by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal
When war was declared on 4 August 1914, the Labour party found itself divided into three broad groups: subscribers to Guns & Ammo, reluctant but resigned pragmatic supporters of the war, and outright opponents of the war (or “big pansies” as they were known to members of the first group).
Fortunately, even though the party was only 14 years old, Labour knew its onions when it came to handling divisions. Although there had been one rather prominent resignation in the shape of Ramsay Macdonald’s August departure, this did not prove to be the start of a mass walkout.
War dissenters in general were tolerated and allowed to remain in the party, even retaining positions in any committees and NEC membership held.
In fact, even though Arthur Henderson had picked up the reins of leadership, he only took over the chairmanship of the PLP on a supposedly temporary basis. In the following months he regularly asked Macdonald to change his mind and come back, making him a mixtape of the special songs from their time together.
Macdonald and Henderson became the Gold Blend couple of the Labour party. “Will they or won’t they” was the number one topic of PLP tea room conversation. Finally, on 18th November 1914, Macdonald ended the suspense. He declared “It’s not you, it’s me. No, actually it is you,” and then asked for all his CDs back.
One tub of mint choc chip later, the Labour party decided it was time to move on and confirmed Henderson as Labour’s leader.
Part of the reason for Macdonald’s non-participation on the 18th November was something he had got up to the previous day.
On the 17th November, Macdonald was one of the signatories on a letter to the press announcing the formation of the union of democratic control (UDC).
This was a group bringing together the opponents of war from Labour and the Liberals. Together they could keep each other company, buddy up when walking home from parliament in case the angry “patriots” were waiting and generally make the case against war. This proved surprisingly hard considering they were essentially arguing against dismemberment, death and other horrors.
The UDC had come into being because the Liberals had gone through a similar split as Labour. Their radical left was perhaps even more angry than Labour with the war, largely because it was their government that had led Britain into the conflict.
Macdonald had always had ties to leading Liberals, thanks to his pre-war horse-trading with the government and the Lib-Lab electoral pact. He now found common cause with a raft of cabinet ministers who had resigned such as CP Trevelyan and John Morely.
The leaders of the new UDC agreed that one of the main reasons for the conflict was the secret diplomacy of people like Britain’s foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey who had famously declared at the start of the war “The lights are going out all over Europe,” conveniently ignoring that he had been the one who’d read Europe a bedtime story and tucked it up nice and tight beforehand.
The UDC felt that if foreign affairs were dealt with more openly, with full disclosure, non-dodgy dossiers and under parliamentary control, perhaps future wars might be less likely.
They were, if nothing else, a hopeful bunch.
Funded by big chocolate (like big pharma, but more delicious and less evil – quakers George Cadbury and Arnold Rowntree made large donations) the UDC had three main objectives:
(1) parliament should control foreign policy. It should not be conducted in shady unauthorised back-alley chats, it should be shouted across the despatch box by increasingly red-faced, grandstanding MPs
(2) some sort of international organisation to help prevent future wars would be nice. This, let’s call it a league, would ideally be set up with the support of other democratic European states
(3) at the end of the war the peace terms should neither humiliate the defeated nation nor artificially rearrange frontiers as this might provide a cause for future myths about being “stabbed in the back”, and ultimately lead to new wars.
Those crazy radicals.
The UDC set about campaigning for these goals. It wasn’t easy. The press hated these peaceniks in general, and Ramsay Macdonald in particular.
On 1st October 1914, the Times published a leading article entitled helping the enemy, in which it wrote that “no paid agent of Germany had served her better” than MacDonald had done. The Daily Mail meanwhile published a close-up sketch of his “shocking” cellulite and voted him absolute last place in their “rear of the year” competition.
Despite vitriolic press opposition, by 1915 the UDC had 300,000 members, drawing particular support from those former irreconcilable opponents of the Liberals, the ILP. It soon established itself as the most prominent anti-war organisation.
In one sense, this was good news for Labour. The likes of the ILP were learning to work with Liberals and the potential for a new broader based Labour coalition was emerging. But, while some old divisions on the left were being eroded, new ones were being created.
The pro-war factions within the Liberals, Tories and Labour were getting very chummy and there was a real danger that the new Lib-Lab left would become detached and just drift off the electoral precipice.
A key reason this didn’t happen was the WENWC.
With troops mobilising and the country on a war footing, the Labour movement convened the snappily titled War Emergency National Workers Committee (WENWC).
Originally constituted as a peace committee, the WENWC soon evolved into something more like a representative of the working classes at home. It pressurised ministers on key issues such as rent controls, food prices and benefits for servicemen and their families.
This was something everyone in Labour could agree on and membership of the WENWC expanded. It soon came to encompass the full span of Labour opinion from war enthusiasts such as Ben Tillet, through to centrists like Arthur Henderson and opponents of the conflict including Ramsay Macdonald.
The chair of the committee was Labour’s assistant secretary Jim Middleton who ensured the members of his committee played nicely. It was one of those low-key contributions to Labour’s survival that rarely gets credit, but his personal relations with each committee member and unswerving loyalty to the Labour party helped make the committee a success.
Politically the WENWC was the bridge between Labour’s factions. It formed a sort of shadow Labour party that enabled the key figures to continue to associate despite their differences on the war. Sure, meetings required a Basil Fawty-esque avoidance of the machine-gunning, poison-gassing, shell-shocking elephant in the room, but it worked.
At a policy level, it meant all could unite around Labour’s founding mission of representing the working class. Most importantly, at an individual level it helped sustain working relations between Labour’s leaders and their common identity with the party.
In contrast, the Liberals, who had split in a similar manner to Labour, did not have a version of the WENWC to remind them of why they originally joined the same club.
Of course this wasn’t necessarily going to be a problem for them as long as the war was brief and victory speedy.
After all, it was all going to be over by Christmas, right?
Pete and Atul are not historians