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106 The Story of Parliament


Opposite: Te Lobby of the House of Commons in 1886, by “Lib’”. Gladstone, with white hair, is in the centre, talking to Joseph


Chamberlain (wearing the flower) and Charles Stewart Parnell


Nevertheless, at elections, some candidates remained reluctant to adopt party labels. Te idea that MPs were “independent” of party or government was still one that attracted many electors. Te formation of a government, moreover, was still determined more by events inside the House of Commons than by the choice of the electorate at a general election. Tis was especially the case in the years between 1845 and


1859, a period of great flux in the party system. Te decision of Tory premier Peel to support the repeal of the Corn Laws (legislation which limited the import of grain in order to keep its price high for the benefit of farmers, but making bread more expensive for the poor) outraged a number of protectionists within his own party. Under the leadership of Lord George Bentinck and Benjamin Disraeli they deserted him and brought down his Conservative ministry in June 1846. Te subsequent Whig government, led by Lord John Russell, relied heavily for its survival on the support of the “Peelites”, a distinct group of backbench Conservatives who had supported Peel in repealing the Corn Laws. Te defection of many Irish MPs from the alliance with the


Whigs in 1850 and disagreements between Russell and his foreign secretary Lord Palmerston further undermined the stability of the Whig government, and it collapsed in 1852. Tis confusion in party alignments was reflected by the subsequent establishment of a short-lived minority Conservative government, under Lord Derby, followed by a coalition government, led by Lord Aberdeen. It was not until June 1859, when, at a key meeting at Willis’s Rooms in London, Whigs, Peelites and Radicals came together to form the “Liberal Party”, that a sense of order was restored to the party system. Following the 1867 Reform Act, there was a concerted


attempt to harness the voting power of an increased electorate through the establishment of extra-parliamentary party organisations based on individual membership. Formed in 1867, the National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations generated affiliated associations across the country. In 1883, the Primrose League was founded to enlist the support of voters and non-voters, including women, for the Conservative cause. In 1877, Joseph Chamberlain established the National


Liberal Federation, an ambitious project to spread the model of the Birmingham Liberal Association, which gave Liberal voters a role in choosing local committees to select parliamentary candidates. Te connection between an MP and his party therefore became stronger. At the same time, MPs became ever more reliant on national party campaigns, with pamphlets, posters and election meetings gradually supplanting their own personal political campaigns. Tighter party discipline was also evident inside


the Commons by the 1880s. Te growing demands made by governments upon MPs gave greater significance to the role of the party whips, who became increasingly less tolerant of non-attendance or revolt. Te age of what conservative prime minister Lord Salisbury described as “the old type of Member who sat rather loose to his party” was coming to an end. Te rise of a distinct two-party system,


however, was again interrupted by a controversial political issue: the Home Rule crisis of 1886. Gladstone’s decision to support the restoration of legislative independence for Ireland led to a split in the Liberal Party and the formation of the Liberal Unionists, which at first had a significant backbench following and a separate national organisation until 1911. Paradoxically though, the divide on Home Rule drove both the Liberals and Conservatives towards greater cohesion and discipline, as maintaining party majorities inside the Commons became paramount. Te emergence in the third quarter of the


19th century of a labour movement intent on securing the election of working-class MPs also had a mixed impact on the party system. Te 1885 general election witnessed the return of 12 working- class MPs, but they viewed themselves as Liberals, and were known, at first pejoratively, as “Lib–Labs”. Te embryonic “Labour Party” made a small electoral breakthrough in 1906, when 29 of its


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