A Very British Election: Why 1923 Might Foretell Boris Johnson’s Fate in December
November 1, 2019
It is now 96 years since Great Britain held a nationwide poll in December—a uniquely inauspicious month for voting, given the cold weather, short hours of daylight, and the distractions of Christmas. And that general election of 1923 offers several interesting pointers to the United Kingdom’s forthcoming poll in six weeks.
In 1923, as in 2019, the vote was called by a relatively fresh Conservative prime minister hoping to increase his grip on a truculent House of Commons. And like Boris Johnson, Sir Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947) gambled on the election years before he had to, cutting the previous Parliament short.
The 1923 election campaign was the last time that more than one hundred seats (out of 615 at the time) went to members of parliament not from the Conservative or Labour parties. Back in the 1920s, the third party was the Liberals, who commanded 30 percent of the vote and subsequently won a quarter of the seats.
This time around, the Scottish National Party are expected to win up to fifty seats north of the English border, and the resurgent anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats could also win a similar haul of seats elsewhere in the United Kingdom if things go well for them. Add in roughly twenty-five MPs representing Northern Ireland, the Welsh nationalists of Plaid Cymru, the Greens, and independents, and it is clear that the scope is quite narrow for either of the two largest parties to win an outright majority.
And, as in 1923, when voters are presented with more than two options under Britain’s ‘first past the post’ voting system, odd things can happen. Many electors try to work out which of the contenders in their seat has the best chance of beating a candidate they despise or, in the current situation, the best chance to get a “remain” or “Brexit candidate. This is called ‘tactical voting’, and it forces voters to select their second- or even third-choice candidate.
But, as in 1923, tactical voting in this election will be complicated, both for voters to calculate and observers to estimate. With the likelihood that the Brexit party will be standing throughout the whole country, there will probably be at least four parties polling above 10 percent in almost every seat. The 2017 snap election result is only a partial roadmap for which party will be in second place. Add in dubious (or unrealistic) self-projections by local contenders who all claim they are just a few points short of victory, and it turns out many people will vote tactically the wrong way.
The parallel with 1923 goes even further: voters are confronted not just by parties fighting across the traditional socio-economic axis of left versus right, but also by a new divide marked out by cultural and identity issues. 96 years ago, tariffs and the United Kingdom’s relationship with post-war Europe were the new axis—issues that underpin the now much greater divide between the Remain and Leave camps on Brexit, which has dominated British politics since the 2016 referendum.
The practicalities of voting in 2019 are still very much as they were in 1923. Women had been allowed to vote since 1918 (although not on the same terms as men until 1928). Then, as now, all voting was done by marking paper ballots with a pen or pencil and counting them by hand. The requisition of church centers, schools, and village halls as polling stations in December 1923 interrupted nativity plays and carol concerts scheduled for the days before Christmas, and will likely do so this year again. This may drive up resentment against the hastily-organized election.
The result in 1923 was not what Sir Stanley had expected. His party lost 86 seats, with Labour and the Liberals picking up more than 40 seats each. As leader of the largest party, Baldwin remained prime minister for a few weeks and hoped to run a minority government with Liberal support. But the Liberals eventually reached an accommodation with Labour, making Ramsey MacDonald Britain’s first ever socialist prime minister.
Could history repeat itself? As in 1923, some early indications suggest the incumbent at Downing Street will win a landslide majority. Boris Johnson will be as comforted by those early estimates as Sir Stanley Baldwin was, hoping his gamble will have paid off (especially as polling has come a long way since 1923.)
But polls are varying widely—most people have yet to decide how they will vote and translating votes into seat numbers is very hard until the extent and impact of tactical voting becomes clear. Parties have already begun striking agreements in some constituencies to ensure a Remain candidate (or the opposite) can win.
If Labour can hold steady, while the Lib Dems and SNP make gains, it is very possible that just like in 1923 the next prime minister will hail from the second-placed party—though it may not be Jeremy Corbyn. A change in leader to Labour’s more moderate Brexit spokesman Kier Starmer, for example, could be the price the Liberal Democrats demand to endorse a Labour government. Corbyn has said this election is “not about him” but it is not a given he would willingly give up a shot at the premiership.
What of Boris Johnson? If 1923 really is the model, then he should not be too disappointed. Sir Stanley Baldwin went on to become prime minister for two further terms, including a win in the 1935 election with a record-breaking majority.
History is not always a perfect guide to the future. But given the huge uncertainties surrounding the United Kingdom’s forthcoming election, it may well be one of the best sources of insight there is.