George Lansbury: the unsung father of blue Labour

Below we reproduce Jon Cruddas’ speech at George Lansbury’s recent plaque unveiling, with Angela Lansbury, in Bow.

by Jon Cruddas

Thank you very much. It is great to be with you all this afternoon. We are here to celebrate the life of one of the true heroes of the Labour party: George Lansbury. A man who was – to quote the great historian AJP Taylor – “the most lovable figure in British politics”.

We as a party are really only beginning to understand the true significance of the man and of his leadership of the party; a process of rehabilitation is underway yet is far from complete.

I think of Lansbury as arguably the greatest ever Labour leader. Not in an empirical sense in terms of elections won – he never faced the electorate in a general election as our leader.

Raymond Postgate wrote after George had resigned – and two weeks later an election was called – that “now they had lost their only popular leader, it was enough to wreck the labour men’s hopes of a victory”.

Irrespective of this, to have a third Labour government in 1945, or Wilson’s and Callaghan’s governments of the 60s and 70s – or Blair and Brown’s of more recent years – you had to have a party for them  to inherit and subsequently lead; indeed from which to govern.

This is part of Lansbury’s legacy – to quote George Thomas

“He not only saved the soul of the party, he saved the party. We could have sunk into oblivion and the Liberals could have been reborn”.

When I think of George Lansbury I am consistently reminded of the fundamental paradox of the Labour party; the source of great hope whilst consistently being a provider of such profound and indeed bitter disappointments for us all. Its relationship between romance and rationalism.

Consider the events leading to George’s resignation. Half of Baldwin’s 500 seats were vulnerable. There was a possibility of a newly confident Labour Party gaining a majority and prime minister Lansbury. Contrast that with the party of 1932 – totally and utterly beaten – 50 odd seats left. Broken. In that short space of time he had overseen a profound transformation.

Yet what about military support for the Abyssinians through the League of Nations: on this to quote Postgate: “its leader was beginning to answer no; its members yes”. George offers to resign: at the 1934 Stockport conference, at the TUC in 1935 in Margate, Before the party conference in Brighton and finally at the conference itself.

At the conference Lansbury rises to speak to choruses of “for he’s a jolly good fellow” throughout the hall. He starts by saying: “I agree with my friends who think it is quite intolerable that you should have a man speaking as leader who disagrees fundamentally on an issue of this kind”. He then makes the most powerful statement possible about his Christian socialist convictions.

What follows – as hailstones thundered down on the roof of the conference centre – is Bevin’s brutal assassination of George. A “calculated bad temper”, according to Mr Postgate – which went beyond politics containing an “odious dimension totally unworthy of British democratic politics” to quote John Sheppard.

Yet George knew his position was unsustainable – he had written earlier to the general secretary stating precisely this. Bevin knew this; it was a calculated and brutal act of political destruction.

He later said “Lansbury’s been dressed in saint’s clothes for years waiting for martyrdom. All I did was set fire to the faggots”. Yet what was so outrageous in George’s eyes was not Bevin – it was the failure of any member of the NEC to step forward to clarify the true facts.

This day I believe – 1 October 1935 – is a watershed moment in the history of the party. Bevin’s assault was part of a piece directed at the three great prophets of Labour – Kier Hardie, Ramsey Macdonald and George Lansbury. He had continuously made clear it was not Hardie who formed the party; he had seen Macdonald’s dilemmas  as symptomatic of a middle class capture and intellectualism and subsequently placed Lansbury and Cripps in the same bracket.

Of course, Labour has always been a haven for many different types of “socialism”. For example, Tony Crossland identified 12 differing labour types. Yet at the same time Labour – as Tawney once said –  lacks a discernable creed; or as GDH Cole famously put it: retains  a “socialism without doctrines”. Despite this, two broad traditions can be identified: romantic and rationalist.

The romantic tradition driven as a reaction to capitalist dispossession, commodification and rationality building an imaginative, charged, passionate socialism of human virtue, creativity and self realisation dating back to certain artistic and literary movements; of Ruskin and Morris. Creating inspirational, although often lonely, leaders.

To me it is no coincidence that Hardie, Macdonald and Lansbury at critical moments display a sense of loss and loneliness – Bessie had died in 1933 and Edgar passed away on 28 May 1935.

