Labour history uncut: A party caught in two minds

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

By late 1932 the recession had become a depression. Unemployment was stuck at 3 million and more austerity seemed the government’s only answer.

The communists responded through their National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM), which was like a union for the unemployed, with the slight drawback that when they went on strike, nobody could tell. The NUWM organised hunger marches to highlight the plight of the workless.

“Scotland to London, seriously? This is why we need a Scottish government.”

“Scotland to London, seriously? This is why we need a Scottish government.”

The government reacted by doing some organising of their own, arranging for 70,000 policemen to meet the hunger marchers and welcome them to London.

For its part, the Parliamentary Labour Party organised to stay in that evening with a cup of tea, peeking through the office curtains at the ensuing violence and hoping those nasty communists would just go away.

No such luck.

The deteriorating economic situation had helped membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) surge from 2,300 in 1930 to 9,000 by the end of 1932.

Meanwhile in Germany, the election in January 1933 of new chancellor with a hilarious Charlie Chaplin moustache and a less hilarious set of beliefs, led many on the left to seek common cause with the communists.

Moscow agreed, recognising an opportunity when they saw one.

They instructed the CPGB that the time was right for a united front, a peoples’ assembly even, against the rise of the fascists internationally and the policies of austerity domestically.

In February 1933 the CPGB approached the Labour NEC and the TUC to convene a conference with the aim of creating a left wing team-up.

Labour’s first instinct was to have another cup of tea and pretend not to be home. But the communists kept ringing the doorbell like an over-caffeinated canvasser on polling day. On 24th March, Labour was forced to respond.

The National Joint Council (a steering body including both the NEC and the TUC) released Democracy vs Dictatorship, which is a brilliant idea for a video game, but was in fact a pamphlet.

The document, declared that the “historic task” of British Labour was, to uphold the principles of Social Democracy.

As a response to the united front, it couldn’t have been clearer if it had been titled “bugger off commies, we don’t want to be infiltrated.”

With its commitment to parliamentary process and a disappointing absence of end-of-level bosses, the document irritated the democracy-phobic CPGB.

More concerning for the leadership was the reaction within parts of the Labour party. The new champion of the left, the Socialist League, was distinctly unimpressed. Its members had seen the previous year’s conference as a sign that Labour was shifting left. Democracy vs Dictatorship seemed dangerously like backsliding to gradualism again.

The reality was though that it wasn’t so much backsliding as an indicator of the divide in Labour at the time.

The Spectator summed it up, The truth is that the manifesto is not an indication of a change of mind, but of the fact that there are and long have been two minds in real opposition among those who are associated under the banner of official Labour.

So the League decided to give voice to the more left wing half of Labour’s divided mind.

In May 1933 they called on Labour to commit, in advance, to a few key actions they would undertake on winning an election. Actions of which their Communist chums would doubtless have been proud.

The League insisted that, as soon as Macdonald and his Tory government handed over the keys to the country and explained what day the bin men came, Labour should abolish the House of Lords, pass an emergency powers act giving them semi-dictatorial powers, nationalise of the Bank of England and joint-stock banks and generally waft Socialism throughout the land, whatever the opposition might say or do.

Walter Citrine, general secretary of the TUC, took another view. He thought the League was dangerously bonkers and advocating “dictatorship”.

Walter Citrine was a self-educated man, possibly due to a fear of going to school sporting a surname that combined ‘cistern’ and ‘latrine’ and having the initials W.C.

Walter Citrine was a self-educated man, possibly due to a fear of going to school sporting a surname that combined ‘cistern’ and ‘latrine’ and having the initials W.C.

Annual conference at Hastings in October 1933 was the ideal venue for a meeting of Labour’s minds.

Hugh Dalton’s economic policy sub-committee presented its latest policy paper, Socialism and the Condition of the People. This included a call for nationalising banks and a National Investment Board. All told, it largely proposed Keynesian stimulus within the capitalist system.

Stafford Cripps and the Socialist League didn’t like it for exactly that reason. Cripps wrote that saving capitalism would “appeal to the more right-wing elements of the Labour party,” and ILP man S.G.Hobson declared it, “Not a socialist document at all.”

So the League put forward the aspirations for emergency powers and House of Lords abolition that they’d unveiled earlier in the year: a programme the centrists viewed as, “how to lose votes and terrify people.”

A fight seemed to be looming, but at the last, the League drew back from the brink. It wasn’t ready for open war quite yet.

George Lansbury and the leadership made some emollient noises and following a promise to have a jolly good think about the League’s proposals, Cripps withdrew the League’s motion on condition there was a report back from the NEC the following year.


Also discussed was the matter of the united front. The leadership might have published their pamphlet, but the League, along with many within the movement as a whole weren’t satisfied.

Herbert Morrison set out the leadership’s case, insisting Labour could not cooperate with the communists “because they themselves believe in a form of dictatorship… we condemn dictatorship as such, whether that dictatorship is a dictatorship of the Left or of the Right.”

Herbert Morrison, “Oh come on guys, everyone laughs when Morecombe does it.”

Herbert Morrison, “Oh come on guys, everyone laughs when Morecombe does it.”

Conference was swayed, largely because the union bosses didn’t fancy communists sneaking in and taking control of organised labour any more than the PLP wanted the parliamentary party infiltrated.

The platform didn’t get everything its own way though. Arthur Henderson took to the podium to propose something that sounded, to the unions, suspiciously like another type of united front.

He proposed a new category of membership: associate. This created a route for middle class professionals to get involved with Labour, removing barriers for those who could not fully participate because of their job, such as lawyers, doctors and Alan Sugar.

But the unions liked their position of dominance in the party and didn’t want a united front with the middle classes any more than one with the reds. They squashed the motion, defeating the leadership by 1.4m to 824,000 votes.

So when Labour left conference, it was still in two minds, but it had not suffered the full scale breakdown that seemed possible in the preceding months. The unions had held the line against the Socialist League, but also blocked any moves to broadening the party’s support amongst professionals.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose as literally noone in the Labour party said at the time.

After a year of increasingly fractious bickering, 1933 improbably ended on an optimistic note.

In December, ageing George Lansbury fractured his thigh during an especially frenetic Zumba session (or something). As a result, he was unable to fulfil his duties for some months. His deputy, Clement Attlee, was the obvious choice to take over as leader of the opposition.

The only problem was that this was an unpaid role. Struggling financially, Attlee wrote to Stafford Cripps suggesting he take up the post in his place. It would have given the Tory press a field day, given Cripps position in the league.

In an act of genuine decency, rather than take up the offer, Cripps simply paid £500 into the party funds, allowing Attlee to take up his rightful position at the head of the party.

Maybe there was hope for a more harmonious meeting of minds in the future after all.

Pete and Atul are not historians

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