In 1906, the Liberals took power with a sweeping victory, giving the Conservatives their worst-ever electoral result. Despite the scale of their overwhelming victory previously, by 1910, the Liberals’s majority dissipated as the Tories provided little room for comfort in both of that year’s elections, both of which revolved around the Liberal government’s disputes with the House of Lords.

    The General Election of 1900

    The General Election of 1906

    Background: The People’s Budget

    The “Terrible Twins” David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, two of the most fervent backers of the budget.
    (Photo: Intriguing History)

    By January 1910, the Liberals had passed several of their keynote social legislation policies. Their New Liberalism directive saw the party make greater interventions in regards to old age pensions, unemployment relief, and free school meals for children, amongst others. 

    The House of Lords had long tried to stand in the way of Liberal social policies and that led to a heated confrontation over a proposed 1909 budget. 

    In April 1909, Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George unveiled his so-called “People’s Budget” in a four-hour speech. In it, seven new taxes were introduced, among them a supertax on incomes over £5,000, an increase in death duties, and several land-based levies.  

    Of the policy, George declared: “This is a war Budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness. I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty, and the wretchedness and human degradation which always follows in its camp, will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests.”  

    The plans felt major Conservative pushback, with Unionist MP Walter Long setting up the Budget Protest League (later rivalled by the Winston Churchill-chaired Budget League). 

    Meanwhile, the Lords fought the plans, leading to George’s famous Limehouse speech.  

    In November, the Tory leader of the House of Commons the Marquess of Lansdowne led plans to defeat the bill, which they did by 350 to 75.  

    (Photo: The New Statesman)

    The constitutionalist and political scientist Vernon Bogdanor notes that King George VII begged the peers to not reject the plans but they took little notice. 

    Notably, of those who voted against the budget, two-thirds owned over 5,000 acres of land. 

    This broke the long-standing precedent of the Lords not vetoing money bills, sparking a constitutional crisis. With the Lords denoting they would only pass the bill with an electoral mandate, the Liberals were forced to take the matter to the country, which the likes of Lloyd George and Churchill seemed to relish. 

    A general election campaign was underway. 

    A Risky Move?: Liberal Unpopularity

    The Liberals’s fortunes were surmised by Churchill’s by-election loss in 1908. (Photo: The Ideas ,ab)

    Prior to the January 1910, the Liberals had become unpopular, with writer Roy Jenkins describing the party’s prospects in 1908 as “little short of disastrous.” 

    In that year, the party suffered a serious setback when they lost the Manchester North West by-election. Liberal MP Winston Churchill was appointed President of the Board of Trade and as custom at the time, stood for re-election although lost to the Conservative Party candidate. 

    Moreover, in the first test for the Liberals since the Liberals since the unveiling of their budget proposals, they lost the Sheffield Attercliffe by-election, coming third in a seat they had held since its inception in 1885.  

    Defense seemed to be a key issue, with Britain falling behind Germany as the government found it hard to balance defence and social spending. In Croydon, the Conservative candidate increased his vote share on a 15.9% swing, running on the slogan: “we want eight and we won’t wait”, in reference to British-owned dreadnoughts. 

    By the time of the January election, their once 130-strong absolute majority had nearly halved to 76. 

    Liberal Divisions

    Former Prime Minister and Liberal leader Lord Rosebery. (Photo: History Today)

    In the time between the announcement of the budget and the election, cracks were starting to surface within the Liberal Party.  

    Cabinet ministers such as Lord President of the Council The Earl of Crewe and First Lord of the Admiralty Reginald McKenna were amongst those objecting to the budget.

    Former Liberal leader and Prime Minister Lord Rosebery called the budget “inquisitorial, tyrannical, and socialistic.” 

    Meanwhile, the Conservatives – whose disunity cost them dearly in 1906 – were more or less a united front against the budget. 

    The Masses Against The Classes?

    A typical working-class household. (Photo: The Financial Times)

    The “People’s Budget” was clearly supposed to ignite working-class support for the Liberal Party’s attempted redistribution of wealth, the first budget to do so. Yet the ruling party faced challenges. 

    For example, at the time, many working-class men could still not vote. The historian John Griggs notes the limited electorate, with only 58% of adult males able to vote. He comments: “it is a fair assumption that the remaining 42 percent would, if enfranchised, have voted in very large numbers for Liberal or Labour candidates. In what was still a disproportionately middle-class electorate the fear of Socialism was strong, and many voters were susceptible to the argument that the Budget was a first installment of Socialism.” 

    Plus, the work of Henry Pelling in Social Geography of British Elections 1885-1910 tells us of the level of popular conservatism during these years, with half of working-class voters going Tory. As the Conservative Party were the steadfast supporters of popular British ideas of monarchy, militarism, and modesty, they were the seemingly natural outlet for many of these voters.  