The rationalist approaches; socialism the product of deductive reasoning and enlightened thinking;  a question of science and not emotion.

The thirties saw the defeat of the party intellectuals – of Cole and Tawney – again at the hands of Ernest Bevin – and the victory of the professional political figures to replace them – of Attlee, Morrison and Dalton. Yet at the same time the removal of Lansbury in 1935 marked the fundamental change in the character of political leadership. The victory of the pragmatists and political operators over the prophets of Labour.

It is the rationalists, the organisers, the planners and the pragmatists that have consistently won out over the prophets, the utopians and the romantics. Yet it is precisely the latter that have inspired the hope around labour.

The first three great prophets of labour – Hardie, Macdonald and Lansbury. Later with Bevan and Foot; maybe Kinnock. The “apostles of the old faith” to quote Ken Morgan.

The thirties saw the page turn toward the younger – and more middle class- intellectuals – the planners, and economists around Dalton. The unions retreated into organisational issues and it was Bevin who is the critical figure in the removal of Labour’s passion and romance; he took responsibility for removing our prophets.

1 October 1935 is arguably the critical moment in Labour’s historical move away from a romantic tradition.

So what was it about George Lansbury?

I would pick out a number of factors.

First, George Lansbury was the quintessential Labour moralist; the utopian visionary driven by the search for cooperation and fellowship. Not in the abstract but lived through every day of his life.

A key founder in 1906 of the Christian Socialist League, he became its vice president. His principles could not be compromised; especially his pacifism. Not tribal – witness his early liberalism. Like Hardie and Macdonald, a radical in terms of women’s emancipation and the widening of the franchise; driven by fundamental concerns about human dignity and equal worth which at times left him in Brixton and Pentonville prisons.

Second, as I have mentioned, he is arguably the greatest ever leader of labour in opposition.  At the darkest moment in its history he became leader and held it together; driven by a sense of obligation to the party.

Third, arguably he was the driver behind  the most important public document of the last century – the minority report on the future of the poor laws –  but written out in the subsequent history of this story by the Webbs. Beatrice said he had “no brains to speak of”. George once said that “the Fabians were much to clever and superior for ordinary persons like myself”.

His greatest role – as poor law guardian; his hatred of the workhouse. The minority report was the cornerstone of the future welfare state. George refused to accept the notion of the undeserving poor – a belief the Labour party of today should well remember. It was the 1946 legislation that arguably stands as part of George’s real legacy – when part of his life’s work – the end of the poor law – came to effect.

Fourth, he led the arguments in favour of a new deal here in Britain and against the proposals of the May committee; again history is unkind to him in its neglect.

Fifth, we can learn from his humility. Four times he tried to resign before eventually being allowed to. Loved, adored yet abused in a totally disingenuous way by Bevin and written out of the subsequent script as Labour was handed over to the middle class planners and managers.

Sixth as a  true pioneer of localism – what else was poplarism?

Seven, as a great journalist – in 1912 he helped found the Daily Herald. Not an insignificant contribution to the world of news the media and popular culture – possibly as great a contribution  as that of  the celebrated journalist, Michael Foot.

For all of these reasons GL was arguably Labour’s greatest leader.

Why has he been neglected?

For example, in his brilliant 1987 book, Labour People, Ken O Morgan refracted the history of Labour through the prism of some 30 odd key fixers and organisers, thinkers and philosophers, members and leaders; pragmatists and prophets. Yet barely mentions George.

He describes Labour as too often the victim of ancestor worship, yet ignores arguably Labour’s greatest ever leader – what is this paradox about? Where should “good old george” stand in our own history?

His biographer concluded thus: “In 1940 he left a vital legacy for any politician – exemplified in his own political life – the conviction that people matter”. We return to the question: why does George not matter more?

Is it because he had no real idea about the extent of evil? His pleading with Hitler? His socialism was preceded by his Christianity; yet of a type resting uncomfortably with Labour’s subsequent entry into war time government

Was it because of his hostility to the middle class imperialism towards the poor? Symbolised by Toynbee Hall which rested uncomfortably in the later world of Attlee, Dalton and their ilk? His experiences in both east London and stone breaking in Australia informed an approach to poverty which was not abstract; but built on the day to day working class experience.

