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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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a force at least united in name.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will remain a story.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.