by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal
Labour’s new constitution had radically reformed the party. Re-founded it, even. The party entered spring 1918 busily setting up new constituency organisations and selecting candidates.
The war may have still been going, but Britain had been more than 7 years without an election and millions of new voters had just been empowered by the recent extension of the franchise. As a result, all the parties were like a householder waiting for the builder – they knew a poll was on the way.
By April Labour had selected 115 candidates with 131 selections pending. At the start of the month there was a slight hitch when it appeared candidates might soon require a good grasp of German – the allies were forced back 60 miles in German spring offensive. But by May the tide had been turned back and everyone could pack away their Rosetta Stone CDs.
For the first time since the start of the war, thoughts across the parties began to turn to what might happen after victory.
To that end, in June 1919, Sidney Webb released his policy document “Labour and the New Social Order”. Although it didn’t exactly trouble the bestseller lists and the planned sequel, “Labour and the Chamber Of Secrets” was put on hold, it did set out a policy platform which would become the core of Labour manifestos for most of the next century.
This included Labour staples such as comprehensive free education, the establishment of separate legislatures for Scotland and Wales, generous provision of health services, nationalisation of mines, railways and electrical power, a commitment to full employment and a living wage, a major housebuilding programme and regular conflicts between the leadership and the left.
This was an important document for the party, but as the end of the war approached, Labour faced a decision even more important than the platform. They had to decide whether to fight the election as part of the coalition or to stand in opposition?
Although Arthur Henderson had left the government in 1917, Labour as a whole remained in. The party still had ministers in place and former leader George Barnes had taken up Henderson’s vacant cabinet seat before the leather even creaked.
When the NEC initially decided to field candidates to run against the other parties in the next election, Labour’s ministers were not happy. On July 31st they submitted their rejection of the party’s decision to break the political truce in a memorandum, the political equivalent of a snotty note on the fridge. Barnes led the charge, complaining that it seemed Labour was no longer supporting the war.
Most of the parliamentary party were behind him – not least because it seemed madness to have done all the hard work and backed the government through the hard times, only to throw away any electoral benefit by moving into opposition just when the war was won. That this also meant they were likely to keep their own personal positions of power was a handy coincidence.
On November 11, 1918, peace was finally declared. Within 24 hours, Lloyd George had called the election and polling day was set for the next month, on 14th December. Well, he wouldn’t want folk to forget who was in charge when the war was won would he? Actually, he wouldn’t let them forget.
The starting gun had been fired and Labour didn’t waste a minute. They rushed out to make the case for change to the country. Just as soon as they had organised and held a special conference of the movement to ponder how to fight the election.
As a prelude, the NEC met on November 7th to work out what the leadership was going to recommend to the membership.
J R Clynes put the case for the parliamentary party, proposing Labour stay in the coalition until the peace terms were concluded – potentially years away. He warned of electoral disaster if it didn’t. Henderson seemed to be wobbling as the motion was discussed. Electoral disaster does not look good on the CV.
But then neither does “government poodle”. The keepers of the anti-war flame on the NEC, Ramsay Macdonald, and fellow ILP MP, Jimmy Maxton, weighed in. They amended the motion to call for Labour ministers to resign from the government when parliament was dissolved.
By a vote of 12 to 4, Macdonald’s amendment was carried. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the Labour party. The decision was made and validated by the special conference 2.1 million votes to 810,000. Labour was going it alone.
The immediate result of the choice was the biggest split the party had yet experienced. George Barnes and eight of his parliamentary chums found that they liked being MPs more than they liked being in the Labour party, so they left.
In all, eighteen former Labour men stood against the party in support of the government.
Having a fifth of the parliamentary party bugger off in the first week of the campaign was hardly an auspicious start. But it could have been a lot, lot worse.
It certainly was for the Liberals.
Although Labour had lost some members of the parliamentary party, the leadership and activists remained largely united. In contrast, the Liberals were split clean in two and both sides were, like a magician’s assistant, being pushed further and further apart.
Unlike a magician’s assistant, the two parts would not be re-joined any time soon, and there would be no applause for anyone at the end.
Asquith was leading the official Liberal party, bitterly opposing his erstwhile colleague, Lloyd George. Lloyd George, on his side, was able to command the support of over half the parliamentary party.
Despite the best efforts of several Liberal MPs and officials to mend the split, it was formalised by Lloyd George. He and the Tory leader Bonar Law distributed a letter to each of their coalition supporters, officially endorsing their candidature. Thanks to these letters, which were derided as mere coupons by Asquith, the 1911 election became known as the coupon election. Evidently, this coupon offered 50% off the Liberal party.
In comparison to that, Labour was in good shape, standing over 300 candidates at the election. This important milestone represented the first time the party fought a truly national campaign.
The result, though, was somewhat disappointing. Most of Labour’s leaders were swept away in a landslide coalition win.
Ramsay Macdonald and Arthur Henderson both lost their seats as Labour returned 57 MPs – just 15 more than in 1910. After all the expense and expectation, it seemed a paltry reward.
But appearances can be deceptive.
As underwhelming as the result was for Labour, Asquith’s Liberals had it worse. For them the election was the political equivalent of the Somme: the official Liberal party was destroyed. Just 28 candidates emerged victorious and Asquith himself lost his seat.
Limited as their gains had been, Labour now assumed the role of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition and the only real alternative to the Tories. The Liberals had been replaced.
Pete and Atul are not historians