I would suggest he is neglected precisely because he was a romantic – an avid reader of Tennyson, Browning, especially William Morris, and indeed Blatchford. We as a party prefer our rationalists.

Maybe neglected as beyond easy categorisation.

He stood with Ben Tillett at the 1889 dock strike, and active at various times with the Fabians, member of both SDF and ILP. By 1903 he wins a place on Poplar borough council and in 1906, with the establishment of the Christian Socialist League, becomes vice president. He was involved in all elements but owned and therefore promoted by no faction.

One final point I would make. Labour’s prophets and romantic figures since the party was formed have tended to be celts – Hardie, Macdonald, Bevan, Kinnock. Lansbury is arguably the Labour Party’s greatest English figure. It is precisely that English radicalism that we must rediscover today.

I believe the significance of George Lansbury was his ordinariness; he was embedded in the common people. That is why he was so loved and adored. Dylan Thomas once said that the Labour movement at its best is both “magical” and “parochial”. That perfectly describes Labour’s greatest leader, George Lansbury – “good old george” –  his humanity is both magical and parochial. It is timeless. Tragically, he gave more to us than we gave to him. He deserved so much more.

Thank you very much.

Jon Cruddas is Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham.

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8 Responses to “George Lansbury: the unsung father of blue Labour”

  1. Roger says:

    And the Blue Labour reference is where?

    A case certainly can be made for him as a precursor of Blue Labour in one respect – his faith – but it was this very faith that made him such a dogmatic pacifist and thus sundered him completely from working class patriotism.

    He quite literally was too good for the uniquely bloody age he lived through – and his removal from leadership was not an act of betrayal but utterly inevitable given that within 4 years Britain was to be at war.

    And this is where Jon’s case for his greatness falls to the ground – we didn’t fail him – he failed us by becoming in both objective and subjective terms an appeaser of fascism.

    Had Labour won under his leadership in 1935 – a truly absurd notion that I don’t think a single proper historian would entertain for a moment given that Labour actually lost by 300 seats and a 22-point margin – we might well have been under German occupation by 1940.

    This doesn’t stop him from being a great socialist and a wholly admirable human being – but being found so completely wrong on the most important issue of the age makes him a ludicrous candidate for greatest Labour leader.

    And if just keeping the party from destroying itself is sufficient qualification then Michael Foot would win that contest hands down.

  2. Rachael Saunders says:

    Cruddas refers to Lansbury’s 1935 conference speech as his greatest exposition of Christian Socialism. Can anyone point me to a copy of it?

  3. Stuart Madewell says:

    The idea that he held the party together in the thirties is nonsense. Bevin might have been cruel in 1935 but he was right. Lansbury’s pacifism was inappropriate with the rise of fascism. It was Atlee who got Labour to think about re-armanant and make preparations for war. It was Morrison as leader of the GLC who laid out the preparations for Civil Defence designing the ‘Morrison’ Shelters. It was precisely these preparations for war and Atlee’s decisio to join the war-time coalition which laid the foundation for the victory of 45.

    The conclusion is that Lansbury’s romantic ‘ethical socialism’ was inadequate and the hard pragmatism of Atlee, Morrison and Bevin (supported by Bevan) was essential

  4. Roger says:

    I note that Sunder Katwala has published a much longer response over at Next Left which makes similar points to mine but more elegantly and in much greater detail:

  5. John Sargeant says:

    I found this very informative. My main contrbution to debate is to mention my Grandfather Ben Sargeant born 1890 he was a working man trade unionist and member of the Labour Party. In many talks about that tome he always refered to Macdonald as the Turncoat and Lansbury as the saviour. He said he paved the way for Attlee’s great reforming Govournment in 1945.

  6. Brian says:

    Came across this whilst trying to review Mrs Frida Laski and her philanthropic endeavour in the East End – Harold laski being the biggest bogeyman Commie around, post war as I recall

    Never voted labour in my life and laughed out loud when I read poor old Roger statement that Michael foot, the biggest political buffoon in my lifetime, would win the
    Greatest leader poll Roger,Roger,Roger, what sort of life you been leading out there, and Kinnock the greatest celtic leader? No wonder I’ve never felt like voting labour???

