Labour history uncut: Labour stands divided, but at least it’s still standing

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).

Do you really need us to add the joke here? Good.

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.

Back in 1914, nobody knew CP Trevelyan’s lasting legacy would be his pioneering toothbrush moustache, thanks to admirers C.Chaplin and A.Hitler

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.

Sir Edward Grey’s diplomatic efforts were hindered by his habit of suddenly looming out of the darkness

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.

It was almost as if George Cadbury knew his business would culminate in a gorilla playing the drums

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


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7 Responses to “Labour history uncut: Labour stands divided, but at least it’s still standing”

  1. Although the ILP took an anti-war stance, it is interesting to note that there were numbers of ILP members who whilst they supported the war effort, continued to be active in the ILP. Jack Lawson fought in France (without needing to be conscripted) but then in 1918 stood unsuccessfully as Labour Candidate in the Seaham Constituency. He was in the ILP, as was his agent – George Bloomfield the Secretary of the Easington Collery Miner’s Lodge. Yet during the war Bloomfield, as a local District Councillor had even attempted to get a JP removed from office just because he had a German sounding name. It was also ILP members who formed the base of those who campaigned for Lawson. There were two small ILP Branches at Seaham and Dawdon and a larger branch of around 30 members at Easington Colliery, centred around Bloomfield. Although Seaham had the largest percentage of miners of any Constituency in the Durham Coalfield, Lawson was defeated. One factor in this defeat is likely to be the fact that he opposed the “make the German’s pay insanity” of the call for reparations. His successful Liberal opponent being a local sitting MP from a previously overlapping constituency who had fought as a Major in the war, refused to accept the “coupon” from Lloyd George and was propular enough amongst miners to have addressed the Durham Miners’ Gala in 1913. It wasn’t until after the 1918 Election that a meeting of six men was held at Murton Coliery Miners’ Welfare to set the wheel in motion to set up a local Constituency Labour Party on a membership basis. Bloomfield was appointed pro-tem to act as Secretary. Five were Miners. In addition to Bloomfield’s ILP links, there was at least another ILPer present from Seaham, George Walker. He later moved to Easington Colliery and became the Chairman of their Miners’ Lodge. Lawson, Bloomfield and Walker were all Methodist lay preachers; as was Peter Lee who also attended the Murton Meeting.

    This indicates all that the ILP was also able to “stand divided”. Perhaps attitudes of people like Jack Lawson eventually helped to square the circle. He had joined the war effort (with his brother being killed in the confict) yet opposed reparations. The following year he won a parliamentary by-election for Labour at Chester-Le-Street and went on to become a Minister in the Attlee Government. Perhaps there is a lesson here for some of us on the left.

  2. LesAbbey says:


    “Your King and country Need You!”

    Ah! Men of the Country, you are remembered. Neither the King, nor the Country, nor the picture papers had really forgotten you. When your master tried to cut your wages down – did you think he knew of your beautiful brave heart? When you were unemployed – did you think your Country had forgotten you? When the military were used against you in the strike – did you wonder if your King was quite in love with you? Did you?… Ah! foolish one.

    Herbert Morrison writing in the Labour Leader 3rd September 1914. (Just part of the article which continued in the same vein and was turned into a pamphlet.) The next year he was elected as Secretary of the London Labour Party. In 1916 on receiving his call up papers he became a conscientious objector. It is said that because of his bad eye he could have been granted a dispensation on medical grounds if he had wished.

    Herbert Morrison was a leading member of Attlee’s government and probably his main rival for the leadership of the party. For the younger ones here, he was also Peter Mandelson’s grandfather. The history of the labour movement can be interesting. It’s a shame we are getting this rather sarcastic version of it from the boys.

  3. Dave Kirk says:

    Its called having your cake and eating it.
    The confederal structure of the Labour party at the time allowed the PLP and the unions to be pro war to the point that Arthur Henderson is in the government and the TUC promise (but fail to deliver) social peace as opposed to strikes, whilst the ILP could be pacifists.

    Its also important that the ILPs opposition to war was pacifist not revolutionary. Even though the Second international had passed on Keir Hardies urging the following policy:
    “If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau, to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the sharpening of the general political situation.

    In case war should break out anyway, it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule. ”
    http://www.marxists.org/history/international/social-democracy/1907/militarism.htm

    In 1910 at the congress of the Socialist International Hardie argued that the tactic of opposition to wer should be a general strike.
    However when it came to it the ILPs opposition to war was a moral stance which politically was in alliance with respectable liberals like Morrell, Trevelyan and Norman Angell and their argument was for open diplomacy (which I still think is an important demand today), multilateralism and self determination. All of which was a brave stance in 1914 but meant they actually dampened down on class struggle and colonial independence movements that emerge towards the end of the war and after when there is workers revolution in Russia, Germany, Hungary, waves of factory occupations in Italy and independence movements breaking out throughout the empire including most notably Ireland and India.

    Its this ability by the Labour Party to face both ways (support and oppose) in the first world war and at the same time suppress working class militancy that means the Communist Party when created in 1920 is just a collection of small socialist groups rather then a significant part of the mass labour movement like it was across the continent.

    So the British labour movement avoided that major clevage that split the French, German and italian movements so disastriously in the interwar period but at the cost of the real chance to get a genioune socialist govenerment based on workers militancy. Instead we got and still get Labour governements that are ideologically commited to liberalism aand class collaboration with a more or less social democratic tinge.

  4. Pete G says:

    Thanks Harry, very interesting. I hope you have other insights and perspectives for the future articles too.

  5. swatantra says:

    I’ve been counting and this gentle stroll through Old Lab History could turn out to be quite a mighty tome; we’ve only got to WWI and there’s stacks more to come, the first woman, the first Indian, the first baronet, the first CommonWealth Party, the first communist MP etc. As suggested the 500pp book with illustrations and photos and cartoons should sell out at Conference.

  6. Again, thanks Harry for the additional material, we can also add Clement Attlee to the list, who joined up and was wounded by the Turks in Mesopotamia (Iraq). He gave the following reasons:

    ” I could not accept the ordinary cry of ‘Your King and Country Need You’ nor was I convinced of Germany’s sole guilt. On the other hand it appeared wrong to me to let others make a sacrifice while I stood by, especially as I was unmarried and had no obligations … I realised that some people had to serve & perhaps be killed & that I was partially trained already. I had no real religious conscientious objection. Whether I was right or wrong I cannot say.”

    Clems brother Tom, also in the ILP, was a conscientious objector, imprisoned during the war in Wandsworth gaol. Along with the British left, the majority of Irish Nationalists under Redmond also supported the war as a defence of small nations (Belgium) against aggression by great powers.

    Revolutionary marxists did indeed oppose the war, yet when theory was put into practice in Russia, war continued to be the lot of the peoples of that empire until 1922…

  7. swatantra says:

    The two most moving War Films ever made are All Quiet on the Western Front and Saving Private Ryan.

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