Labour history uncut: Labour says “no but, yeah but, no but” to a Popular Front

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

1937 might have seen the death of efforts to forge Labour, the Communists and Independent Labour Party into a leftist Unity Front, but the idea of Labour joining forces with other political groups had not gone away.

In fact, on the more moderate end of things, there was still plenty of support for a Liberal alliance, which the Lib-Labs called a Popular Front, because Lib-Labs sounded like a brand of penny sweet.

The electoral potential from a new dose of Lib-Labbery was demonstrated in campaigns such as the Fulham West by-election of April 1938 where Labour’s Edith Summerskill reaped the benefits of a Popular Front.

An ardent feminist and anti-fascist, Summerskill was pretty much the living embodiment of a scary lefty for the likes of the Daily Mail. Nevertheless, thanks to the support of Liberal activists, and absence of a Liberal candidate, she secured a 7.3% swing to overturn the Tory majority.

Edith Summerskill’s ability to levitate always drew a crowd on the campaign trail

Edith Summerskill’s ability to levitate always drew a crowd on the campaign trail

Summerskill subsequently took her seat in the House of Commons under her maiden name. This was scandalous behaviour for the time as it made it confusing for the gentlemen of the Commons to know whether or not they were allowed to goose her in the canteen.

Meanwhile, national Labour groups such as the Labour Spain Committee and the Home Counties Labour Association also took up the idea that a Popular Front could be, well, popular. Popular enough to boot out a few Tories anyway.

With a combination of visible results and a groundswell of support, the potential for a progressive Lib-Lab alliance seemed to offer an imminent route back to power for Labour. The NEC decided to act.

In April 1938 they issued a circular stating their emphatic opposition to the notion of a Popular Front. Of course.

The hard union men of the NEC were the driving force behind the rejection of co-operation with the Liberals fearing, quite reasonably, that an alliance would diminish their influence.

The first test of their resolve came in a by-election in May 1938 when the Popular Front-ers of Aylesbury Labour wanted to stand their candidate down and allow the Liberals a free run. That this also meant they could stay at home with a cup of tea instead of tramping the streets knocking on doors was entirely coincidental.

The NEC stood firm, forcing them to stand a candidate. Labour’s man stood, tea went undrunk, Liberals and Labour campaigned separately and the Tories duly won the election.

The Liberals consequently refused to help Labour out at the next by-election in Stafford, resulting in the small majority held by the Tories actually being enlarged.

The NEC’s plans to avoid being Popular were going brilliantly and Lib-Lab was rapidly becoming the sound of an alliance going down the plughole. But grassroots rumbling against the NEC position was given new impetus in Autumn thanks to Neville Chamberlain’s mini-break in Munich.

Before his trip, Labour had hardened its stance on foreign affairs, submitting a document to TUC conference that suggested Britain should perhaps stop betraying other countries and start telling fascists they couldn’t keep strolling into other people’s countries shouting “mine”.

Chamberlain obviously wasn’t listening.

His Munich trip culminated in a boozy lunch between European nations during which large chunks of Czechoslovakia were carved out and gifted to Germany and to which, notably, nobody had thought to invite the Czechs.

Despite his bringing back “peace for our time” on the back of an envelope, Chamberlain’s Munich settlement and betrayal of the Czechs sparked new life into the idea of a coalition of anti-Tories.

Liberal Wilfred Roberts appealed to Clement Attlee to put himself at the head of an anti-appeasement movement,

“We may very shortly be faced with an election in which Chamberlain will seek to capitalise on the national relief to his own advantage.”

Even Tories were grumbling. The Munich settlement was an appeasement too far. Increasing numbers were appalled at Chamberlain turning British foreign policy into an international gameshow entitled “Hand It To Hitler” in which all the other contestants went home empty-handed.

Labour tabled an amendment to the government’s motion approving the Munich agreement at the start of October. 40 Tories rebelled, refusing to toe the government line in the subsequent vote.

Thanks to Munich, the prospect of a three party Popular Front led by Labour suddenly seemed a real possibility.

The previously immovable NEC seemed to be shifting in response to the new political situation.

At the end of October, death of the Tory incumbent triggered a by-election in Oxford. Labour and the Liberals already had candidates selected but the clamour went up for both to be benched in favour of a single super-candidate.