    In addition, budget taxes on alcohol and tobacco led to unpopularity for the Liberals among the working-class. 

    Moreover, for many working-class, the proposals were disappointing. As the historian R.J. McKibbin wrote: “it possibly got the worst of both worlds: it did too little for the working class…but too much for them to win the middle class.” 

    The Manifestos

    (Photo: Media Storehouse)

    The government had attempted to play off the Lords as “Mr Balfour’s poodle”, to use a Lloyd George phrase from 1908. 

    They pointed out that the budget had “received the approval of an overwhelming majority of the representatives of the people” before facing a roadblock in the Lords. The Liberals accused the upper chamber of “a wanton breach” of the British Constitution. 

    Agreeing with this were the Labour Party whose manifesto read: “Each Session since the last general election important Bills, upon which the House of Commons had spent much time, have been mutilated or destroyed by the House of Lords, an irresponsible body which represents nothing but its own class interests. Not content with this, they now claim the right to decide what taxes shall be paid, upon whom they shall be levied, and for what purpose they shall be spent. They also claim to dictate the date at which Parliament shall be dissolved. The time has come to put an end to their power to override the will of the Commons.” 

    The Conservatives were put in a more difficult position. They had to defend the House of Lords whilst not entirely supported their unelected status. Instead they focussed on the Liberals’s trying to make the Commons an untested source of power: “desire that for all important purposes the Constitution of Britain shall be as definitely a single Chamber Constitution as the Constitution of Guatemala.” 

    In the election campaign, the Tories and Liberals together issued over 86 million leaflets! 

    The Results: Overview

    (Photo: Wikipedia)

    After 1906, the Liberals held nearly 250 more seats than the Conservatives, as well as over 100 seats held by supporting members from the Irish Parliamentary and Labour parties. By January 1910, their seemingly unassailable majority disappeared.  

    The Liberals won 275 seats whilst the Conservatives won 273 (of these the majority were Conservatives, with one in every eight being a Liberal Unionist). The Arthur Henderson-led Labour Party increased their seat count from 1906 from 29 to 40, partly due to defections of Lib-Lab MPs to Labour. 

    The Liberals remained their biggest single party in Parliament but its razor-thin margin of victory meant it would need to organise a supply and demand deal with the Irish nationalists.  

    The election had a record 86.8% turnout.  

    Interestingly, the popular vote was won by the Conservatives. They stood in more seats, 594, than the Liberals and won in the region of 200,000-250,000 more votes. 

    The Results: The Nations

    PM Asquith, whose own seat was East Fife in Scotland. (Photo: GOV.UK)

    In this election, the Tories reversed their electoral fate across England. In 1906, the Liberals had won their first England majority since 1886 when they won 306 seats to the Conservatives’s 122. In this election, the Conservatives again became the dominant party in England and won an overall majority, winning 234 seats to the Liberals’s 188.  

    Yet, the Tories remained overdependent on England, much in the same way Liberals were overdependent on Wales and Scotland. 

    The Liberal landslide saw the eradication of Tory seats in Wales. In January 1910, they picked up two seats in the nation whilst their Scottish performance remained relatively similar, with the Liberals holding 58 of the nation’s 70 seats. 

    As for unopposed returns, the Conservatives had a greater number of uncontested seats, winning more in England alone than the Liberals in the whole UK. Of the Conservatives’s 62 unopposed returns, 46 were in England. The Liberals meanwhile had 14 in England, 11 in Scotland, and 10 in Wales. 

    The Results: How Did The Spirit of 1906 Evaporate So Quickly?

    Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the prime minister in 1906 who had left office in 1908, dying shortly afterward. (Photo: National Portrait Gallery)

    An analysis of 1910 should be able to tell us how such a gargantuan majority fell but even that is hard. 

    Perhaps it is that the first-past-the-post electoral system greatly overexaggerated the win. This is true, with the Liberals winning 59.3% of seats on 48.9% of the vote. Conversely, the Tories won a still impressive 43.4% of the vote but just 23.3% of parliamentary seats. 

    It is also true that a number of historical majorities have fallen at the next election.  

    In the post-war 1945 election, Clement Attlee’s Labour Party won a resounding victory, obtaining a 145-seat majority. Despite the popular creation of the National Health Service, for which they were partly elected, by the next election in 1950, they had become a minority government. In 1966, Labour won a 98-seat majority but in 1970, the Conservatives won a majority even in spite of lagging in opinion polls. There is too a strong likelihood the Conservatives’s 2019 majority of 80 – a huge majority for the 21st century – will be overturned by the Labour Party in 2024. 

