Posts Tagged ‘Labour history uncut’

Labour history uncut: The day the Labour party nearly died

06/09/2013, 05:03:24 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

Parliament dissolved on October 7th 1931 in preparation for an election on the 27th.

It was hard to believe the national government had been formed just six weeks earlier. At that time, Ramsay Macdonald had promised his shocked Labour colleagues that there would be no coupons or pacts when the election came.

Now he slowly opened up his card to reveal… “Bluff.”

The national government resolved to stand as a single unit. Expelled from the Labour party, Macdonald, Philip Snowden, Jimmy Thomas and the other Labour defectors readied themselves for a contest where they would fight the colleagues they had once worked so hard to support.

Ramsay Macdonald’s spoke softly and carried a big stick – for beating off angry Labour voters

Alongside them were the other members of the polyglot coalition. This national government had determined to go into the election asking for a “doctor’s mandate,” a request to be given a free hand to deal with the nation’s ills as they saw fit.

As a pitch, there were some obvious flaws.

The first was that the one significant prescription this national government had offered during the currency crisis, to try to stay on the gold standard at all costs, had proved catastrophically wrong.

But worse, now the gold standard had been abandoned, on the question of the economy, the three squabbling parties could not agree on the nation’s illness, let alone the cure.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Labour history uncut: Arthur Henderson’s last chance for Labour and how maudlin Macdonald blew it

29/08/2013, 03:18:43 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

After the initial shock of Ramsay Macdonald’s government leaving the gold standard wore off, a tide of anger started to rise across the Labour party.

Just a few weeks earlier, amid cataclysmic warnings from the economists, the Labour government had torn itself apart in its efforts to pass the severe cuts demanded by the markets. All this to prevent Britain coming off the gold standard.

Now the replacement national government had passed the cuts and then come off gold anyway. And the economic sky hadn’t fallen in.

The economists coughed and looked at their shoes. The only sound was Keynes’ gently banging his head against his desk, muttering, ‘I bloody told them’.

‘Was that it?’ wondered the people of Labour, ‘Was that what we sacrificed our government for?’

Someone had to pay.

First on the list, oddly, was new Labour leader Arthur Henderson.

Arthur Henderson models the 1931 beachwear collection

His crime? He had spoken in a conciliatory way in parliament in the debate on whether to come off the gold standard. And he supported the government’s eminently sensible decision. The fool.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Labour history uncut: “They didn’t tell us we could do that”

09/08/2013, 06:14:56 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

“We are like marooned sailors on a dreary island”

Not a Morrissey lyric, but the upbeat analysis of Ramsay Macdonald, leader of the new national government, as he pondered the position of the small group of Labour ministers who had stood with him.

They had reason to feel lonely. Macdonald was still prime minister, but when Parliament returned, his government benches would be dominated by Tories and Liberals. Across the floor of the house, former Labour friends and colleagues would glare at him in angry opposition.

Meanwhile, over at Transport House, headquarters of the Labour party, the Transport Union (T&G) and the TUC, the mood was punchy. Ernest Bevin of the T&G declared, “this is like the general strike, I’m prepared to put everything in.” Although if it was like the general strike, he’d then take everything out again after a week and experience total defeat.

On the 27th August, two days after the fall of the Labour government, the party issued a manifesto. Something that clarified Labour’s position on the big issues.

It said, “We oppose the cuts.”

It then said, “Yes, the same cuts we were actually proposing two weeks ago. What? What? Shut up.”

Montagu Norman, governor of the Bank Of England – never trust a man whose names are the wrong way round

On the 28th, the parliamentary party was due to meet to ratify the manifesto and elect a new leader.

As a meeting of the PLP, invites went to all Labour MPs. In a moment of supreme administrative awkwardness, this included Macdonald and the rest of the splitters

It was a pivotal moment.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Labour history uncut: Splitters! The fall of the second Labour government

31/07/2013, 10:24:04 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

Panic gripped the Bank of England.

By the 7th August 1931, just a week after the publication of the doom-laden May report on Britain’s finances, unhappy foreign investors were selling sterling at a record pace.

