This blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
December 14th 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Coupon Election. Taking place just after World War One ended it has largely been forgotten, despite being one of the most significant ‘call to the polls’ of the 20th Century. Amongst the Parliamentary Archives Collections of Personal Papers is that of Herbert Samuel MP. Contesting for his constituency seat of Cleveland he compiled a scrapbook chronicling the campaign. Here we shall examine its fascinating contents giving us an insider view of this most intriguing of elections.
It had been eight long years since the last election, but once the armistice was declared, Prime Minister, Lloyd George immediately called one. His tenure as premier of the wartime government saw him forge a strong working relationship with Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar-Law. A decision was made to fight the election under a coalition banner with a nomination coupon being granted across the party-lines to their preferred candidates, thus creating a scenario of electoral ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Unfortunately, this left Herbert Samuel in the latter category due to his close association with Herbert Asquith. The war years saw the Liberal Party greatly sullied by the friction between its two most illustrious figureheads. The situation was best surmised by Samuel himself when he said, ‘the coalition policy is an offspring of a Liberal father and a Conservative mother and it may take after its mother’.
The constituency of Cleveland and Herbert Samuel were in many respects, strange bedfellows. One was a rugged industrial northern heartland, the other a Jewish metropolitan politician, nonetheless it seemed to work. His competitors for the upcoming election, were Labour candidate, Harry Dack, Chairman of the local Miners Association, who portrayed himself as a ‘man of the people’ while painting Samuel as an enemy of the working class. The Conservative contender was Sir Park Goff possessor of the prized coupon. A combative nationalist, he accused the Liberals of being morally weak German appeasers and vaunted himself as an international affairs expert who visited Russia on a dozen occasions during the war.
He was also fond of making known his sporting prowess as an Oxford Blue which included breaking the record for ascending Sweden’s highest mountain. Dack, was of a more puritan nature, an advocate of the temperance movement who sought a national prohibition of alcohol which was anathema to some of his contemporaries who enjoyed a pint(s) of beer after a hard week’s graft.
Samuel’s went on the defensive, placing full page advertisements in local newspapers such as the North East Gazette where he clarified his legislative achievements for the mining community and challenged accusations regarding his European financial interests. Greatly beneficial to him, was his wife Beatrice, who appealed to the newly-enfranchised women of Cleveland to vote for her husband who was greatly sympathetic to their cause. The Gazette’s satirical column, Gossips and Grumbles printed the betting odds for the three candidates, Goff stood at 6-1, Dack at 3-1 and evens-favourite was the incumbent Samuel.
A WET SATURDAY
On Saturday 14th December storm clouds began to gather over the Zetland Hotel in Saltburn-by-the-sea. Goff and Samuel were both residents, but this ominous sign seemed to point more at the Liberal than the Coalition-Conservative as the morning’s Yorkshire Post had described the contest as the ‘Red Flag v Union Jack’. Cleveland had an electorate of 37,000, it was expected that the large miners’ community would back Harry Dack but the burgeoning steelworkers’ contingent were less convinced.
The locals had warmed to Goff whose reactionary politics struck a chord in this turbulent time. Public meetings had been at a premium throughout the election campaign due to an influenza epidemic that was plaguing Europe. But with polling stations opening at 8am, Samuel embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the region to save his Parliamentary career.
So, it came to pass with the slimmest of victories for Sir Park Goff. Only 91 votes separated himself and his Labour opponent with Samuel left languishing in third place, ending sixteen years representing Cleveland. Despite fears of voter apathy, there was a respectable 66.2% turnout bettering the national average of 55.7%. Nationally, the Coalition swept to victory with the importance of the coupon illustrated by their 469 nominees elected.
Lloyd George was now in a position of power which allowed him to enjoy a fruitful four-year term as Prime Minister both home and abroad. The highlights included, being a key negotiator in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and engineering new social reforms. As for the other Cleveland candidates, Dack suffered from deja-vu in 1922, as once again he was narrowly beaten by Goff who held the seat for a further seven years before retiring to the South of France. Despite the decline of liberalism, Samuel remained in the public domain, accepting a peerage in 1937 that saw him become an elder statesman of British politics. A man for all season