Labour history uncut: “We’re bunkered!” The red scare election of ‘24

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

It was October 8th 1924 and Ramsay Macdonald was in high spirits. He noted in his diary,

“So the chapter ends after a great day when at the close we stood higher in the House of Commons than ever…We had knocked them all over the ring and they were ashamed of themselves”

Or to put it another way, “Good news everybody – our government has fallen,”

Parliament had voted for an inquiry into whether Labour pressure had caused the prosecution of the communist Workers Weekly editor, John Campbell, to be dropped. Macdonald had taken this to be a motion of censure, chucked himself out of office and called a new election for the 29th October.

He needn’t have, but there had been an election in each of the previous 2 years, so there was a certain symmetry to it at least.

Readers began to suspect a little bias in Shoot! comic

After a brief government characterised by caution and a gradual approach to social reform, Labour got its reward – accusations of communism and a campaign dominated by a virulent red scare.

The Times declared Labour’s commitment to establish a national network of electricity generating stations “a project dear to Lenin.” So think about that next time you’re boiling a kettle, you commie.

Conservative leaflets warned parents to be on their guard against “plausible men and women who invite their children to join Sunday school and clubs.” This was because such activities were, needless to say, a cover for children “to be baptised into the communistic faith.” Presumably the implausible men and women were absolutely fine.

What’s more, women were warned that if the communists came to power their children would be taken from them and made the property of the state. What the state would do with them was not clear, put them on treadmills to power the national grid perhaps.

Punch! magazine was so called because that’s what their political cartoons were as subtle as

The centrepiece of Labour’s campaign in response to such even-handed reporting was a massive speaking tour by Ramsay Macdonald.

Macdonald himself was to be the message, visiting towns the length and breadth of Britain delivering punchy 5-10 minute addresses to inspire the people with his capability and vision, before quickly moving on.

Ramsay Macdonald attempts "blue steel"

That was what Labour HQ thought at least.

Macdonald had other ideas. And not good ones either. The new fangled approach to campaigning with short speeches and soundbites was not for him. Instead, every stop was an opportunity to orate grandly, his “five minute” speeches lasting up to an hour.

A boring, unhelpful hour.

Instead of using the extra time to rebut the Tories’ red scare and talk up Labour’s record and plans for the economy, for the first week Macdonald chose to witter on about the Campbell case and relations with Russia. Not exactly a vote-winner.

It was only on October 22nd that he decided to bother mentioning the tax cuts he had enacted and the ambitious housebuilding plans Labour had set in train.

Finally, he was on-message. This lasted all of three days when the whole thing was derailed by the biggest election bombshell since “Keir Hardie ate my hamster.”

In Colne Valley, Jimmy Thomas, railwaymen union leader and secretary of state for the colonies, was having a sleepover with Labour’s first chancellor, Philip Snowden. On October 25th, he woke up, donned his Winnie the Pooh slippers and took a look at the first edition of the Daily Mail.

“Get up you lazy devil!” shouted Thomas, hammering on Snowden’s door, “We’re bunkered!”

“CIVIL WAR PLOT BY SOCIALISTS’ MASTERS”

That was the headline of the day.

“Moscow order to our reds. Great plot disclosed yesterday” ran the sub-headline, followed by an article so full of anti-Labour hysteria, there wasn’t even space to blame immigrants.

The infamous Zinoviev article, complete with hand-crayoned illustration

The evidence for this plot was a letter supposedly written by the Soviet president of the communist international, Grigroy Zinoviev. It was sent to the British Communist party calling for agitation and revolution which, to be fair was the sort of thing they enjoyed.

Unfortunately for Labour, this letter had been in the possession of the government for almost a week. In that time, they hadn’t responded to the Russians, made it public or even scribbled “not known” on the envelope and stuck it back in the post.

It was only after learning that the Daily Mail was about to splash with the letter, that the government formally did anything, releasing the letter along with an official protest from the foreign office to Moscow.

This was all pretty disastrous. At best it looked like Macdonald and Labour were too easy on the commies, needing the spur of outing by the Daily Mail before they issued the protest. At worst they might even be conniving with Moscow. Either way, something wasn’t quite right and a cover-up was widely suspected.

Then Macdonald made it much, much worse. He refused to criticise the foreign office, question the authenticity of the letter or comment on the subject for the next two days.

The right wing media bayed for blood. The left wing papers requested, quite reasonably, some explanation. They got neither. Even in an age when the news wasn’t so much rolling as sporadically twitching, this was devastating to the Labour campaign.

Macdonald’s reasoning was that he wanted to establish the bona fides of the letter and calibrate his response. This would have been fine, if the foreign office hadn’t already protested to the Russians, giving every sign that that the government accepted the letter was real.

When Macdonald did finally address the subject on the afternoon of October 27th, it was almost impossible to change the terrible situation. But Macdonald did achieve the almost impossible – he made things worse.

His explanation highlighted the foreign office’s belief in the letter’s authenticity interspersed with accusations that the letter had been concocted by Conservative headquarters. It was a mess.

The papers on the 28th October were damning. The Daily Express wrote, “Mr Ramsay Macdonald made disclosures regarding the Zinoviev letter which are a staggering blow to himself and his party.”

Even the Guardian was forced to point out that Macdonald could not have the best of both worlds: either the letter was real or it was a Tory plot, it couldn’t be both.

And suddenly, it was polling day. On Thursday 29th October, with the Zinoviev firestorm still raging, the nation voted.

Guess how that turned out.

Yes, the Tories swept unsurprisingly back to power gaining 154 seats to rise from 258 to 412 seats, a thumping majority.

Rather more surprising was that Labour actually gained votes in this election. The party lost 40 seats, shrinking from 191 MPs to 151 but Labour’s national vote increased from 4.4 million to 5.4 million.

As for Macdonald himself, he may have actually benefitted from the Zinoviev debacle. Despite the deficiencies of the campaign and his own risible contribution to it, Macdonald now had a handy scapegoat for Labour’s failure. Instead of taking a long hard look at themselves, everyone in Labour now had a splendid opportunity to feel victimised by a dark cabal of sinister establishment saboteurs and the evil Daily Mail.

In fact, the true loser after Labour’s campaign of horror was the Liberal party. Their representation crumbled with the loss of 118 seats, down from 158 to 40, and their national vote slipped from 4.3 million to under 3 million.

Yes, Macdonald had handled the Zinoviev affair disastrously. Yes, he was largely responsible for the early election in the first place. But despite all that, after the 1924 election, Labour had somehow achieved one of their primary objectives: the destruction of the Liberals as a main party of government.

Funny how things turn out, isn’t it?

Pete and Atul are not historians


Tags: , , , , , ,


2 Responses to “Labour history uncut: “We’re bunkered!” The red scare election of ‘24”

  1. swatantra says:

    this was only 7 years after the Glorious Revolution in Russia where the feudal Tsaristas were replaced by the proletariat Bolsheviks. So revolution was definitely in the air, sweeping across Europe, but missing out Britain.

  2. The wave of revolution did not miss out Britain – firstly what about Ireland??? Also there was a huge wave of militancy during 1919 – Police strikes, Army mutinies, Tanks on the streets of Glasgow etc…

Leave a Reply