The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

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The legacy of the Second Baldwin Government

6th October 2014

For British Conservatives, this November marks an important milestone in the history of the Conservative Party; the 90th anniversary of the election of the second Conservative administration of Stanley Baldwin. Although the Labour Party is widely acclaimed for landmarks in social policy such as the creation of the postwar Welfare State, Conservative administrations have also played a pivotal role in encouraging the social and economic development of the United Kingdom. A notable example of this can be found in the reform record of Baldwin’s second administration. Holding the reins of power from November 1924 to June 1929, the Second Baldwin Government was responsible for the realisation of a series of lasting reforms in British society. Women’s rights were strengthened with the introduction of universal female suffrage from the age of 21, together with the passage of legislation enabling divorced women to have custody of their children and the same rights to inheritance as men.

In social security, improved retirement provisions for firemen and their dependents were introduced, while the pioneering Widows, Orphans and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act of 1925 not only established benefits for orphans and widows, but lowered the retirement age from 70 to 65. Shale-fishermen were made eligible for health insurance and social security coverage, and a reform of unemployment insurance introduced an indefinite period of receipt of benefits. New health benefits were also introduced while a major expansion of house building was engineered, with nearly one million houses built between 1924 and 1929.

Of lasting significance to the British public was the establishment of the National Grid, which extended to millions of households the benefits of electrification. One of the government’s last major reforms, the Local Government Act of 1929, abolished the remnants of the old Poor Law system and made local councils responsible for tackling problems of destitution.

Although the Second Baldwin Government brought about positive changes to people’s lives, it nevertheless made some questionable decisions in regards to two important constituencies: trade unionists and the unemployed. While the reform to unemployment compensation provided jobseekers with the right to receive benefits indefinitely, payments were cut and benefit rules were tightened. Following a national strike in 1926, a Trade Disputes Act was passed that imposed restrictions on strike activity, arguably leading to a number of moderate trade unionists to throw their support behind Labour and shape the outcome of the 1929 general election, which Labour won. Had the government pursued a different strategy vis-à-vis union members and the jobless, the outcome may have turned out very differently for Baldwin and the Conservative Party.

The lesson to be learnt from the experience of the Second Baldwin Government is that it is vital for the Conservative Party to carry out policies that benefit sections of the community that would potentially vote for Labour in the next election, enabling it to build a durable electoral coalition that both employees and business can reap the dividends of. For the out-of-work and those on low pay, an extensive Food Stamp benefit similar to the American scheme could tackle the interlinking problems of food poverty and food bank usage by relieving pressure on jobseekers in feeding themselves and their loved ones adequately. In regards to the workplace, with over a quarter of the British workforce members of trade unions in 2013, the importance of the union vote is one that Conservatives cannot ignore, and should look into ways of ensuring that employees have more control over their working lives. The Conservative Party could, for instance, introduce a German style system of co-determination. Under this system, workers are able to influence key decision-making in their companies, with employees represented on supervisory boards and elected works councils, and work with management on finding solutions to key problems facing their companies together with developing long-term strategies for securing the future prosperity of their firms. This system has been credited not only with keeping the incidence of strikes at a relatively low level, but also in improving levels of productivity, demonstrating how labour and management can work closely together for the benefit of both.

The Conservatives could also follow the example of various European Christian Democratic parties in developing a “labour wing,” enabling the party to have a direct link to the trade unions and work closely with union representatives in formulating practical policies that meet the needs and concerns of ordinary working people.

For Conservatives today, there is much to admire in the record of the Second Baldwin Government, but also much to be learnt from. With the economic situation improving, the Conservatives have the opportunity to put in place policy measures that will enable those both outside the labour force and in employment to benefit from the fruits of our growing economy and widen opportunities for all members of British society.

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