by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal
The first gusts of a returning wind seemed to be wafting into Ramsay Macdonald’s sails.
After the general strike in 1926 had shattered morale in the Labour movement, the Tories attempted to curtail union power with the 1927 Trade Union Disputes Act. That threat united activists and unions behind the party.
Once again, parliamentary action was the only game in town to stop the Tories.
As the 1927 conference approached, Macdonald wanted to wow the crowd with something big. A grand statement of Labour aims, perhaps. Or a medley of socialist showtunes.
Fortunately for everyone, he chose the former. Macdonald sat down with Labour’s Burt Bacarach, Arthur Henderson, and started scribbling. One montage sequence later, Labour’s new vision was complete.
They took the paper to the executive of the parliamentary Labour party for sign-off and some insincere praise before going to NEC and then conference. It was just a formality.
The PLP then, very formally, said “Ramsay, this is rubbish.” This was quite something coming from a body so pliable it would have declared Viva Forever ‘a tour de force’ had Macdonald produced it.
Hugh Dalton commented that it was “too long and very dully written,” before adding, “But it might sell if you chuck in a sparkly vampire.”
Meanwhile, the executive of the PLP passed a motion. It urged the NEC not to allow the document to be debated at conference because, being in Blackpool, the event was going to be quite boring enough already.
Instead, Macdonald ended up part of an NEC sub-committee tasked with a rewrite.
Ernest Bevin urged Macdonald to produce “a short programme of immediate objectives that Labour could really hope to accomplish.”
The rising star of the PLP, one Sir Oswald Mosley, was of a similar view. He wanted specific commitments along the lines of what all-round clever clogs, John Maynard Keynes was proposing.
But Macdonald was having none of it, even if Moseley was a favourite of the Labour leader and a frequent travelling companion on his trips to the continent.
Moseley even addressed Macdonald as “my dear chief,” in his letters, which was nice. And odd. And a little bit creepy.
But Macdonald was from the Miles Davis school of policy making – less is more.
He wrote in his diary,
“Obviously someone who would put the trumpet more frequently to his lips would be a better leader. But would that be good for the party? I do not think it would,”
Which explains why he was never invited back to the PLP jazz band jam sessions.
It also explains the lack of details in Labour and the Nation, which Macdonald unveiled at the 1928 party conference in Birmingham.
This was not really a programme of immediate objectives. In fact, it was a vision of a socialist Britain so far off it might as well have featured jetpacks.
Ernest Bevin jotted another entry in his “Reasons I hate Ramsay” notebook.
Even one of the document authors, socialist thinker RH Tawney summed it up as “A glittering forest of Christmas trees, with presents for everyone.”
Macdonald didn’t care. There was an election coming up next year. Labour and the Nation was vague enough to leave him free to react to the situation on the ground or, to put it another way, make it up as he went along.
And it looked like it was going to be an interesting election. This was because it would be the first in British history to be truly equal. In 1928, Stanley Baldwin introduced the Equal Franchise Act.
The act finally made men and women equally eligible for the vote, adding 7 million women to the electoral roll.
The Daily Mail absolutely hated it, which was a good sign. Their article “Why Socialists Want Votes for Flappers” revealed that the daft flippertigibbets were particularly vulnerable to the persuasions of smooth tongued socialists and would likely vote Labour for nothing more than a pretty ribbon.
In reality it was by no means clear that women were a natural Labour constituency. Labour had a very mixed record when dealing with women, and the unions particularly tended to be nervous of equal rights, fearing women would dilute the workforce and, consequently, the power of their members.
As well as these new voters, the unpredictability of the 1929 general election was increased by a resurgence of the Liberal Party.
The Liberals had united under Lloyd George, thanks to his charisma and vision. The £300,000 he donated might have helped a bit too.
At this time of national disruption and high and rising unemployment, Lloyd George commissioned some big thinkers, including John Maynard Keynes, to come up with a programme for the Liberals.
The result was Britain’s Industrial Future, better known today as the Yellow Book.
This was then condensed in early 1929 in anticipation of the impending election. We Can Conquer Unemployment was, as Bevin doubtless jotted angrily in his notebook, a short programme of immediate objectives. Specifically, it proposed huge public works to get the mass of unemployed into work, funded by deficit borrowing.
Labour hit back with their own pamphlet written by GDH Cole, suspiciously entitled, How to conquer unemployment, claiming that the Liberals had nicked their ideas from Labour.
The key difference was that Labour would not finance public works through an expansion of the deficit. Back then, Labour wasn’t keen at all on borrowing. That was, in Macdonald’s words “madcap finance,” which, if nothing else, is a great name for a payday loan company.
Meanwhile, Stanley Baldwin decided that a time of high and rising unemployment was ideal to run a “safety first” campaign. Because why would anyone want to risk change when things were going so well?
Battle was joined on May 9th with the formal start of the general election campaign. Labour entered the fray on a platform that could only have been vaguer had it been titled Labour and a Nation.
Reference was made in the manifesto to schemes such as “Housing and Slum clearance,” “Land Drainage and reclamation,” and the ever essential, “Afforestation associated with small holdings.”
But, apart from projects that sounded like Open University modules, there was nothing of substance on tax or spending.
On the other hand, unlike 1924, Macdonald’s speaking tour was well organised and Labour’s postbag remained mercifully empty of dodgy letters from prominent communists.
Lloyd George tried to turn the election into a referendum on his big plan, but the electoral system made the hope of Liberal revival a slim one. In constituency after constituency, it was seen as a straight choice: steady as she goes Stanley versus warm and fuzzy Ramsay.
After the vote on 30th May 1929, the three parties anxiously awaited the result.
In return for their brilliant “safety first” idea, the Tories managed to shed 152 seats, giving them a total of 260 MPs.
Lloyd George’s ‘resurgence’ was revealed as nothing more than a dead Liberal bounce, and his party took just 59 seats.
As for Labour, they did rather well. They gained a healthy 136 MPs, although it is worth noting that the party actually secured a smaller percentage of the popular vote than the Tories. Nevertheless, with 287 MPs Labour was the largest party for the first time in their history.
The largest party: yes. A clear majority in parliament: no. Labour was headed once again for a minority government.
Still, that worked out ok last time, right?
Pete and Atul are not historians