Labour history uncut: Ernie Bevin “hammers George Lansbury to death” and changes the course of party history

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

Labour might have spent most of 1934 duelling between the leadership and the Socialist League but it didn’t seem to cause too much harm at the ballot box. The party picked up two seats from the Conservatives in by-elections, they nicked one from the Liberals and they also beat the splitters of the ILP to win back Merthyr – a great boost to the party’s Scrabble score.

In a world without opinion polls, these by-election successes seemed to point the way to a Labour resurgence at the next election, expected sometime in late 1935.

The case for optimism was boosted in June 1935 when the ailing Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald retired, to be replaced by Tory Stanley Baldwin.

Although the Labour movement was agreed that Macdonald was Satan incarnate, the rest of the country couldn’t see the horns and pitchfork and he had remained popular as the head of the national government. With his resignation, the government’s fake moustache and glasses were removed and it suddenly looked like the Tory outfit it had been all along.

Everything was falling into place. The election would now be a clear choice between the Tories and Labour.  Yes the Liberals were lurking around too, but everyone just assumed they’d support whoever won to form a majority government because, well, Liberals right?

But beneath the surface trouble was being stirred up for the party by, oddly enough, Benito Mussolini.

Benito Mussolini gazes into the future, fails to spot the meat-hooks

Benito Mussolini gazes into the future, fails to spot the meat-hooks

Over the past two years, fascism had spread across Europe. The prospect of international conflict topped the political agenda and Mussolini’s threats to forcibly plant spaghetti trees throughout Abyssinia brought matters to a head.

This was the defining issue of the day. And on it, Labour was conflicted.

The TUC was clear where it stood. In September 1935 at Margate they discussed what to do about Mussolini. They voted their support for sanctions backed by the threat of force by the League of Nations, which was a precursor body to the UN, in which all nations would meet to agree a course of action, and then go and do whatever they wanted anyway.

The TUC pledged, “its firm support of any action consistent with the principles and statutes of the League to restrain the Italian government.”

The wider Labour party generally agreed, but things were complicated by a small but influential anti-war lobby.

This was made up of a group of common-or-garden pacifists who opposed anything that looked like violence on principle and the socialist left who were fine with the concept of war and mayhem as long as it wasn’t capitalists doing it.

On the 17th September Lord Ponsonby, Labour’s leader in the Lords, resigned on the grounds that the party’s position was incompatible with his pacifism.

Arthur Ponsonby, creator of the Ponsonby Rule which dictates “with a name like Ponsonby, you have to be really, really posh” or something

Arthur Ponsonby, creator of the Ponsonby Rule which dictates “with a name like Ponsonby, you have to be really, really posh” or something

Not to be outdone, Sir Stafford Cripps resigned on the same day, in opposition to the “capitalists’ sanctions.”  Although quite how the left’s fight against capitalism was furthered by allowing Italian fascists to drive tanks through Africa was never clarified.

This was all awkward, but nothing compared to the main problem confronting Labour.

That problem’s name was George Lansbury. He was the most prominent of the pacifists and, rather inconveniently for Labour, also the leader of the party.

The NEC convened a meeting on the 19th September to work out how to square the party’s position with that of its leader.

Some of the union representatives saw a simple solution and wanted to apply Occam’s razor – across Lansbury’s throat. In the end though, the final resolution stopped short of kicking out the leader. Instead, it gave the quintessential chairman’s vote of confidence in a doomed football manager: “…the question of leadership is a matter for the parliamentary party, but that in the opinion of the NEC there is no reason that he [George Lansbury] should tender his resignation.”

As Hugh Dalton noted in his diary, “We don’t want the onus of pushing him out.”

With such a ringing NEC endorsement under his belt, George Lansbury approached Labour conference with understandable trepidation.

On 1st October 1935, in Brighton, Hugh Dalton introduced a joint statement by the TUC and the National Council of Labour (on which the TUC, the NEC and the PLP were represented, previously called the Joint Council but changed to sound less like a club for smoking weed). It supported sanctions backed up by force against Mussolini if he was to invade Abyssinia.

Dalton asked the movement to stand firm against Mussolini’s “barbarous and long premeditated assault on Abyssinia,” and his ‘stupid hat’.

Then Cripps had his turn. He railed against the capitalists and imperialists as was his habit.

