Whilst often thought of in isolation, path dependency and socialisation are interrelated phenomena. Path dependency can be understood as ‘social processes that exhibit positive feedback and thus generate branching patterns of historical development’, which, once established, reinforces a certain socialising tendency and becomes self-perpetuating, requiring a larger exogenous shock to change course (Pierson, 2004, p. 21). Pierson terms this ‘inertia’, whereby ‘Once such a process has been established, positive feedback will generally lead to a single equilibrium. This equilibrium will in turn be resistant to change’ (Pierson, 2004, p. 44).
Socialisation is the process whereby an individual’s beliefs, outlooks, and other related values are shaped by the environment in which they find themselves. There is considerable evidence to suggest that the most important period of socialisation – where an individual is most receptive to environmental cues – is during their formative years (Green et al, 2002, pp. 107–108; Hooghe, 2004, p. 334). This idea has gained traction in the literature on voting patterns in Britain. Butler and Stokes found that ‘Children of parents who were united in their party preference were overwhelmingly likely to have absorbed the preference at the beginning of their political experience’ (Butler and Stokes, 1974, p. 51). Furthermore, Ball argues that ‘people form their views shortly before or during their young adult years, between the ages of around fifteen and twenty-five, and thereafter do not greatly vary their fundamentals’ (Ball, 2013, p. 120). Thus, we can establish a relationship between the social context one is brought up in and their propensity to vote in a certain way.
There is a great analytical value in understanding the phenomenon of socialisation within a path dependency framework. Returning to Pierson, we see that path dependency arguments ‘rest on what Stinchcombe has termed a conception of “historical causes”… some initial event or process generates a particular outcome, which is then reproduced though time even though the original generating event or process does not recur’ (Pierson, 2004, p. 45). This concept of historical causes is essential for understanding Conservative dominance in Liverpool since it explains to some extent why such a heavily working class city resisted Labour and provided fertile ground for the Conservatives. In the case of Liverpool, this historical cause is religion and how it enabled Conservative dominance must be understood before we can understand Conservative decline.
Liverpool is perhaps unique amongst the great English cities in the extent to which religion has played a role in its development. For Baxter, religion in Liverpool ‘has dominated its political life and distorted it in a way that was unknown even in Glasgow – only Belfast can offer a comparison’ (Baxter, 1969, p. 1). The Great Famine in Ireland acted as a catalyst for huge amounts of Catholic Irish immigration into the city – at one point in the city’s history, 25 per cent of the population were Irish-born – and the majority of those who stayed in Liverpool were either too poor or unskilled to make a life elsewhere. As a result, the city became geographically split along national-religious lines (Baxter, 1969, pp. 1–2).
The socio-religious split in the city, then, had emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century and broadly continued for at least a hundred years. Debate exists surrounding the extent to which the Conservatives stoked anti-Catholic sentiment in the city, with the majority of scholars writing on the period arguing that they did (for example Belchem, 2000, p. xvi–xvii; Lees, 2011, p. 124). For Waller, it seemed ‘paradoxical that the Conservatives could be so successful, without being dishonest, in Liverpool, given the grim circumstances in which much of the population lived and worked’ (Waller, 1981, p. xix). However, O’Leary argues that the view that sectarianism ‘retarded the natural development of a unified working-class consciousness and, consequently, the forward march of Labour’ represents a ‘rather one dimensional, sectarian account of Liverpool’s political history’ (O’Leary, 2004, p. 158). Davies comes to a similar conclusion as O’Leary in his study of the Liverpool Labour Party in the inter-war years, finding that ‘religious sectarianism was almost certainly not as important as twentieth-century convention has made it out to be, but it was still relevant’, and that the Conservatives only used anti-Catholic sentiment in a few wards, where even there ‘the sectarian appeal was not a major factor consistently throughout the inter-war years’. Labour’s electoral nadir in the city, in 1930 and 1931, are found to be down to national crises rather than local sectarianism (Davies, 1996, p. 233).