    All that I recall of the Attlee era was seemingly austerity for the sake of austerity Meantime my sister, having been brought up in York and the Rowntree Foundation traditions said at her first post-war election that she would have voted liberal ‘if only she knew what they stood for’ and she now passed away with she and I still wondering that?

    Meantime, as a free spirit, I flirted with Conservative of the Edward heath type(crumbs
    falling down from the rich man’s table and all that) – only to for the spectre of Thatcher to appear on the scene and change everything that was good in british society and instead pronounce ‘profit is not a dirty word'(yeah but greed is) and the notion there ‘no such thing as Society’ ringing in my head – with the conservatives keep trying to bring her out as the great savior never quite realising that it she that was the anathema to them for the people

    Mustn’t forget the Commie/Socialist trade unions over the years in all this with their greed too – which still going on(what about the rest of us pensions being lifted too?)

    Where does that leave me then – all that I been left with is UKIP to vote for and this now with the most bizarre Government ever in my lifetime – and what with Bliar government taking some beating on that score(lets have a false war and royal wedding to make us seem popular whilst we prearranged start on children,the weak and the vulnerable……)

    Reading the above, suddenly ‘thats my man’, George Lansbury said as a socialist with christian principles – even went to prison as a Poplar Councillor for his principles that HuttonPoplars(Hutton Residential School/Poplar School)should have facilities at least equal to those of Eton for benefit the poor ‘orphan’ children of that London Borough – cant think of any other such modern MP quickly coming to my lips(well maybe Freddie Fielding then and even he is Labour) Thats what wanted then Christian Socialists with principles – I realise that other religions espouse the same or similar such life principles

    For my part then put George Lansbury back up to the top of that list for labour party greatness and you might get my first vote next time – even Nationalising the electric,gas, water,drainage and railways is sounding good to me at the moment in this ‘rip-off’ Britain culture A few Pacifists coming to the fore might go down a treat too instead of all just sitting there like dummies saying Aye Ps Please DO learn to spell John.

  7. Liz Farley says:

    Brian, I agree with you entirely. If George Lansbury were Labour leader today I would definitely vote for him, but then again I am biased as I am his first cousin three times removed through my maternal great grandmother!
    According to Roger if Lansbury had been British Prime Minister at the outbreak of war we would have been under the German jack boot by 1940! He doesn’t know that for sure. Yes GL was a christian socialist pacifist who tried to dissuade Adolf Hitler from marching towards war, however it is entirely possible that once he had seen what had happened with the invasion of Poland in 1939 I think Lansbury may have had a change of heart after trying diplomatic routes first. On the other hand he may have resigned like Chamberlain who was also called an appeaser for meeting with and receiving assurances from Hitler! He could have been just as good a leader as Churchill, but we shall never know.

    Until the Labour party return to their roots they won’t be getting my vote. They are not true socialists like Lansbury, he gave away everything he had to the poor and needy. Unlike todays labour politicians who’s doctrine seems to be Do as we say not as we do. GL lived by his principles and practiced what he preached, thats why he was so well-loved and respected.

    His maternal grandmother (my 3 x great grandmother) lived in a tiny village in the Welsh Marches and was all too familiar with poverty, early widowhood and reliance on the parish relief. Her experiences influenced the young George – she taught him to read Reynolds magazine a popular publication at the time with socialist ideas. He used to visit my great grandmother in Birmingham who was a widow with five young children to feed and clothe. He gave her money for food and for boots for the children. If it hadn’t been for him they would very likely have ended up in the workhouse! He was the same with his constituents and died penniless! Thats why today’s labour politicians make me sick (Frank Field an exception) with their big houses, frequent foreign holidays etc, etc are as far from Lansbury’s socialism as is possible. If MacDonald, Hardie and Lansbury came back today they wouldn’t recognise them as socialists but nearer to the tories!

  8. Claire Thomas says:

    I too wish to sing the praises of George Lansbury. Like liz I am also biased as george is my maternal great grandfather.
    A heritage of which I am very proud am a trade unionist myself and feel I have been influenced by the knowledge of how
    Important George was in fighting for rights of minorities, specifically women and the poor. There are different fights that we
    Face today and I am part of that movement. I’m unsure whether it is my upbringing that drives me to do better for myself and
    To fight for and on behalf of others against some of the biggest companies in the uk but I’d like to think that there is an element
    Of it being in the blood.

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