Next, the floor passed to the Labour leader. George Lansbury gave his most memorable speech, speaking passionately for pacifism and entreating conference to heed his pleas. He was greeted with a standing ovation from the floor, excepting some of the union delegations, and two rousing choruses of “for he’s a jolly good fellow”.

Who could possibly follow such a performance from a party favourite? Who could oppose such a lovely and well-meaning chap?

Ernest Bevin. He could. And he did, without mercy.

Ernest Bevin showcases the warm nature that led to his speech about George Lansbury

Ernest Bevin showcases the warm nature that led to his speech about George Lansbury

First, he mocked Cripps, the wealthy lawyer, “People have been on this platform today talking about the destruction of capitalism. Lawyers and members of the professions have not done too badly… the thing that is being wiped out is the trade union movement. It is we who are being wiped out and who will be wiped out if fascism comes here.”

And then he destroyed Lansbury, most memorably declaring, “It is placing the Executive and the Movement in an absolutely wrong position to be hawking your conscience around from body to body asking to be told what to do with it.”

The force of Bevin’s rebuke was shocking. Boos and catcalls echoed through the hall as he spoke but the final vote was overwhelming: the anti-war cause was rejected, 2,168,000 to 102,000.

Yet Ernie Bevin’s speech was to have a far wider impact than the vote alone. Dalton wrote in his diary that Bevin had “hammered Lansbury to death.”

And so he had. Days later, on the 9th October, Lansbury resigned.

For many of the NEC, the obvious choice to replace Lansbury was the unions’ main man in the PLP: Arthur Greenwood. But following Bevin’s political GBH on Lansbury, there was a reluctance to hand power to Lansbury’s chief opponent.

Faced with the tricky choice on succession, in true decisive PLP fashion, they voted by 38 to 7 to pretend there wasn’t a problem after all and ask Lansbury to come back. But Lansbury had had enough. And who could blame him? He refused to return and, worse, nominations for a new leader were not forthcoming.

Just when it seemed Labour might be forced to be a leaderless Green party style collective, it was decided that Attlee could take over as interim leader for the rest of the parliamentary session, as he had done previously.

More than the crushing defeat for the pacifists at Labour conference, which had always been inevitable because of the union block vote, this was the real legacy of Bevin’s intervention: the failure of the unions to secure the leadership for Arthur Greenwood and the ascension of Clement Attlee to the top job.

The News Chronicle summed up the tremendous enthusiasm which greeted Attlee’s appointment, “…in the end Major Attlee was asked to carry on as the least embarrassing way out of a bad mess.”

Good job there wasn’t a general election coming up then.

Oh, bugger.

Pete and Atul are not historians

Tags: , , , , ,

5 Responses to “Labour history uncut: Ernie Bevin “hammers George Lansbury to death” and changes the course of party history”

  1. swatantra says:

    Pete and Atul on top form! Great stuff! So the temp took over the top job and
    Major Attlee didn’t really know what he was letting himself in for.
    As a postscript, Angela Lansbury finally became a Dame in 2014; her best roles being in The Manchurian Candidate and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
    This Labour Saga tops The Lord of the Rings any day.

  2. David Walsh says:

    And Lord (Arthur) Ponsonby was really, really posh. See Wiki,

    Arthur Augustus William Harry Ponsonby, 1st Baron Ponsonby of Shulbrede (16 February 1871 – 23 March 1946) was a British politician, writer, and social activist. He was the third son of Sir Henry Ponsonby, Private Secretary to Queen Victoria, and the great-grandson of Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough

  3. uglyfatbloke says:

    Swatantra, I must protest… surely her best rile was in Bed-knobs and Broomsticks.?
    Pete and Atul…what makes you think you are n’t historians? I’ve read lost of stuff by academic colleagues (not to mention marking undergraduate essays) hat is n’t a patch on your stuff.

  4. uglyfatbloke says:

    errr….. that should have been ‘role’ not ‘rile’ and ‘lots’ not ‘lost’ …I could n’t get my lenses in this morning.

  5. tom cuthberty says:

    A comparison with today? Corbyn as Lansbury, Blair as Bevin ,Cameron a reincarnation of Blair, old politics ,new politics the terror of war creates strange bedfellows

Leave a Reply