The Bank of England reported that its gold and foreign exchange reserves had lost £60m in the past few weeks in its attempt to prop up the value of the nation’s currency and keep Britain on the gold standard.

A first-ever Brexit seemed imminent. Although nobody actually used the word “Brexit” because these were more civilised times.

Only a hastily arranged £50m credit from French and American bankers was keeping the Bank of England solvent. This wouldn’t last long and future loans were in doubt – it’s hard to take a payday loan when you’ve got no payday in sight.

In order to secure more international loans to sustain the currency, a plan to pay down the deficit was needed.

Governor of the bank of England, Montagu Norman talks to Ramsay Macdonald who has chosen, appropriately, to dress as an undertaker for the occasion

The bankers wanted £80m of cuts. So prime minister Ramsay Macdonald and chancellor Philip Snowden put together a programme to deliver them, including a painful reduction of over £40m to unemployment benefit.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Labour history uncut: How the man from the Pru turned an economic drama into a Labour crisis

30/07/2013, 04:19:25 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

By 1931, prime minister Ramsay Macdonald had made his choice: he was going to cut his way out of Britain’s financial crisis. Austerity beckoned.

But first, as ever, a committee.

The national expenditure committee was set up on February and was due to report in July. So obviously it became known as the May committee. Admittedly this was because the committee chair was Sir George May, recently retired as company secretary at the Prudential, but did they have to make things so confusing?

Sir George May, formerly of Prudential Assurance. “I assure you, the nation is screwed.”

Oswald Mosley, who had been unsuccessfully touting his alternative, spending-based recovery plan around the party, couldn’t take it anymore. In February 1931, he voted with his feet, resigning from the Labour party completely.

Mosley then gathered a handful of his closest MP friends to form a new party. He showed that his new party had the imagination and vision that Labour lacked, by calling it the New party.

The New party betrayed a few hints of what was to come for Mosley by forming its very own militia. This might have been frightening had it not been for their choice of nickname: the “Biff Boys” sounded less a jackbooted menace and more a carefree gay subculture.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Labour history uncut: Crash! Bang! Wallop! What an economy

07/07/2013, 11:09:08 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

On 31st May 1929, Ramsay Macdonald departed Darlington for London, cheered by a massed crowd swathed in green and white, Labour’s minty-fresh colours in the north east.

At each stop crowds were gathered at the platform demanding a speech from the election victor. He duly obliged where he could, although thanks to the use of station Tannoys, nobody actually understood any of it.

By the time Macdonald arrived at King Cross station at 11pm there were 12,000 people waiting. This wasn’t simply because of over-running engineering works outside Peterborough, either. The huge crowd was there to herald the return, albeit as a minority administration again, of a Labour government.

No pressure then.

Nobody was impressed by Ramsay Macdonald’s impression of a stamp

The next day Macdonald began the painful process of sulks and tantrums that came with forming a new government.

His first appointment should have been easy. Like last time Macdonald wanted to select an unfailingly loyal foreign secretary – himself.

But Arthur Henderson rather fancied a job where he could visit foreign countries and then invade them. He threatened to boycott the government if he didn’t get the job.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Labour history uncut: Labour wins the one to lose in 1929

28/06/2013, 06:40:53 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

The first gusts of a returning wind seemed to be wafting into Ramsay Macdonald’s sails.

After the general strike in 1926 had shattered morale in the Labour movement, the Tories attempted to curtail union power with the 1927 Trade Union Disputes Act. That threat united activists and unions behind the party.

Once again, parliamentary action was the only game in town to stop the Tories.

As the 1927 conference approached, Macdonald wanted to wow the crowd with something big. A grand statement of Labour aims, perhaps. Or a medley of socialist showtunes.

Fortunately for everyone, he chose the former. Macdonald sat down with Labour’s Burt Bacarach, Arthur Henderson, and started scribbling. One montage sequence later, Labour’s new vision was complete.

