Britain’s First Labour Government by John Shepherd and Keith Laybourn: Ghetto politics

The first Labour government was formed in January 1924 after the only real threeparty election in Britain in the 20th century. It is a story which resonates: showing how dangerous it is to retreat into a ghetto, isolated from other forces on the left.

Britain’s First Labour Government
John Shepherd and Keith Laybourn
Palgrave Macmillan, 280pp, £19.99

The first Labour government was formed in January 1924 after the only real threeparty election in Britain in the 20th century. The general election of December 1923 had been called by Stanley Baldwin, the then Conservative leader, to secure a mandate for tariff reform. But the outcome was a hung parliament. The Conservatives remained the largest party, with 258 seats and 38 per cent of the vote, Labour won 191 seats with a little over 30 per cent of the vote, while the Liberals were third, with 159 seats on just under 30 per cent.

Baldwin appeared before parliament in January 1924, but was defeated on a vote of no confidence tabled by the Labour MP J R Clynes. George V then appointed Ramsay MacDonald as prime minister of a minority government – in office but not in power – on 22 January, the 23rd anniversary of the death of Queen Victoria. “Today, 23 years ago,” the king recorded in his diary, “dear Grandmama died. I wonder what she would have thought of a Labour Government!”

Newspaper placards declared “Lenin dead (official) Ramsay MacDonald premier”. Many were fearful for the future, none more so than Winston Churchill, who warned four days before MacDonald went to the Palace: “The enthronement in office of a Socialist Government will be a serious national misfortune such as has usually befallen great states only on the morrow of defeat in war.” But MacDonald proved far less of a threat to the established order than Lloyd George had been.

The first Labour government lasted just 266 days before being defeated by a Conservative/ Liberal combination; and, in the general election of October 1924, the Conservatives were returned with a large majority. The Labour vote actually rose – from 30 per cent to 33 per cent –but the issue was decided by the collapse of the Liberal vote which swung to the Tories.

The 1924 campaign was unedifying. It is now thought that the “Zinoviev letter”, an almost certainly forged missive from the Communist International calling on British communists to infiltrate Labour in the interests of revolution, had little influence on the outcome. But the Con - servatives constantly underlined the “red menace”. One Tory leaflet warned that communist spies “may come disguised as nurses and health visitors”, while another feared that in Sunday schools, children were “being baptised into the Communist faith – taught – how to blow up bridges, render roads useless”.

A competent, if drab, history of the first Labour government was published in 1957 by an American scholar, Richard Lyman. It is not immediately obvious why another is needed. John Shepherd and Keith Laybourn point out that the cabinet papers and those of MacDonald, as well as numerous other collections, were not available to Lyman, and they have worked assiduously at some 30 different private collections. But they have not come up with much new. Britain’s First Labour Government, a new paperback edition of a book first published in 2006, does little more than cross the Ts and dot the Is of Lyman’s account; and it is even more drably written. Nevertheless, it does serve to stimulate reflection upon the conditions needed for Labour success.

Labour’s victory in 1923 was due not to socialism, but to its defence of free trade. In a way, that was fortunate, since Labour, then as later, hardly knew what it meant by socialism, nor how it was to be achieved. Yet, despite lacking a mandate, the government had two major achievements to its credit. John Wheatley’s Housing Act provided for subsidies and controlled rents and made possible a great expansion of local authority housing during the interwar years. The 1926 report of the Hadow committee, set up by Labour in 1924, laid down a new framework for secondary education. Labour established two fundamental principles, which no future administration has ever questioned: that the state had a duty to ensure that the people were properly housed and that secondary education was the right of all children, not just those who could win scholarships or whose parents could afford fees.

Beatrice Webb saw the first Labour government as a mere “scouting expedition in the world of administration, a testing of men and measures before they are actually called to assume majority power”. But Labour could have achieved more, and perhaps survived for a full term, had it sought agreement with the Liberals on a joint programme. The New Statesman believed that had MacDonald “treated his Liberal allies with even common courtesy he might have remained in power not merely until 1925, but for some years to come, possibly even for a decade”. The chance, if there was one, for progressive government was lost, and Labour’s tactics ensured that the 20th century would become the Conservative century.