Regardless of whether the Conservatives played on religious divides, the fact remains that the party could usually rely on strong, working-class Protestant support in the city. One of the most politically salient issues in Liverpool was the issue of Irish Home Rule, whereby those against Home Rule tended to vote for the Conservatives, whilst those in favour tended to vote for the Irish Nationalist Party (in its various guises). The strength of the Catholic Nationalist vote can be seen in the fact that Liverpool contained the only constituency outside of Ireland to return an Irish Nationalist MP – T. P. O’Connor, who represented Liverpool Scotland. As such, the potential for Labour to reach either the Protestant working-class or the poorer Catholic working-class was heavily restricted before the 1920s. Murden argues that Labour only started to ‘emerge as a significant force after it merged with the Catholic Centre Party in 1928’, the consequences of which are spelt out later (Murden, 2006, p. 448).
The final political force in the city, the Liberals, failed to become as successful as the Conservatives due to their support for Irish Home Rule, which alienated Protestants, whilst Catholics felt better represented by explicitly Catholic parties. As such, Liberal support was reliant upon a smaller, squeezed, electoral base of artisans and large business owners. Furthermore, the Liberals appeared aloof, in stark contrast to the ‘man of the people’ approach taken by prominent Tories. Belchem quotes the Daily Post from October 1861, which reported that the Conservatives ‘owed their mastery in municipal matters to their ready rapport with the electorate’, with electoral confidence leading to their being
affable, kind and conciliating. There is about them what is called bonhommie [sic]. The leading Liberals, on the other hand, are somewhat imperious. They are not conciliatory; they repel rather than attract. In fact, they are far more exclusive than the Tories (quoted in Belchem, 2000, p. 174).
Thus, 19th century Toryism in Liverpool ‘continued to thrive in the interlocking associational network – party, popular and sectarian – which facilitated ready interaction between the classes’ (Belchem, 2000, p. 174). This interaction was rooted in the Working Men’s Conservative Association, a vehicle which the Liverpool Conservative leader Archibald Salvidge, a self-made brewer and publican, aimed to transform into ‘a big name [with] lots of power, [to] make the city into a real democracy and show the masses how they can rule themselves’ (O’Leary, 2004, p. 166). O’Leary highlights that Conservative representatives were heavily involved in working-class pastimes, with both ‘Everton and Liverpool Football Clubs… founded thanks to the patronage of ‘King John Houlding’ of Everton, a self-made publican and Tory councillor’ (O’Leary, 2004, p. 169).
As such, party political support in Liverpool in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was based on the religious divides between Protestant and Catholics, not class. Generally, the Protestant electors lent their support to the Conservatives, whilst the Catholics backed the various Catholic parties and later the Labour Party (Roberts, 1965).
1918 is seen as the election when class had replaced religion as the main determinant of voting behaviour, but the effects of this were not instantaneous (Wald, 1983, p. 250; Butler and Stokes, 1974, pp. 409–410). Whilst the replacement of religion with class in a city with Liverpool’s socioeconomic makeup would lead one to expect a massive surge in support for Labour, this did not occur. In the 1951 general election, the Liverpool Conservatives polled 51 per cent to Labour’s 49 per cent, by 1955, this lead increased to 52.5 per cent to 46.7 per cent, respectively, and in 1959 it had grown further, to 53.4 per cent to 45.2 per cent, respectively (Butler and Stokes, 1952, p. 264; Butler and Stokes, 1955, p. 184; Butler and Rose, 1960, p. 218). However, whilst the direct importance of religion may not have declined in Liverpool as early as elsewhere, decline it eventually did. For Ramsden, this was evident by the 1964 general election, which he terms an:
historically significant milestone… traditional religious cleavages broke down with remarkable suddenness; without militant Protestantism Glasgow and Liverpool soon became almost no-go areas for Conservatives, who hung on to only four of the two cities’ twenty-four seats where previously they had held half of them; at Bebington, Geoffrey Howe saw a large majority shrink to marginal proportions as ‘people – even Irish people, on Merseyside at least – were more inclined to vote with their class than with their Church’ (Ramsden, 1996, p. 230).
As previously mentioned, to focus on general elections, as Ramsden has, in Liverpool provides a unidimensional perspective on Conservative decline and cannot account for the highs of 1969 or the sudden, dramatic decline in 1973. It also hides the fact that the Conservatives still won over 40 per cent of the vote in the next two general elections. Ramsden’s broader point, however, still stands; the direct link between Protestantism and Conservatism had been deteriorating. However, even though the direct relationship between religion and voting behaviour may have eroded, Stinchcombe’s concept of historical causes is useful to understand just why the Conservatives were able to continue to rely on such a large segment of working-class support in the city until the 1970s.