Faced with a popular outcry across the union movement as well as the general public, the NEC relented.

Labour’s candidate, Patrick Gordon Walker, was stood down much against his will, starting for him a long and unhappy relationship with by-elections. In his (and the Liberal’s) place, a joint candidate was installed.

Alexander Dunlop Lindsay, known as Sandy to his friends (who were, presumably, Monkey and Pigsy) stood with the support of Liberals, Labour and even some rebellious conservatives such as Harold Macmillan.

The campaign was hard-hitting. The Tory candidate, Quintin Hogg, was pilloried by the Lindsay camp with the slogan, “A vote for Hogg, is a vote for Hitler.” No new politics here.

A vote for Hogg is a vote for a young Benny Hill

A vote for Hogg is a vote for a young Benny Hill

The votes were cast on 27 October 1938.

Admittedly Lindsay lost, but the Conservative majority took a substantial dent and the turnout increased to   76.3%, nudging “voting” just ahead of “punching students” in that year’s “Oxford’s most popular pastimes” league.

The following month, there was another by-election, this time in Bridgwater where another independent progressive, Vernon Bartlett stood. Despite some misgivings about the Oxford result, the NEC decided to let Bartlett be Bartlett and allowed the previously 3rd placed local Labour party to endorse him.

This time it worked. Bartlett won, overturning a 10,500 majority on another impressive turnout of 82%.

Bridgewater fuelled further discontent among the Conservatives. Establishment stalwarts such as Anthony Eden raised the volume of their rebellious murmurs.

These rumblings in the blue brought Hugh Dalton around to the idea of a Popular Front. Rarely a reluctant conspirator, he began private negotiations with the Tories, including an interesting fellow named Churchill, who was “a real tough and at the moment talking our language.”

With momentum for a Popular Front building decisively and many of Labour’s senior leaders drifting towards support, it was time someone came along to cock it all up.

Enter Stafford Cripps.

After the dismal failure of his Unity Front programme in 1937, he had all the skills and experience to run a similarly successful campaign in support of the Popular Front.

In January 1939, Cripps put forward a proposal for a formal Popular Front to the NEC.

Critically, Cripps’ personal vision for a Popular Front bore striking similarities to his Unity Front. He had included his old chums in ILP and the Communists, added in the Liberals, but deliberately excluded Churchill’s rebel Tories.

Unsurprisingly the NEC was not keen on Cripps’ oddly familiar proposal for new alliances. They rejected his submission 17 to 3.

But Cripps was ready for this. In a PR masterstroke reminiscent of Moseley at his most deluded, Cripps issued a ‘memorandum’ to local parties up and down the country detailing his proposals and calling for a conference showdown.

This by-passing of all procedure and total disregard of the NEC vote prompted Hugh Dalton to observe “The man has the political judgment of a flea.”

The NEC insisted Cripps withdraw the document.

Being Cripps, he refused.

As a result, on 25th January 1939 NEC voted on the question of Cripps himself.

On a vote of 18 to one, Cripps was expelled from the Labour Party which, at the very least disproved the Cripps/flea theory, because even a flea knows when to jump.

With Cripps’ expulsion, the notion of a Popular Front was also fatally damaged, never to recover.

Nice one, Stafford.

Pete and Atul are not historians

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4 Responses to “Labour history uncut: Labour says “no but, yeah but, no but” to a Popular Front”

  1. Robert says:

    Nothing much changes. Labour supporters say that Tory governments are evil incarnate but would not consider a ‘popular front’ to get rid of them. This sort of stupidity results in Conservative-led governments in the UK but it has resulted in fascist governments in countries with less tolerant political cultures.

  2. Dave Roberts says:

    Don’t people think there is simply too much vitriol been and being exchanged between the two sides for any kind of a popular front? They have spent the last four years slagging each other off.

  3. swatantra says:

    At times like these a strong Communist Party would take take on the Facists because only Communists/Red Army have the firm ideology to defeat Facism. Nep Liberals are a bit airey fairy about tackling extremism.

  4. Robert says:

    Obviously, the Lib Dems being in a coalition with the Tories is a bit of a setback for any popular front. Regarding Communists, liberals did not make a pact with Hitler.

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