The Conservatives lost the 1880 election for a combination of reasons linked both to their own mistakes and to the successes of the Liberal Party campaign.
Disraeli’s government had a reasonable successful ministry from 1874 to 1880. They were responsible for several significant social reforms that were seen to significantly improve both living and working conditions for the people. Disraeli believed that people would recognise the changes the Conservative Party had brought about for them and return them to power in 1880. However the Conservatives passed few social reforms after 1876, instead choosing to concentrate on foreign policy. Disraeli’s foreign policy was unpopular and the four years between his major push on social reform and the election were long enough for people to become dissatisfied with the lack of social reform coming from the government and forget the improvements made by previous Social reforms. The Liberals used this in their campaign, promising a return to social reform which appealed to the workers. Disraeli called this the `fickleness of the multitude` as the people were voting for what the Liberals promised rather than what the Conservatives had already done.
One Disraeli’s biggest mistakes leading to his election defeat in 1880 was his approach to foreign policy. The Conservatives fought wars in both Afghanistan and South Africa and sustained heavy losses of money and men in both countries. In order to fund these wars the government was forced to raise income tax from two pence to five pence in the pound. This was an especially unpopular move and made the Liberals seem particularly appealing because Gladstone has always been an advocate of low taxation and reduced government spending, especially relating to war.
Disraeli’s major concern with his foreign policy was to protect British trade routes to India. As a result Disraeli supported Turkey against the threat of Russian expansion. However in 1875-76 the Turks murdered twelve thousand Christians in response to rebellions. Though Disraeli condemned this, he continued to offer to support them against Russia if needed. This decision was one of Disraeli’s most damaging as it caused Gladstone to come out of political retirement in order to attack the Conservative’s foreign policy. Gladstone was incensed by the foreign policy, seeing it as immoral and expensive. He had always objected to war on the grounds of cost to the government, instead following a policy of peace. He published a pamphlet entitled The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East which expressed his objection to the situation in Germany. He then began his own campaign for the Scottish seat of Midlothian.
Another reason the Conservatives lost the 1880 election was due to Disraeli’s elevation to the House of Lords as the Earl of Beaconsfield, in 1876. This made it harder for him to campaign as it was a custom that peers should not take part in election campaigns and his only involvement in the election campaign for 1880 was an attempt to make the problems of Ireland an election issue. This contrasted strongly with Gladstone who was putting in a huge amount of time and energy into his own campaign. Disraeli’s position in the House of Lords also made it difficult for him to answer Gladstone’s attacks against his foreign policy as it was tradition that members of the House of Lords did not enter the House of Commons and vice versa.
Disraeli also suffered because of the falling economy and the agricultural depression. Though the suffering economy was not directly his fault, as it was consistent with other countries in Europe, Disraeli’s popularity still suffered due to the impact it had on wages and levels of unemployment, which decreased and increased respectively. The agricultural depression was seen by Disraeli as one of the chief causes for their downfall. It occurred because of the import of cheap American grain which led to falling corn prices and a potato famine in Ireland. Disraeli could have prevented complete disaster by rising food prices in order to protect farmers; however he was reluctant to do so because he did not want to lose the support of the working classes. This meant, though, that he instead lost the support of the landowners who had always been traditional Conservative supporters.
The Conservative defeat was not due solely to the mistakes of the Conservatives. It was also contributed to by the successes of the Liberals. While the Conservative Party was in power the Liberals reorganised and became a powerful united force. In 1877 the National Liberal Federation was established by Joseph Chamberlain, giving the party its first national organisation. This national coordination enabled the Liberals to fight an effective campaign. The party had also reunited; the Nonconformists supported Gladstone’s attack on Beaconsfieldism, while the Trade Unionists had their own grievances satisfied by the Conservative trade union laws and both groups subsequently rejoined the Liberals.
In contrast to the Liberal’s newly established organisation the Conservative Party organisation had deteriorated. Gorst resigned as Principal Agent in March 1878 and the following leaders were unable to maintain the organisation of the party. The party was also struggling to remain unified due to splits over foreign policy. They no longer presented a unified front and were accused of `running out of steam` and putting little effort into the election campaign.
Gladstone’s own campaign in Midlothian was another reason for Conservative defeat. The campaign was intense and Gladstone was determined to achieve victory. He made many speeches and his popularity massively increased. Though he was not the leader of the party his growing support after the Midlothian campaign meant that he became quickly obvious that he should take over leadership.
Overall the Conservatives lost the 1880 election for a number of reasons, most significantly the lack of real campaigning from Disraeli, especially noticeable when compared to Gladstone’s campaign. Disraeli’s unpopular foreign policy and the loss of support of both the workers and landowners were also important contributors to the Conservative defeat in 1880.