    Aftermath: The Budget Passes

    After the election, the Lords relented and passed the People’s Budget in April 1910. What had been debated for 70 parliamentary days with 554 divisions, was passed in a single sitting on April 28th and received royal assent the following day. 

    Exactly one year after George had introduced the budget, it was now finally law. 

    Background: The Parliament Act 1911

    The Parliament Act 1911 was a necessity for the Liberals to govern as it prevented the Lords vetoing the Home Rule, itself an Irish nationalist demand to support the government. Pictured: Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond (Photo: RTE)

    After its battle with the Lords, the Liberals were not quite done yet. They wanted to limit the powers of the chamber to ensure another 1909 budget situation did not occur. However, first they had to get it passed… 

    The Parliament Bill 1911 aimed to prevent the Lords from being able to block money bills as well as removing its veto power from public bills and only allowing a delay of two years. 

    One of the main reasons this was so heavily fought was due to the inevitability of an Irish Home Rule (a devolved Irish government) bill passing through the Commons as a caveat for the Irish Nationalists supporting the Liberals. 

    It also served to improve the exercising of democracy through a new parliament every five years and the payment of MPs for the first time. It left the matter of the Lords composition for a later date noting that “such a substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation.” 

    The book House of Lords Reform since 1911 notes there were 22 meetings between Conservatives and Liberals over the legislation for a compromise but plans fell through. 

    Background: A Meeting With The King

    (Photo: KnowledgeNuts)

    The situation was complicated by the death of King Edward VII in May. He was succeeded by oldest son George V.  

    Asquith had asked the King to create sufficient Liberal peers to help pass the bill but he had refused without an electoral mandate on the advice of private secretary Lord Knollys. Now the new monarch, like his father, dissolved parliament and reluctantly promised the peers had the Liberals got the support of the country. 

    With that, the PM was forced to go to the polls again for the second time that year. 

    The timing of the election too was perhaps dictated by a positive performance in the Walthamstow by-election earlier in November where the Liberal John Simon had increased his vote. 

    The Campaign (Or Lack Thereof!)

    The journalist Sir Syndey Low described December 1910’s election as “the most apathetic within living memory.” 

    The Liberals rehashed their January tactic of painting the election as “the peers vs the people”, with David Lloyd George stating in November: “We repudiate the claim put forward by 600 Tory Peers that they were born to control the destinies of 45,000,000 of their fellow-citizens, and to trample upon their wishes for the good government of their country.” 

    The Conservatives laid out plans for a referendum on tariff reform to unite a still somewhat fractured party on the issue.  In their short 424-word manifesto, the Tories commented: “Behind the single chamber conspiracy lurk socialism and Home Rule.” 

    The Results

    (Photo: Wikipedia)

    The results of December 1910 were very similar to January. The number of differences in seats between the Liberals and Conservatives narrowed even further. Another hung parliament, another government propped up by smaller third parties. 

    Despite the similarity of results, several seats fell in each other’s favour; while the Opposition gained Darlington, Dudley, and Plymouth, the government picked up Burnley, Coventry, and Exeter. 

    Liberal gains in London led to the Daily News paper to declare, perhaps overly ostentatiously that it was “the election in which London broke the back of Toryism.” 

    Although turnout was predictably down from January, its 81% was the highest until the post-World War Two era. 

    Manchester North West

    Bonar Law, pictured during his premiership in 1922. (Photo: BBC)

    Like in 1906 where it was the city where former prime minister Arthur Balfour lost his seat, Manchester again had a notable result, this time featuring future Tory leader and PM Bonar Law. 

    An ardent pro-tariff reformer, Law left his safe Dulwich seat for Manchester North West. The Times notes he initially wanted to challenge Home Secretary Winston Churchill, although that never occured.  

    In the end, he faced stiff competition from, and came up short against, Liberal MP George Kemp, a war hero from the Boer conflict.   

    The Parliament Act Is Passed

    (Photo: Wikipedia)

    The King seemed to be willing to follow through on his pledge to flood the House of Lords with Liberal peers to pass the bill.  

    In the 1911 Opening of Parliament, the King’s speech contained the line: “Proposals will be submitted to you without delay for settling the relations between the two Houses of Parliament, with the object of securing the more effective working of the constitution.” 

    Asquith wrote to Conservative leaders telling them of the agreement made with the King – which became public knowledge – forcing the Tory peers’s hand into self-curtailment. In August, the Act passed with a majority of 17. 

    The period ending in 1911 marked, in the words of the Earl of Longford, “the most traumatic period in the history of the House of Lords.” It was a remarkable change the chamber went through in five years: from a 391-seat Conservative majority to a failure to delay a revolutionary budget to completely losing its veto ability.  

