War as Voter-Bait: Labour & the 1918 General Election

Written by Christopher Worrall. Edited by Bradley Bosson.


In recent memory, the marking of Remembrance Day (especially with the recent 100 year anniversary of the start of World War One) has seen considerable public debate as to the nature of national remembrance. The growth in the display of white poppies and a growing collection of thought-pieces has combined to rally against the perceived celebration and politicisation of the war dead. Whatever the merits of this set of opinions are, there is little doubt that the politicisation of today is nothing compared to the politicisation that occurred in the war’s immediate aftermath. When Britain went to the polls in the weeks after the Armistice – the 1918 ‘coupon election’ – it was safe to say that war was the chief tool of much of the electioneering.

The fact that one of the challenging parties was the previous wartime coalition of mainly Conservatives and Liberals means it is of little surprise that references to their wartime legacy played a part in much of their campaigns. However, it is perhaps of more interest to see that the celebration of battlefield victory also played a prominent role in the election material distributed by the Labour Party. The reason that this realisation is so interesting is because the declaration of war in 1914 had previously created a schism in the party. Many party members saw the war as something fundamentally at odds with their pacifist, socialist principles and so the ongoing conflict lead to high-profile dissent within the ranks; their Parliamentary leader Ramsay MacDonald resigned from his position specifically on anti-war grounds.

Despite such division, it is interesting to see just how loudly the Labour party ended up campaigning on a platform of war positivity. Said campaigning can be split roughly into two distinct categories. On the one hand, there was material based around the idea of a vote for Labour being a vote on behalf of the servicemen and women coming home from victory on the battlefield. In essence, showing support for Labour was a show of support for the people whom had fought a war that many Labour members and supporters had long disagreed with.

On the other hand, there was the idea put across in election propaganda that Labour and its supporters did not just support the soldiers, but actually were the soldiers: the labour movement had been the backbone of the war effort.  It must be noted that this second assertion is broadly correct if ‘labour’ refers to the labouring class: Britain’s war would have no doubt collapsed if not for the millions of working-class people fighting on the front, manning the munitions factories and sailing the seas on both military and economic expeditions. However, it is again interesting to note that a party that had been (and was still) deeply divided on the matter of the First World War was so keen to emphasise in its election material such a close affinity between the party and both the participants and the legacy of said conflict.

One compelling theory that would explain this somewhat controversial public show of war affiliation is put across by Laura Beers in her book Your Britain (2010). Especially after 1918, the Labour Party became more in tune with wider public opinion and the wills and wants of the potential electorate due to their growing successful interactions with the printed press and other, publically-consumed outlets. Therefore, the decision to focus on the pride of war and used it as a central cornerstone of their election campaign came from a greater awareness of what their potential support base wanted from their elected representatives. Despite the ideological differences within the party, the united public front supporting the war was a deliberate attempt to appeal the largest possible voting demographic. Not too dissimilar from Constantine at the juncture of Rome’s religious future, Labour made a decision with their future in mind.

Said choice was a success. At the polls in 1918, Labour won their greatest ever number of popular votes, with around 21.5% of the total electorate marking them on their ballot papers. It would be another five years before Labour could form any sort of government, but 1918 did mark ground-breaking success for the party. Much of the historiography has gone towards explaining the rise of Labour after 1918, and this election was certainly the first stepping-stone. One important thing to consider when explaining their later rise is how they chose to abandon the pacifist stance of much of their founding members for the chance of electoral gain. In that regard, 1918 did indeed mark Labour’s first moment as a truly modern political party: one that sought the greatest number of votes, no matter the ideological cost.