made a contribution to the location of the Conservatives within a broad set of patriotic values that a Labour party, often successfully portrayed in the 1920s and 1930s as both sectional and disloyal, could not reach. Yet this did not prevent Labour seizing and retaining power in Sheffield during the inter-war years.

This coup, and similar examples elsewhere, drove middle-class Liberals into subordinate alliances with Conservatives that led inexorably to the atrophy of their party as a local electoral machine. For McKibbin similar shifts noticeable by the 1924 general election reflect the way in which class was becoming increasingly important. However, he is careful not to overemphasise this. The continuing appeal of anti-Catholicism in Liverpool and the pro-Liberal pull of nonconformity are acknowledged. Class-based voting is characterised as ‘a weak determinant which became weaker as we descend the social scale’ (p. 182). Around thirty per cent of the middle class voted Labour, though this phenomenon is perfunctorily explained away largely and unsatisfactorily by reference to marginalised, often state-employed, white-collar workers. More attention is given to the fifty per cent of the working class who voted Tory in 1931 and 1935. To explain this McKibbin offers a range of factors from Anglicanism to a brief reference to the press. Particular stress is placed upon the differential tendency of working class women to vote Tory, though only implicitly is the point made that this reflected a contrast between the consumerist appeal of a Conservative led national coalition trying to right the nation’s finances and a producerist Labour party seemingly more concerned about employment issues. Housing, which was both a major item of the working-class budget and in dire shortage throughout much of this period, is completely ignored.[iii] This is despite the fact that it is an issue that might be calculated to appeal differentially to women, and was certainly the subject of a calculated Conservative appeal both in the 1930s and in the run-up to their regaining power in 1951.

Before then McKibbin detects a shift of women towards Labour, which he attributes to the appeal of the welfare state. This is persuasive, but it poses a problem for his overall hypothesis. After all, this explanation rests upon the salience of political issues, but these are downplayed generally by McKibbin. His argument instead is that class-based voting was gradually becoming more important, aided by the seismic effect of particular events, especially 1931 and 1940. Whereas it was once argued that there was a more rapid shift in this direction coincident with the collapse of the Liberals after 1916, McKibbin’s explanation here of the politics of the 1920s prioritises much more high politics. The First World War is seen as breaking up the Liberal led Edwardian progressive alliance, but not as replacing it with a new electoral order (pp. 67–8). It is, McKibbin argues, the Conservatives successful capitalisation on what they portrayed as the incompetence of the second Labour government of 1929–31 that enabled them to structure a stunning electoral dominance thereafter. This hegemony was, however, broken during the Second World War. McKibbin convincingly debunks some long popular explanations for this shift and suggests the limited application, such as the generational shift between 1935 and 1945 (p. 110), of others. Instead, the crisis of confidence in Conservative management of 1940 is seen as leading inexorably to the debacle of 1945. This explanation might need to be tempered by more fully considering Andrew Thorpe’s recent work on wartime party management,[iv] but it certainly seems to have much support from the nascent contemporary opinion polling. Labour, however, failed to capitalise on this success. Various explanations for its loss of power in 1951 are discussed, but the one emphasised here is that Labour was over-reliant upon ideas such as nationalisation that had relatively little appeal for the bulk of the electorate. There may be something in this: Harold Macmillan noted in 1960 that if Labour could turn itself into a social democratic party in the Scandinavian style, stressing the distribution of social goods rather than producerist interests, it might win as continually as its Swedish counterparts did.[v] The broad-based citizen democracy many on the Left had sought during 1939–45 failed to flourish under the paternalistic socialism of a Labour government that did not, as one minister put it, believe in ‘experiments in freedom’.[vi]

McKibbin sees the narrowness of Labour’s vision of its role contributing to a lack of revision to the nature of British democracy. He also sees, less persuasively, the 1945 defeat preventing the Conservatives from ushering in a rather different American style democracy based upon ‘middle-class associationalism’ rather than the institutions of the welfare state. The evidence offered here that this was the trajectory the Tories were in fact pursuing is very limited, though some support for this hypothesis might be adduced from their 1945 health white paper. If McKibbin had, however, continued his analysis forward he might have concluded that in light of the shifts in Conservative attitudes towards global political economy (from Protectionism towards Free Trade), towards Unionism and the British state, and towards welfare in the 1980s, his argument holds more water than at first meets the eye. It is just that, to me at least, evidence for Tory shifts in that direction is more apparent after rather than before 1945.

McKibbin might argue that this reflects the solidifying of class-based voting during the 1930s and its consolidation after 1945. After all, one of the key themes of this book is that class becomes a major determinant of voting behaviour. It is just that, whereas Peter Clarke and McKibbin himself placed that development around the time of the First World War in earlier work of the 1970s it is here located more at the time of the Second. There is, however, a risk of confusing cause and effect. McKibbin persuasively offers a series of issues to explain why working-class women were more likely to vote Labour in 1940–50: so was the determining factor their class or these issues? This raises the issue of whether voting behaviour is determined more by identity or instrumentality. This is, of course, to a large extent a false dichotomy. Class can easily be simply a (often unconscious) rationalisation of instrumental attitudes. But, despite the many virtues of this short work in helping to conceptualise the nature of political discourse in Britain 1914–51, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that McKibbin has still tended to give it undue weight amongst the four factors mentioned at the start of this review.


[i] Report of the Royal Commission Appointed to Enquire into Electoral Systems, Cd 5163, 1910, pp. 33–4.

[ii] Richard Grayson, Liberals, International Relations and Appeasement: The Liberal Party 1919–1939 (London, 2001).

[iii] As is Kevin Morgan’s interesting contribution on the subject in his ‘The Conservative Party and Mass Housing, 1918–39’ in Stuart Ball and Ian Holliday, eds., Mass Conservatism: The Conservatives and the Public since the 1880s, (London, 2002), pp. 59–75.

[iv] Andrew Thorpe, Parties at War: Political Organisation in Second World War Britain (Oxford, 2009).

[v] Peter Catterall, ed., The Macmillan Diaries 1957–1966: Prime Minister and After (London, forthcoming), 10 June 1960.

[vi] Cited in Peter Catterall, ‘“Efficiency with Freedom”? Debates about the British Constitution in the Twentieth Century’ in Peter Catterall, Wolfram Kaiser and Ulrike Walton-Jordan, eds., Reforming the Constitution: Debates in Twentieth-Century Britain (London, 2000), pp. 6–7.

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