Political socialisation is most effective during one’s formative years, with parental leads and social milieu providing the most important cues. As such, a Liverpudlian child born into a working-class family may have been expected to vote Labour but if their parents were Protestants and from an era where Irish Home Rule was a salient issue it would be highly likely that the parents would support the Conservatives, and pass this Conservative support to their child. Furthermore, if the family lived in an environment which was heavily Conservative, perhaps due to being heavily Protestant (such as the Woolton or Warbreck wards), the environmental influences would also prompt the child to support the Conservatives. Hence, the historical cause of Protestantism would be the reason why the child supported the Conservatives, whilst socialisation would be the mechanism by which that support was transmitted through generations.
For Ball, the socialisation of working-class Conservatives until 1945 was, on a national level at least, partly a result of Labour’s newness in the eyes of the electorate. Ball states that the
pre-1935 age group were those whose socialization was in the period when the Labour Party was either marginal, untried, and possibly alarming (before 1923), or when it was a more significant force but not yet an established or successful party of government (1924–1935) [and that] only the Conservatives were credible contenders for power throughout the interwar era, a position which has always paid dividends for the party in attracting support from all social classes (Ball, 2013, p. 121).
This view is supported by Butler and Stokes (Butler and Stokes, 1974, p. 185) and can be applied to the local level. Since the Conservatives were almost consistently in power from the mid-nineteenth century, they could be portrayed as the natural party of local government in Liverpool, with Labour yet to gain the legitimacy granted in 1945 and the Liberals a declining force.
Clearly, this pattern of socialisation could not continue indefinitely. Like a fast-moving bike on a flat road, without peddling eventually friction will slow it to a halt – and in this case, the friction was provided by the national-level class socialisation patterns. Butler and Stokes noted that those who were socialised in a ‘politically homogenous’ environment ‘almost never seem to have deserted their parents’ party (Butler and Stokes, 1974, p. 65). Crucially, however, if an individual faces no partisan lead from their parents they tend to accept ‘the lead that is so clearly given in Britain by a class milieu’, whilst for those facing conflicting socialisation patterns (perhaps one parent or side of the family votes Tory) ‘the possibility of a change of preference became much greater’ (Butler and Stokes, 1974, p. 57; p. 65). Importantly, over time, voters who supported one of the two leading parties at one election were ‘far more likely to shift towards the other party at the next election if this shift moved him towards the dominant opinion within his local constituency rather than away from it’ (Butler and Stokes, 1974, p. 140). This is perhaps to be expected, since both scenarios represent the path of least resistance. It does, however, emphasise the positive reinforcement aspect of the movement to Labour in the city; Labour’s increasing national dominance amongst the working class would serve to increase the reach and effectiveness of the socialisation of new voters, whilst those who faced competing socialisation pressures were more likely to switch towards their ‘natural’ party (based on class), usually Labour. Thus, the Conservatives were harmed twice-over by this trend; firstly, as class replaces religion voters would be more likely to support Labour initially, and those who changed their party allegiance would be more likely to move to Labour.
Hence, religious identity mattered for Conservative socialisation in Liverpool; it provided the initial link between the working class and Conservative voting, and was the ‘historical cause’ for parental and neighbourhood socialisation which sustained Conservative support after 1945. Due to the strength of religious feeling in Liverpool, this continued longer than it would have in other cities, and certainly longer than one would expect given the economic and demographic makeup of the city. However, over time the national-level socialising effects of class eroded the number of new Conservative voters, until they became concentrated in the southern, affluent wards of the city.
Thus, one aspect of the Conservatives’ surprising strength in the city before 1970 can be attributed to socialisation patterns, as can the long-term decline. This, however, does not explain the sudden increase in Conservative support in the mid-1960s nor the sharp decline in the party’s fortunes from 1970 onwards. Instead, we must look at factors exogenous to the path-dependent socialisation model given here, specifically the role that national politics played on local election results.