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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.