Labour history uncut: “And a mouse shall lead them”

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

In 1935 Labour hit on a new idea: a try-before-you-buy scheme for the leadership.

Just days before the November general election, Clement Attlee had been elected interim boss. Because nothing says “we’re ready to lead the country,” than having a temp at the helm.

The electorate agreed. With a disappointing 154 seats secured, it looked like Clement Attlee had no hope of going temp to perm and was about to become another victim of Britain’s insecure labour market.

Especially as now there was rather more choice on offer. The election, though uninspiring overall, had seen the return of several leading Labour politicians to the Commons, including Herbert Morrison, Hugh Dalton and John Clynes.

These new options, combined with over 100 more MPs to do the choosing, meant a change at the top seemed imminent when, barely a week after the national poll, the leadership election beckoned.

After some early jockeying for position and switches of allegiance in the manner of the children’s gameshow Runaround, the field of applicants was winnowed down to three.

Herbert Morrison, Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood remained, the last two of whom had also contested the leadership one month earlier.

Of the three, Morrison was the early favourite. He was the only one on the national executive in his own right, he had a track record of electoral success, and his dad was a policeman, so he could wheel his bike wherever in Westminster he wanted.

Morrison was on the right of the party, making him a right Herbert

Morrison was on the right of the party, making him a right Herbert

Morrison had masterminded Labour’s victory in the London County Council elections the previous year. In addition, at the general election, Labour had performed considerably better in London than they had nationally. This was thanks to Morrison’s keen electoral sense, his confident organisation and the clever redirection of a cockney knees-up so they did the Lambeth Walk straight into a polling station.

What’s more, despite being on the right of the party and vigorously anti-communist, he still managed to attract support from leading left-wing rebels such as Stafford Cripps and Ellen Wilkinson.

Morrison’s most dangerous opponent seemed to be Arthur Greenwood. As in the previous contest, this was largely thanks to his union support. Before entering parliament in 1922, Greenwood had run the joint Labour and TUC research department and remained close to the unions and their chunk of votes ever since.

Arthur Greenwood, just before changing his surname to Askey

Arthur Greenwood, just before changing his surname to Askey

He had lost the last leadership election to Attlee a few weeks earlier, partially because of widespread disapproval in the PLP of the manner in which his main backer, Ernie Bevin, had savaged former leader George Lansbury at the October conference.

This time, many expected Arthur Greenwood to secure the top job, as long as Bevin could hold off attacking harmless old men in the interim.

The outsider of the three contenders was, unusually, the incumbent. Clement Attlee was approachable and self-effacing – not qualities normally associated with leadership candidates.

On the other hand, he had already completed two auditions for the job, first when George Lansbury was off ill for period of months in 1933 and 1934, and then following Lansbury’s resignation in October.

In both cases, Attlee’s leadership was a slice of quiche on the Labour history buffet – solid, decent enough, but nobody was getting excited about it.

Lacking the campaigning track record of Morrison, the solid support that the union MPs’ gave Greenwood, or the glamour of a cheese and pineapple cube, few could see a long term leader in Major Attlee.


Clement Attlee narrowly missed out on a major role in On The Buses

Clement Attlee narrowly missed out on a major role in On The Buses

As the campaign got underway, Attlee’s effort within the PLP was characteristically low key.

Herbert Morrison had the clever (self-proclaimed) and outspoken (everyone agreed) Hugh Dalton as his campaign manager. Arthur Greenwood, for his part, had Ernie Bevin fighting hard for him.  Clement Attlee, in contrast, didn’t really have any high profile figures going out to bat for him.

This may have been an advantage. Within party circles it was almost easy to forget Attlee was in the race as Morrison and Greenwood’s campaigns aggressively locked horns.

Bevin had always hated Morrison, remembering his proposals for nationalised industries with boards of experts that did not include the unions. He cast Morrison as a crypto-Tory enemy of the workers, undermining trade union interests from within the party and cavorting around in a suit covered in buttons.

Hugh Dalton responded, aerating the rumour that Greenwood had a major drink problem. This rumour was particularly damaging to Greenwood thanks to the minor detail that it was actually true.

The two campaigns hammered at each other to win over the PLP. Dalton wined and dined MPs at drinks parties and dinners, whispering and insinuating. Greenwood’s union backers chose shouting and shoving, convening the Labour members of the Mason’s lodge in the House of Commons to pledge their allegiance to brother Arthur.

And all the while, below the radar, Clement “the quiche” Attlee went about his under-stated business.

Attlee’s pitch was particularly unconventional. Where Herbert Morrison promised an overhaul of policy and campaigning and Arthur Greenwood suggested the ascendancy of the unions, Atlee’s particular appeal was that nothing much would change.

He was also explicitly open to the idea of a change of leader if he was voted in and it didn’t work out for everyone. This made him one of the few leadership candidates in history to offer a political money-back guarantee.

As a platform for leadership, it was a novel. But it was also an extremely cunning response to an unusual electorate which included several MPs who were doubtless thinking about their own leadership bids in the coming years.

On the 26th of November, Labour MPs gathered to vote.

Clement Attlee was in the chair and announced the results of the first round of voting: he had received 58 votes, Morrison gained 44 and Greenwood 33. Greenwood then dropped out and the MPs voted again.

The result was overwhelming. Attlee triumphed with 88 votes to Morrison’s 48. Almost all of Greenwood’s backers had switched to Attlee.

With strong factions behind Greenwood and Morrison violently opposed to one another, Attlee romped home by simply being neither of them and a safe, short-term choice.

Undoubtedly Dalton’s machinations had alienated some Greenwood supporters. Equally, Bevin would have done everything possible to ensure nobody switched to his arch enemy Morrison in the second round.

But for all that, the result clearly showed that while voluble support is great, the absence of committed opposition is better.

Morrison’s own analysis was that his defeat was the result of a conspiracy by freemasons, which is a plausible enough notion if you’re also the kind of person who considers the works of Dan Brown to be unvarnished reportage.

Either way, Morrison was infuriated at losing.  In a fit of pique, he gifted the role of deputy leader to Greenwood by refusing the nomination, citing his commitments on London County Council. These same commitments hadn’t stopped him running for leader, but erm, well, you know, that was different. Somehow.

Thus Attlee and Greenwood took their places heading up a Labour party facing the enormous challenge of more years in opposition.

For many, it was not an enticing proposition. Dalton’s assessment summed up the view of most MPs.

“And a mouse shall lead them.”

Pete and Atul are not historians

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4 Responses to “Labour history uncut: “And a mouse shall lead them””

  1. swatantra says:

    I’ve got a feeling that this Attlee geezer is the one to watch; great potential.
    He could be the mouse that roared.

  2. David Walsh says:

    Ellen Wilkinson’s support from the left for Morrison was, so speak, a very very personal vote,

  3. pete goddard says:

    David, you always leave interesting comments on these pieces. Thank you.

  4. uglyfatbloke says:

    No serious historian could be amused by these articles…so I suppose I must he a frivolous historian?

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