Labour history uncut: What happened next after the general strike failed

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

The general strike was lost. Bitterness and recriminations echoed across the Labour movement and the conflict between the left and Labour’s leadership, once again, took centre stage in Labour politics.

Back to business as usual, then.

April 1926 had seen left wing firebrand James Maxton ascend to the chairmanship of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). He was a strong believer that Labour should stand on an unabashed platform of socialism and a fervent opponent of Macdonald’s strategy of gradualism, respectability and trying to appeal to voters.

Following the collapse of the strike, the ILP adopted its programme of action, “Socialism In Our Time.” This included such crazy notions as a living wage, family allowances and the nationalisation of banks.

Jimmy Maxton responds to research suggesting voters prefer candidates with a ‘sinister stare’

Back in 1926 Macdonald rejected the ILP programme out of hand. He wanted socialism, yes. “In our time” however, was way too immediate and way too specific for his tastes.  He was more “socialism some time, maybe sort of soon-ish, but not right now though.”

He said the ILP plans were   “a collection of flashy futilities… likely to involve in practice the postponement of all advance, because it would only frighten the electorate and ensure a crushing labour defeat.”

And Macdonald knew all about crushing Labour defeats, having helped bring about that last one by precipitating the fall of the first Labour government and disastrously mis-handling the Zinoviev letter.

Socialism In Our Time became the prime weapon used by the left in their battle with the leadership. The ILP wanted a debate on their main proposal, the living wage, at Labour’s annual conference in Margate in September. Macdonald didn’t. He preferred a debate over whether Ramsay Macdonald should be allowed to make all the decisions for the party, or just nearly all of them.

Macdonald put paid to the living wage debate with the wonder of compositing. This arcane pre-conference administrative process involved resolutions the leadership disliked being combined with more acceptable submissions on the same topic until anything objectionable was diluted out of existence. Thus the motion put before conference ended up as neutral as a Swiss abstainer with a good pH-balance.

Red Clydesider and ILP man John Wheatley was infuriated by the manipulation. He shouted out for a debate and a vote on the ILP resolution.

He did get a vote – on whether he should be allowed to address conference from the microphone rather than just shouting from his chair.

Unfortunately for Wheatley, an extra speech from him would mean everyone having to wait a bit longer for refreshments so the vote was effectively between Wheatley’s impassioned socialist oratory and an extra twenty minutes in the pub. Conference voted 1,629,000 to 654,000 for a delicious pint.

Round one to Macdonald. But the war between the Labour leader and the ILP was just warming up.

In March 1927 the ILP struck back. For the first time in its history, they refused to nominate Macdonald as treasurer of the Labour party.

In and of itself, this was no great hardship. Macdonald could simply turn to his local labour party for a nomination.

But for Macdonald it was a snub deeply felt. The ILP had been where Macdonald got his start. They had stuck with him throughout, including the painful years of the Great War when his peacenik tendencies left him alienated from a British public eager to give war a chance.

In retaliation, Macdonald literally took the ILP off his Christmas card list. As leader he had always sent a Christmas goodwill message to his comrades. That was cancelled for 1927 and the gift-wrapped novelty socks embroidered ‘left’ and ‘lefter’ were sent back to the shop.

It was even worse for those on the radical fringe outside the ILP. Macdonald purged local constituency parties that refused to disaffiliate from the communists.

Yes, in theory they were all part of something that could be called ‘the left’ but the communists had a set of orders from Moscow that they were to infiltrate and take control of the Labour party.  These orders were widely suspected and Macdonald took the rumours seriously.

He was unsurprisingly reluctant to invite a guest to his party who planned to arrive with a nice bottle of merlot, mingle with everyone for a while, and then bugger off, taking with them not just all the presents but all other guests as well.

But to the left, it looked a lot like Macdonald was bullying anyone who disagreed with him. By the summer of 1927, the ILP was becoming increasingly alienated from the leadership.

Fortunately it was about this time that Stanley Baldwin’s government decided to remind everyone who the real enemy was.

I’m Stanley Baldwin. Hello ladies.

In July, the government passed the Trade Unions Act. This was similar in nature to Taff Vale, the 1901 judgement that was intended to hamstring the unions but inadvertently united the Labour movement behind the parliamentary Labour party instead.

The Trade Unions Act outlawed sympathetic industrial action and disallowed civil servants from joining any unions affiliated with the TUC.

It also banned political direct action “designed or calculated to coerce the government either directly or by inflicting hardship upon the community.”  “Hardship on the community,” was sufficiently vague to leave all industrial action vulnerable, with the possible exception of a strike by the Amalgamated Union of Estate Agents, Lawyers and Politicians.

“Contracting out,” was replaced by the act too.  This was where unions would assume, unless told otherwise, that every member wanted to pay a levy that would then be spent on political activity. The political activity then usually went, “Hello Ramsay, would you like this big cheque?” “Yes please.”

After the act, members would only pay the political levy where they had actively contracted in. Union members too lazy, disorganised, uninterested or distracted to specify one way or the other were taken out of the pool of Labour Party financial backers. At a time when workers had plenty of bigger things to worry about, that was a lot of people. The change would prove to be a substantial blow to party finances.

It all seemed pretty bad for Labour and the unions. But what it actually achieved came as no surprise to anyone who remembered Taff Vale.

Baldwin had made it very clear to the unions and other direct action enthusiasts that they couldn’t neglect political action. Consequently the Tories achieved what Ramsay Macdonald never could – uniting the labour movement behind the political leadership of the PLP.  Again.

As an added bonus, it also helped shred Stanley Baldwin’s image as a centrist, avuncular, hoodie-hugging leader and marked him out as just another same-old, same-old Tory.

For Macdonald it was a turning point.  All he needed now was to give the Labour party some sense of his grand vision. Then they could put all the unpleasantness around the general strike behind them and get on with doing things the Ramsay Macdonald way.

Some kind of movement-inspiring document was clearly in order.

Macdonald sharpened his pencil.

Pete and Atul are not historians

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