In his pioneering study of the British electoral system, David Butler notes that “One of the main problems of the historian of the second Labour Government is to discover what action the Liberals took to exact the fullest return for their support in the division lobbies.” Owing to the preponderance of economic issues in this period, however, scant attention has been focused on the constitutional question of electoral reform which had the greatest bearing on the relationship between the Liberal and Labour parties in Parliament. Robert Skidelsky's Politicians and the Slump, the most thorough economic and political analysis of the Second Labour Government, is curiously jejune on this subject. Recent biographers of Ramsay MacDonald and David Lloyd George, the Labour and Liberal protagonists, describe in detail a series of joint enterprises between the parties, but they fail to delineate the precise nature of their relationship in light of the critical electoral reform question. And Butler was never able to come to close quarters because of a paucity of primary sources. Now, however, it is possible to merge these separate strands, along with a neglected Conservative view, into a comprehensive explanation of the Liberal-Labour nexus.
Despite much suspicion by contemporaries, especially among Conservatives in Parliament and the press, of a supposed Lib-Lab “bargain, ” it was repeatedly denied by prominent Liberal and Labour members. In light of the inability of historians to produce even a shred of evidence to the contrary and the glaring lack of legislative cooperation, it must be concluded that there was never any formal alliance between the two parties. Nevertheless a strong, and as yet unspecified, attachment did exist as a result of the unique parliamentary circumstances emerging from the general election of 1929. What emerges is an unattractive picture of political manuevering, calumny, and subterfuge where the potential allies worked at cross-purposes—the object of the Government being to create conditions favorable to retaining office while the Liberals desired some greater prospect for attaining office in the future. Despite their interdependence, the party leaders were never able to reach an agreement on the vital issue of electoral reform, which would involve some possible sacrifice of their individual ends. The result was a process of mutual destruction which contributed to the fall of the Second Labour Government and opened the way for a Conservative bid for power.