    R.C.K. Ensor described the Parliament Act as “the most decisive step in British constitutional development since the franchise extension of 1867.” 

    Legacy of the 1910 Election: National Insurance Act

    (Photo: Simple Wikipedia)

    In the short-term, the Liberal government’s wins in 1910 allowed them to continue their series of social legislation, most notably the National Insurance Act 1911. 

    The act, influenced by German social policy and in the aftermath of a 1909 Royal Commission on the Poor Laws (which featured Beatrice Webb and William Beveridge), was proposed – in the words of Lloyd George – “with the hope of reaching a new stage in the organisation of the resources of the state for the welfare of the least as well as the greatest of its members.” 

    (Photo: Wikipedia)

    The two main cruxes of the Act were to provide both health and unemployment relief to workers. Health insurance was compulsory for those earning under £160 (with workers paying four pence, employers paying three, and the state paying two) whilst illness benefits of 10 shillings a week were given to those too sick to work. 

    The Bill also dealt with maternity aid and efforts to treat tuberculosis, “the white plague” that had half a million active sufferers and killed around four million Britons since 1850. 

    The British Medical Journal called it “one of the greatest attempts at social legislation which the present generation has known.” 

    By 1913, 2.3 million were insured under the unemployment scheme and 15 million insured for sickness benefits. 

    Legacy of the 1910 Elections: The Direction of Ireland

    (Photo: Irish History Bitesize)

    A condition of having the Irish Parliamentary Party support their agenda was the establishment of Irish Home Rule. 

    Since the Acts of Union in 1800, Ireland had not had its own parliament but Irish self-governance had grown into a paramount political issue at the end of the 19th century. In 1886, the matter necessitated a split in the Liberal Party between Gladstonian Liberals and Liberal Unionists, led by Joseph Chamberlain, in 1886. 

    What would be known as the Government of Ireland Act, the third such major proposed Home Rule Bill, was introduced by Prime Minister Asquith in 1912. It faced an uphill battle however – and not even just in the Lords with the first attempt passing the Commons with a majority of just 10. Elsewhere, half a million Unionists signed the Ulster Covenant, willing to upend Home Rule by defying an Irish government’s sovereignty. After the Bill was defeated three times in the Lords, the Parliament Act was utilised to push through the legislation. 

    The Easter Rising. (Photo: Sky News)

    However, the outbreak of the First World War led to the delay of the enactment of Home Rule. What many thought what become a multi-month conflict took four years and led to the frustrated nationalists, feeling self-governance was going nowhere, leading to the Easter Rising, during which republicans launched an armed insurgence against British rule. 

    The move has been described as a “shattering blow to [IPP leader John Redmond’s] life-long policy of constitutional action” and led to the growth of the more militant nationalist Sinn Fein. 

    After the war and amidst the backdrop of the Irish War of Independence, the Government of Ireland Act 1920 was passed which partitioned Ireland. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 then created a Free Irish State (Republic of Ireland) the next year, with Northern Ireland’s parliament opting out of leaving the UK. 

    Legacy of the 1910 Elections: Balance of Power

    The WW1 Cabinet. (Photo: Library of Congress)

    Having such a small and fragile functioning government, the Liberals – through a series of by-election losses – soon found themselves overtaken by the Conservatives as the largest single party in the country, even if they still had IPP and, to a lesser extent, Labour support. 

    F.W.S Craig in one of his many publications relating to electoral facts notes how by 1914, the Conservatives stood at 288 seats to the Liberals’s 259. Crucially, this meant that by the First World War, now the Tories were the biggest single party, they had a greater deal of authority in the multi-party coalition war Cabinet. 


    The 1910 elections are somewhat forgotten, surprising when you consider the trailblazing two Parliamentary events that are attached to: an unprecedented, radical budget – seen as one of the first modern budgets of its kind – and an Act that has forever since provided the basis of the House of Commons’s superiority over the Lords in a win for democracy and accountability.  

    Instead, 1910 can be seen as an election of ‘finals’; the final election without women having the vote, the final election victory for the Liberal Party – and perhaps most crucially – the last before World War One.  

    It must be said that neither result was really a ringing endorsement for the Liberal measures but it was enough to force reforms that have benefitted modern Britain in terms of its redistribution, constitution, and in building the modern-day welfare state. 

    The polarising but nonetheless popular campaigns too brought forward some of the most important, successful, and acclaimed figures as future leaders: David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.  

    The 1910 January and December elections thus are an interesting telescopic lens into the future of British politics in the decades that would follow. In many ways, they were the elections that projected to the electorate the image of modern Britain.