by Peter Goddard and Atul Hatwal
After the October 1931 election, the Labour party survivors surveyed the smoking battlefield and counted the casualties.
Labour in Parliament had been almost entirely wiped out. Every member of the cabinet was gone, apart from the old stager George Lansbury and a young chap called Clement Attlee.
The men who had founded the Labour party had been removed wholesale from the leadership of the movement. And just for good measure, most of their most immediate successors had been culled too.
So, thanks to his unique qualification of ‘still being there’, 72 year old George Lansbury, seemed the natural, choice to take up the reins of leadership.
So imagine his surprise when, in a mark of the deep suspicion the party harboured for the emotional Lansbury, Arthur Henderson was elected unopposed as Labour leader despite not even being an MP.
Lansbury, for his part, became PLP chairman.
In practice however, the parliamentary platform meant the elderly Lansbury increasingly assumed the role of de facto leader over the even more elderly Henderson. This was partly because Henderson himself was often abroad, becoming more and more pre-occupied with international disarmament and the idea that Socialism wouldn’t be much use if Europe had been bombed to a charred ruin first.
More significantly for the party’s future was the appointment of Clement Attlee as Lansbury’s deputy chair in parliament.
Until then, Attlee had been widely regarded as being diligent but of the second rank, like a political Peter Crouch. Even after the electoral disaster, few saw him in such a prominent role.
But Henderson understood the importance of ensuring a solid administrator was in harness alongside Lansbury if the parliamentary party was to recover. In one of his most important acts, he ensured Attlee was nominated as deputy chair unopposed.
Labour’s new parliamentary leadership was completed by Stafford Cripps. He was the only remaining minister to survive, but was hardly an experienced political hand. He’d spent all of the 1920s amassing a fortune as a lawyer and, being both rich and a lawyer, turned to politics as the only way left to could become even more unpopular.
What he lacked, however, in parliamentary years, he made up for in breeding. Cripps arrived in parliament in 1930 thanks to the influence of his father, Lord Parmoor who was in the Labour cabinet, and his uncle, Lord Passfield, better known as Sidney Webb of the Fabians who was also in the cabinet. Power to the people.
Working class Lansbury, staunchly middle-class lawyer Attlee and the posh Stafford Cripps made for a Frost report sketch of a leadership team, but they managed to work well together. This was not least because, as Attlee remarked of Lansbury, “He has far more idea of teamwork than JRM [Macdonald] ever had,”
With the new team in place, they swiftly got on with the important business of the day – blaming other people for the failure of the Labour government. Unlike in 1924 when it had all been down to the press, and the Daily Mail in particular, this time, it was the turn of the bankers.
Stafford Cripps declared the 1931 election – “The clearest demonstration of the power of capitalism to overthrow a properly elected Government by extra-parliamentary means.” In other words, just like last time, a bullying capitalist bogeyman, the bankers this time, rather than the press, bullied Labour out of office.
True, Cripps knew a thing or two about banks, having filled up one or two of them with his own personal fortune. But unlike Cripps, most of Labour’s politicians knew, in their heart of hearts, that these were just excuses. That’s why, despite everything, after the 1931 election the party as a whole remained committed to parliamentary process and there was little or no ambition to reform the electoral system.
Working within the system against a massive majority, though, did mean it was difficult to make a great deal of difference – a problem compounded by the absence of any great parliamentarians in the Labour rump.
Attlee was many things, but a great orator he was not, and it could be fairly argued that Lansbury’s best years were behind him.
They tried. Labour proposed a socialist amendment to the Kings speech, moved motions against means testing. They also opposed the protectionist Abnormal Importations Bill that was introduced by Chancellor Runciman, who sounds like a character from Harry Potter, but was in charge of the Exchequer.
For all the protest, without votes to back it up all this was largely background squeaking in the machinery of a government cranking out Tory policies.
So the party turned to an area where it could really make a difference: falling out with the left wing.
Tensions with the ILP had been fraying throughout the previous parliament and were beginning to boil over.
At the start of the new parliament, the speaker had acceded to the ILP’s request to be recognised as a distinct parliamentary grouping from the Labour party. Not a sign of a happy relationship.
Then the ILP decided it wanted a trial separation – they proposed a move out of the Labour party offices in the Commons. This time the speaker said no, they would have stay living with the Labour party. If only for the sake of the kids.
But the thought of spending another minute co-habiting with Labour party MPs was too much for the ILP. They did what any radical group in their position would: staged a sit-in.
While Labour MPs were away from one of their rooms, the ILP raided the office, removing the MPs papers and possessions, occupying the room and refusing to leave.
As occupations go, it was more comfortable than a tent outside St Paul’s, but without hemp jumpers, bongos or so much as a single acoustic guitar, it was doomed to failure. Lansbury complained to the Speaker, and the ILP were forced to clear off.
Events were headed in one direction. At its conference in Easter 1932, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) gathered together to consider finally breaking things off with the Labour party.
The ostensible reason for disaffiliation was that Labour had Standing Orders in place that insisted that Labour members vote with Labour policy. Stalinist madness.
The ILP viewed support of party policy more as an a la carte set of options rather than a set menu. They had even enshrined this principle in their terms of membership, asking members to sign a loyalty pledge to the effect that they would vote for ILP policy where it disagreed with Labour.
Labour’s inconsiderate standing orders made this an unsustainable paradox. The ILP had to decide what to do about it.
Of the 3 options on the table, the final vote was for a compromise – if Labour was willing to amend the Standing Orders that forced discipline on PLP members and which prevented the ILP honouring their ‘ILP before PLP’ rule, then they would not disaffiliate.
In reality, this wasn’t going to happen any time soon. Mind you, the ILP was quite keen on things that weren’t going to happen soon, as the same meeting both demanded ‘mass industrial action’ and announced the impending downfall of capitalism.
You can’t say they weren’t ambitious.
In an effort to keep things together, Lansbury tried to negotiate to keep the ILP on board. But in June 1932 the Parliamentary Party decided to reaffirm the Standing Orders, which really said it all.
So the ILP called a special conference in Bradford in July 1932 and voted by 241 to 142 votes to disaffiliate from Labour and ordered the withdrawal of its members from Local labour parties.
With that, the ILP, one of the founding partners of the Labour Representation Committee, a key player right from the beginning of the Labour party story, was gone.
Attlee, for one, wasn’t too worried. “I think they will lose a very big proportion of their membership,” he wrote.
Jimmy Maxton of the ILP, on the other hand, felt differently. He thought that gradualism had been proven to be a dead end. With his close links to the suffering workers of Clydeside who were feeling the pain of the new means test and other Tory policies, he may have sensed that the country was ready for an ILP that was an avowedly socialist force operating at a national level.
He was completely wrong.
At the start of 1932, 653 branches of the ILP. One year later, it was just 425. With disaffiliation, they lost a very big proportion of their membership.
Well judged, Mr Attlee, you’ll go far.
Pete and Atul are not historians