Labour history uncut: Labour sets a new record for by-election losses

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

“Do something!”

This was the message to Ramsay Macdonald from the unhappy troops in his the party. Having become leader in 1911, Macdonald had arrived to find the workers of the nation ready for a Millwall wave of industrial unrest rippling across dockers, miners and rail-workers. This was like a Mexican wave, but with less cheering and more broken noses.

It left Macdonald in a tricky position as, at the same time as being the representatives of the working man, he was determined to establish Labour as a “respectable” party (as opposed to a Respect party, which is something different). Consequently, he was less than keen to be seen to be on the side of rioters and militant strikers.

As part of his plan to establish Labour, Macdonald had operated an informal electoral pact with the Liberals since 1903, each giving the other a clear run at the Tories. For Labour it had helped build the parliamentary party to 42 seats.

With the Liberals now in government, it also meant Labour could get scraps of their legislation through in return for continued support.

While this did rather make them the dog at the Liberal party banquet, that was of more practical benefit than being the starving man outside, watching everybody else eat.

But on the other hand, who wants to be a dog, aside from people with a burning desire to lick their own genitals? Certainly not the party rank and file, who quite reasonably felt that being on the side of the workers sort of came with the job description for Labour – the clue is in the name after all.

If all Labour was doing was backing the Liberals, what was the point of setting up a different party in the first place?

So Macdonald subtly shifted strategy. He didn’t turn his full rhetorical fire on the government, but he did change the approach on by-elections. After 1911, Labour’s leadership exercised a little more willingness to run candidates where a Liberal was standing.

Partially Macdonald’s hand was forced by pressure from within the party, but there was also merit in gauging Labour’s strength. Even if they didn’t beat the Liberals, a strong electoral showing might strengthen his hand when negotiating with the government – after all the Liberals weren’t even the largest party.

So, between 1911 and summer 1914, out of 50 by-elections in Liberal seats, Labour contested an unprecedented 14 seats.

“Say ‘cheese’? Whilst workers are starving? Never.” ’William Cornforth Robinson, Labour candidate in the 1911 Oldham by-election

There was good news and bad news.

On the plus side, the by-elections proved that Labour could secure a reasonable number of votes, demonstrating there was some appetite for socialist candidates.

Less happily, it turned out that this was an appetite for a snack, rather than the full meal. Despite a decent showing most of the time, Labour lost every election, while the Liberals were almost always victorious.  Almost. There were five exceptions. In these five races, Labour’s intervention helped the Tories nick the seat instead. Oops.

Worse, the Liberals took these interventions quite badly and decided to give Labour a taste of their own medicine. “Come at me, bro,” declared Asquith, and ran some candidates where Labour faced a by-election.

“Leave it Herbert, he’s not worth it,” cried the Liberals, but Asquith would not take Labour’s breach of the pact lying down

Two Labour seats fell to the Liberals this way. In a third the Liberal intervention was enough to split the vote and let the devious Tory strategy of “sit back, do nothing and let them bicker” triumph again.

As if regular by-election drubbings at the hands of Liberals and Tories weren’t bad enough, one of Labour’s more emotional MPs, George Lansbury (grandfather of Angela), struck on a new and exciting way to bugger things up.

Lansbury resigned his seat in order to force a by-election. His plan was to highlight the pressing need for women’s suffrage, coasting to victory on the obvious wave of public support for the issue.

At a time when most of the working classes seemed to be locked in mortal combat with employers, and with the Irish question spiralling towards chaos, this focus on votes for ladies who lunch was beyond baffling to all sides of the party. This only got worse when many of Lansbury’s upper class female suffragist supporters campaigned for him while simultaneously publicly opposing socialism. Awkward.

Lansbury was busy making his own contribution to the disaster though. He went out of his way to antagonise Liberal supporters with vituperative attacks on government policy on the suffragettes, branding prime minister Asquith “the man who tortured innocent women”. Whilst this might be made into a popular film franchise today, at the time it was considered a bad thing.

The Liberals did not run a candidate against Lansbury. They didn’t need to.  Even fighting an unreconstructed old-school Tory, who campaigned on the catchy slogan, “women do not want votes” (who said advertising agencies were a waste of money eh?), Lansbury lost.

It was an object lesson: be careful what you ask the great British public, you might not like the answer.

George Lansbury lost his own seat making a stand for women’s suffrage. “Bugger,” he wrote.

By summer 1914 Labour had lost 4 MPs, leaving a depleted Westminster contingent of 38.

Although Macdonald had made internal reforms to strengthen the party organisation and built Labour’s campaign experience through the cycle of by-elections, the only result achieved was that Labour had finished last in every parliamentary contest it fought. And there are no bronze medals in politics.

At Westminster, Macdonald’s policy of running against the Liberals in by-elections had made the government an even more recalcitrant partner, robbing him of any major legislative triumphs to show supporters.

The one area Macdonald did persuade the Liberal government to act on was the 1909 Osborne judgement that prohibited unions from financially supporting political parties.

In April 1913, the government passed legislation allowing unions to ballot members on whether they would have political funds. These funds would then be exclusively allocated to political activities such as electioneering, boozy lunches, “fact finding” missions to Venezuela and town centre flats for favoured MPs.

At first, the Labour party felt this was a disappointing result as it did not restore the position pre-Osborne, placing the obstacle of a ballot in the way of unions providing cash.

In reality though, this had actually done Labour a favour. Most unions successfully balloted their members and, once they had done so, the funds could not really be used for ‘honk if you love unions’ bumper stickers or other non-political purposes. Ironically, Liberal reluctance to fully reverse Osborne secured a more reliable source of funding than the party had before.

Yet at the time, reversing the Osborne judgement seemed small beer. Macdonald, for all his skills, was trapped in the worst of all worlds for Labour. Neither strong enough to strike out as an alternative to the Liberals, nor close enough to the government to secure the passage of Labour’s legislative priorities. He didn’t even get a press conference in the Number 10 rose garden for his troubles.

As things stood, there was no obvious way out.

In fact, it looked like the only thing that could save the party was a massive international upheaval shattering all conventions and transforming the nation. But what was the chance of that happening?

Just then, the Kaiser fingered his moustache and thought, “France is nice this time of year, I might visit with a few friends.”

Pete and Atul are not historians

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2 Responses to “Labour history uncut: Labour sets a new record for by-election losses”

  1. swatantra says:

    Lib Dems today seem to be in the same position that Labour was 100 years ago.
    But there is no chance of them forming a majority govt again.

  2. Richard says:

    “And there are no bronze medals in politics.”

    Surely that’s the constitutional function of Lord President of the Council?

    (Gold consolation medallist: Balfour 1919-22; Silver runners up: Curzon 1916-19, MacDonald 1935-37, Attlee 1943-45; Bronze special meritocrats: Runciman 1938-39, Clegg 2010- whom god preserve)

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