Labour history uncut: Mac the knife

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

“The Liberals must be… destroyed,” declared Ramsay Macdonald, stroking a white cat.

Ok, perhaps not that dramatic, nevertheless it was Ramsay Macdonald’s electoral goal. Labour’s leader had a clear plan of action for 1923. He intended to show the public that Labour was a respectable party, the sort that one day might even make a serene transition into actual, proper government.

To do that, first he had to establish his party as the alternative to the Tories. In a British electoral system that only really had room for two parties, that meant the Liberals had to go.

Oddly, the Liberals didn’t seem to disagree.

They had obliged by splitting into two warring factions under Lloyd George and Asquith. True, there were now moves to broker a reunification under Asquith’s leadership, but rather than a passionate and heartfelt reunion this was an attempt to stay together for the sake of the children. It was all awkward silences and icy stares over dinner.

Margot Asquith reads a scary story for the kids, entitled, "The strange death of Liberal England"

Liberals regularly defied the whip, voting against each other on a range of motions. Meanwhile an aged Asquith seems to have given up trying to lead his party now that sticking it to Lloyd George wasn’t an available option.

It looked like Macdonald couldn’t fail.

Except for the small matter of his own MPs. Large numbers of them didn’t seem to have read the strategy memo about respectability. In fact they seemed determined to make a scene and scare the electoral horses.

Three separate events illustrated the problems Macdonald faced.

In April 1923, after a perfunctory response from the Tory government in a debate on the treatment of ex-servicemen in the civil service, Labour frustration boiled over.

The day after the debate, furious Labour members refused to take part in a vote, effectively mounting a short sit in. Several even went one step further and rather than sitting, stood, singing the Red Flag.

It was doubtless a rousing experience for the dissidents and a significant uplift in entertainment factor for the public gallery, but was exactly the kind of disorder Macdonald wanted to avoid.

A month later, the eccentric Communist member for Motherwell, Walton Newbold, refused the Deputy Chairman’s request to leave the chamber. When approached by the Serjeant-at-Arms he replied with a shout, “I’m here in the name of the Communist International!”

Walton Newbold – a communist, not a font

Turns out the name of the Communist International didn’t carry much weight in the British Parliament.  He was suspended.

But in the division, although the Labour front bench abstained, nearly 90 Labour MPs voted against suspending Newbold. That wasn’t likely to silence the whispers that Labour were basically communists with whippets.

Then in June, four red Clydesiders – Jimmy Maxton, John Wheatley, Campbell Stephen and George Buchanan – were all suspended after responding to Tory MP for the City of London, Fredrick Banbury’s proposal to cut child welfare by calling him, a “murderer.”

This was hardly the done thing in the house, and the four men were suspended. They should, of course, have referred to him as “the right honourable murderer.”

In the vote, once again the Labour front bench abstained, but nearly half the PLP disagreed with their leaders and voted against.

Trying to pour oil on troubled waters, Macdonald brokered a compromise with the Tories for the MPs to be allowed back into the Commons. The Clydeside four then set light to that oil by announcing they were going to force their way back into the Commons.

The Clydeside four - Jimmy Maxton, Campbell Stephen, John Wheatley, George Buchanan - prepare for their next heist

On the 30th July, as the House was in the middle of debating the very motion to reinstate them to the Commons, the Maxton gang tried to break back in.

Oceans’ Eleven it was not. The four men were promptly stopped by police causing yet another scene. Ramsay Macdonald sat quietly with his head in his hands, wondering what exactly was happening to his dream of a gradual, respectable rise to power.

Even with the Liberals doing a decent impression of the Borgias, these shouting, housebreaking and generally disruptive elements otherwise known as the PLP might yet snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Fortunately for Macdonald, in an unexpected twist, the Tories decided to help him out: suddenly, they called an election for December.

Andrew Bonar Law, who had won the last election for the Tories, had given a commitment that tariffs would not be introduced in the lifetime of the parliament.

After being diagnosed with throat cancer, Law had resigned in May 1923 and been replaced by his chancellor, Stanley Baldwin.

In late October Baldwin announced he was in favour of tariffs. Because this was an era of politicians who held the crazy notion that doing the diametric opposite of what you promised the electorate was not OK, Baldwin decided to seek a new mandate.

The country went back to the polls just nine months after the last election and Macdonald was able to focus the restless energy of his MPs on the impending contest.

The Tories printed thousands of “honk if you love tariffs” bumper stickers and got campaigning.

Labour opposed tariffs and stoutly defending the foundation of international capitalism, global free trade. There was more to their programme than that though.

This poster lost Labour thousands of grammar-conscious voters

Labour’s manifesto included commitments to major public works programmes such as building a national electricity grid in order to tackle unemployment, a wealth tax on savings over £5000 (£240,000 at today’s prices) to help pay the debt and the abolition of corporation tax, funded by cutting military spending.

It was another step forward in broadening Labour’s appeal across the working and middle classes.

As for the Liberals, they finally got it together enough to unite against tariffs. And that was it. Lloyd George and Asquith, couldn’t bring themselves to agree on much else. So they didn’t say much else.

The poll was on 6th December 1923 and in the end the Tories lost 86 seats, slumping to 258 seats from 344.

Politicians across the country assiduously noted the results of consulting the electorate before doing massive U-turns.

The re-united Liberals had recovered somewhat securing 158 seats, up from 105. But this wasn’t enough to push past Labour, whose count rose to 191 seats from 142.

It was bad news for Baldwin. The Tories might have clung on to their status as the biggest party but they could not command a majority in the Commons.

It wasn’t good news the Liberals either. Even uniting as a single party and fighting again on their core issue of tariffs, they remained in third place.

But it was great news for Ramsay Macdonald. He had achieved his goal, knifed the Liberals and now there was no doubt that the Labour party was the true alternative to the Tories.

The only way it could possibly be better was if Labour was to become the actual party of government.  Oh, and about that…

Pete and Atul are not historians

Tags: , , , , ,

2 Responses to “Labour history uncut: Mac the knife”

  1. swatantra says:

    Was Newbold a 5th coloumnist?

  2. Joe says:

    ‘It was another step forward in broadening Labour’s appeal across the working and middle classes.’

    All be it, a small one. The retrenchment in 1924 demonstrated how much work there was to do for the likes of Morrison.

    Labour did however, successfully break down the Liberal Party to build on its core urban base, winning seats such as, Lambeth North, Southwark North, Southwark Central, Southwark South-East, Bermondsey West, Stepney Whitechapel and St Georges, Bethnal Green South-West, Bethnal Green North-East and Shoreditch in the 1924 election.

    This was the result of a deliberate strategy at a national, regional and local level to target the Liberals on their decision to join with the Tories to kick the first Labour government out of power.

    So while the votes of the middle classes had to wait until 1945, ‘After 1924 the Liberals could no longer successfully challenge Labour in many urban constituencies where Liberal support had remained firm since 1918.’

    Lessons to be learnt?

Leave a Reply