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.

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

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)

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