The history of the first Labour government shows how dangerous it is for the party to retreat into a ghetto, isolating itself from other forces on the left. Labour can only hope for constructive achievement in office if it becomes the spokesmen of all of the progressive forces in British politics. That is an easy moral to formulate but, as the history of the 20th century shows, a difficult one actually to put into practice.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at the Institute for Contemporary British History, King’s College, London. His books include “The Coalition and the Constitution” (Hart Publishing, £20)

Ramsey MacDonald, first Labour prime minister, on an election posted stuck to the back of his own airplane. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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Workers' rights after Brexit? It's radio silence from the Tories

Theresa May promised to protect workers after leaving the EU. 

In her speech on Tuesday, Theresa May repeated her promise to “ensure that workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained".  It left me somewhat confused.

Last Friday, my bill to protect workers’ rights after Brexit was due to be debated and voted on in the House of Commons. Instead I sat and watched several Tory MPs speak about radios for more than four hours.

The Prime Minister and her Brexit Secretary, David Davis, have both previously made a clear promise in their speeches at Conservative Party conference to maintain all existing workers’ rights after Britain has left the European Union. Mr Davis even accused those who warned that workers’ rights may be put at risk of “scaremongering". 

My Bill would simply put the Prime Minister’s promise into law. Despite this fact, Conservative MPs showed their true colours and blocked a vote on it through filibustering - speaking for so long that the time runs out.

This included the following vital pieces of information being shared:

David Nuttall is on his second digital radio, because the first one unfortunately broke; Rebecca Pow really likes elephant garlic (whatever that is); Jo Churchill keeps her radio on a high shelf in the kitchen; and Seema Kennedy likes radio so much, she didn’t even own a television for a long time. The bill they were debating wasn’t opposed by Labour, so they could have stopped and called a vote at any point.

This practice isn’t new, but I was genuinely surprised that the Conservatives decided to block this bill.

There is nothing in my bill which would prevent Britain from leaving the EU.  I’ve already said that when the vote to trigger Article 50 comes to Parliament, I will vote for it. There is also nothing in the bill which would soften Brexit by keeping us tied to the EU. While I would personally like to see rights in the workplace expanded and enhanced, I limited the bill to simply maintaining what is currently in place, in order to make it as agreeable as possible.

So how can Theresa May's words be reconciled with the actions of her backbenchers on Friday? Well, just like when Lionel Hutz explains to Marge in the Simpsons that "there's the truth, and the truth", there are varying degrees to which the government can "protect workers' rights".

Brexit poses three immediate risks:

First, if the government were to repeal the European Communities Act without replacing it, all rights introduced to the UK through that piece of legislation would fall away, including parental leave, the working time directive, and equal rights for part-time and agency workers. The government’s Great Repeal Bill will prevent this from happening, so in that sense they will be "protecting workers’ rights".

However, the House of Commons Library has said that the Great Repeal Bill will leave those rights in secondary legislation, rather than primary legislation. While Britain is a member of the EU, there is only ever scope to enhance and extend rights over and above what had been agreed at a European level. After Brexit, without the floor of minimum rights currently provided by the EU, any future government could easily chip away at these protections, without even the need for a vote in Parliament, through what’s called a "statutory instrument". It will leave workers’ rights hanging by a thread.

The final change that could occur after we have left the EU is European Court rulings no longer applying in this country. There are a huge number of rulings which have furthered rights and increased wages for British workers - from care workers who do sleep-in shifts being paid for the full shift, not just the hours they’re awake; to mobile workers being granted the right to be paid for their travel time. These rulings may no longer have legal basis in Britain after we’ve left. 

My bill would have protected rights against all three of these risks. The government have thus far only said how they will protect against the first.

We know that May opposed the introduction of many of these rights as a backbencher and shadow minister; and that several of her Cabinet ministers have spoken about their desire to reduce employment protections, one even calling for them to be halved last year. The government has even announced it is looking at removing the right to strike from transport workers, which would contradict their May’s promise to protect workers’ rights before we’ve even left the EU.

The reality is that the Conservatives have spent the last six years reducing people’s rights at work - from introducing employment tribunal fees which are a barrier to justice for many, to their attack on workers’ ability to organise in the Trade Union Act. A few lines in May’s speech doesn’t undo the scepticism working people have about the Tories' intentions in this area. Until she puts her money where her mouth is, nor should they. 

Melanie Onn is the Labour MP for Great Grimsby.