Labour history uncut: The Red Indian’s bomb fails to explode

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

On the 23rd of October, Stanley Baldwin fired the starting pistol for the 1935 general election.

It was just two weeks since Clement Attlee had become temporary leader. Temporary because, although George Lansbury had resigned, the split over who should lead the party remained unresolved.

Not ideal preparation for battle. But as the party readied itself for a poll on the 14th November, there was still hope for things to improve for Labour in parliament. After all, given the disaster of the 1931 election, it would have taken a Katie Hopkinsesque effort to become any less popular.

But Labour dreamed big. Hugh Dalton noted in his diary an expectation of a rise from 52 seats to 240. Others dreamed bigger –an actual Labour majority.

But in real life, not all dreams come true. If they did, we’d be too busy financing the transformation of Crystal Palace into south London’s Barcelona to write this.

A National government poster comes out unexpectedly in favour of skin cancer for children

A National government poster comes out unexpectedly in favour of skin cancer for children

For months, politics had been dominated by the deteriorating international situation. The election campaign was to be no different. The problem for Labour was that they had been giving out confusing signals on the issue.

Summed up, Labour’s position was that everyone should stop invading each other, and all international disputes should be settled over a nice cup of tea at the League of Nations. If the situation was so bad that tea didn’t solve it (almost inconceivable), then the League should be able to use military force if necessary.

Thus the party claimed it was the Tories’ failure to fully support the League that had allowed Japan and Italy to send their armies around world planting flags and harvesting resentment.

Fair enough. But at the same time, Labour was in parliament serially voting against the defence estimates – limiting Britain’s efforts to increase the armed forces. This left the very real question of how Labour thought a Britain without much of an army could play its part in any League action.

To clear things up, over half the manifesto was devoted to international affairs. The only problem was that this manifesto, Labour’s plan for the future of Britain, stretched to a mere 1,049 words, fewer than might be devoted to a medium-sized menu.

Throw in the recent ejection of the outspoken pacifist George Lansbury as leader, and it was all too easy for the Tories to characterise Labour as confused peaceniks with all the backbone of a draft-dodging jellyfish, eager to outsource Britain’s security to a bunch of bickering foreigners.

Haile Selassie clutches evidence of the full support he received from the League of Nations – a ‘"Sorry you were invaded" card

Haile Selassie clutches evidence of the full support he received from the League of Nations – a ‘”Sorry you were invaded” card

And on domestic issues, things were not shaping up too well for Labour either.

After years of high and rising unemployment, the number of out of work was falling and growth seemed to have returned.

In 1934, the British economy had grown by over 6% in real terms and by 1935 the losses of the recession had been made good – the economy was 8% larger than in 1929.

Admittedly, this figure concealed wide regional variations. Persistent unemployment remained a real problem in some areas, but these tended to be in areas where Labour was already prominent.

In the places Labour needed to make an impact, economic recovery was a tangible reality. Good news for them. Bad news for Labour.

As the election campaign unfolded, these difficulties soon became apparent and hopes for a huge Labour resurgence began to fade.

But at the top there was one last hope: the “Red Indian’s bomb.”

The bomb wasn’t a bomb, it was a document. And the Red Indian wasn’t a native American, he was a civil service contact that Hugh Dalton had cultivated. But if there’s anything that gets a politician going, its code names that let him pretend he’s in a Bond movie.

This mole worked in defence and had procured a document that could be a game-changer for the party’s campaign. It was proof that the government was making contingency preparations to bring back conscription.

Even in the darkest days of World War One, conscription had been a contentious policy. If it now emerged that the government was making advance arrangements for its re-introduction, the public would be shocked.

People might be supportive of Tory plans to accelerate Britain’s rearmament, but that was about getting other people to sign up and face the bullets. Conscription was quite another matter.

Baldwin knew it. He had already responded to rumours about the return of conscription, saying they were “completely unfounded.”   Meanwhile, Labour-supporting journalists had been looking into the issue, but found nothing.

Now Labour had something. It was only one document, but sometimes a single document is all it takes to make the world a much better, or a much worse place – One Direction’s record contract springs to mind.

If it was real, the letter could derail the Conservatives’ campaign. Fitting payback for the Zinoviev letter of 12 years earlier.

But if it wasn’t real, Labour would look like right idiots.

On the 29th October, Herbert Morrison huddled with W.H Stevenson, the editor of the party paper, the Daily Herald and Aylmer Vallance, editor of the Labour-supporting News Chronicle to discuss what to do.

On the one hand, the campaign was not going particularly well for Labour, and there was nothing else in their arsenal with this kind of power to alter the course of events. From a campaigning perspective, publication was a no-brainer.

But worries about the damage to reputation of the party and the papers if the document was a fake lingered.

In the end, caution carried the day. The papers led with “Grigory Zinoviev ate my hamster” instead.

Good job too. After all, the Zinoviev letter, the Hitler Diaries and the Iraq abuse pictures were all fakes and the Daily Mail, Times and Mirror all vanished into obscurity, whereas the News Chronicle and Daily Herald have gone from strength to strength.

The Red Indian’s bomb went undetonated, much to Dalton’s frustration.

His PR people worried that Attlee was only one pair of glasses away from the full ‘novelty disguise’ look.

His PR people worried that Attlee was only one pair of glasses away from the full ‘novelty disguise’ look.

Two weeks later Labour crashed to another defeat, accompanied by the sound of Dalton muttering bitterly “I bloody told you” in the background.

Any hopes of 200 or more seats proved to be cruelly optimistic as the party secured just 154 seats.

True, this was a significant improvement on 1931, but despite so many years of economic hardship, the national government parties still won 387 seats, leaving the new Tory-led government with a massive majority of 247.

The paradox was that at 37.9%, Labour’s share of the vote was higher than ever before. But the party’s inability to spread out of its heartlands meant the return in terms of seats was miserable.

In certain areas where the party had previously built a base of support, it made no recovery. In Birmingham, where once they had held 6 of 12 seats, they won none, and in Newcastle, where they’d had 2 out of 4, again, nothing.

The one piece of good news was that 1935 saw several party leaders returned to parliament, including Herbert Morrison, JR Clynes  and Manny Shinwell. At Seaham, Shinwell had actually enjoyed the double pleasure of returning to parliament and comprehensively beating Ramsay Macdonald in the process.

But even this silver lining was wrapped around a dark cloud. With more senior members back, the first item on the parliamentary Labour party’s agenda was to definitively resolve the leadership question.


Pete and Atul are not historians

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One Response to “Labour history uncut: The Red Indian’s bomb fails to explode”

  1. swatantra says:

    The latest instalment leaves me on tenterhooks as to what will happen next.
    The stuff of Dickens and Wilkie Collins as the story unfolds and leads to a final conclusion. Plans are laid and twarted; plotting and counterplotting as the threat of War looms menacingly on the horizon. But the Party remains in denial mode; no to conscription; no to War anymore.
    In fact they may have been right. 100 years later, we are questioning whether WWI was really necessary, and even whether WWII was really necessary, and did it really achieve anything. Maybe Chamberlain was right; maybe Appeasement was the best policy? Just like the American Civil War, it wasn’t really about ending the evil of slavery. WWI wasn’t really about the evil Hun; and WWII wasn’t really about the Gas Chambers, because nobody knew about them as yet, not even the Germans.
    In Highgate Cemetary the grave of Marx is next to the grave of Herbert Spencer the Social Darwinist; the begining of brand Marx & Spencer

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