They took the paper to the executive of the parliamentary Labour party for sign-off and some insincere praise before going to NEC and then conference. It was just a formality.

The PLP then, very formally, said “Ramsay, this is rubbish.” This was quite something coming from a body so pliable it would have declared Viva Forever ‘a tour de force’ had Macdonald produced it.

Hugh Dalton commented that it was “too long and very dully written,” before adding, “But it might sell if you chuck in a sparkly vampire.”

Meanwhile, the executive of the PLP passed a motion. It urged the NEC not to allow the document to be debated at conference because, being in Blackpool, the event was going to be quite boring enough already.

Hugh Dalton: in the opinion of the smartest man in the Labour party, he was the smartest man in the Labour party

Instead, Macdonald ended up part of an NEC sub-committee tasked with a rewrite.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Labour history uncut: What happened next after the general strike failed

14/06/2013, 04:47:16 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

The general strike was lost. Bitterness and recriminations echoed across the Labour movement and the conflict between the left and Labour’s leadership, once again, took centre stage in Labour politics.

Back to business as usual, then.

April 1926 had seen left wing firebrand James Maxton ascend to the chairmanship of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). He was a strong believer that Labour should stand on an unabashed platform of socialism and a fervent opponent of Macdonald’s strategy of gradualism, respectability and trying to appeal to voters.

Following the collapse of the strike, the ILP adopted its programme of action, “Socialism In Our Time.” This included such crazy notions as a living wage, family allowances and the nationalisation of banks.

Jimmy Maxton responds to research suggesting voters prefer candidates with a ‘sinister stare’

Back in 1926 Macdonald rejected the ILP programme out of hand. He wanted socialism, yes. “In our time” however, was way too immediate and way too specific for his tastes.  He was more “socialism some time, maybe sort of soon-ish, but not right now though.”

He said the ILP plans were   “a collection of flashy futilities… likely to involve in practice the postponement of all advance, because it would only frighten the electorate and ensure a crushing labour defeat.”

And Macdonald knew all about crushing Labour defeats, having helped bring about that last one by precipitating the fall of the first Labour government and disastrously mis-handling the Zinoviev letter.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Labour history uncut: Everybody out!

05/06/2013, 06:00:12 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

It’s somehow fitting that the fuse for the general strike was lit at the Daily Mail.

The government was still engaged in half-hearted negotiations with the unions when, on Sunday 2nd May 1926 the print compositors at the Mail refused to set an inflammatory editorial, entitled “For King and Country.” Although the companion piece, “Compositing print causes cancer” probably didn’t help either.

Seeing an opportunity to kick things off whilst still blaming the unions, the government summarily walked out of the talks muttering about threats to freedom of speech.

The unions thought, “Walk out will you? We’ll show you a thing or two about walking out.”

The next day letters went out to union members up and down the country and on Tuesday 4th May the whistle blew.

”Everybody out!”

The general strike had begun.

Around 1.5 million to 2 million workers took part in the strike. People downed tools all across the country.

Then, frequently, different people across the country picked those tools up again.

Approximately 300,000 volunteers had joined the overwhelmingly middle class and right-wing Organisation for Maintenance of Supplies. Their task was to help keep the country running during the period of the strike in a sort of extended “working class” themed fancy dress party.

The general strike’s PR team knew it had an uphill battle when even the Mirror started calling the strike "evil"

At the same time, with the print setters on strike, someone had to provide the British public with a replacement for their daily sports news, Sudoku and political misinformation. And who had enough spare time to moonlight over hot metal at a time of enormous national economic crisis? The chancellor of the exchequer, of course. Winston Churchill was put in charge of producing the government’s British Gazette.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Labour history uncut: Industrial war beckons, Labour looks at its shoes

02/06/2013, 04:24:37 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

On 31st July 1925, the unions celebrated “Red Friday.” The threat of general strike over miners’ wages had forced prime minister Stanley Baldwin to concede a 9 month wage subsidy. A royal commission had also been sent off to peer down a few mines and figure out how to fix everything.

It looked like a victory for the unions, but everyone knew it wasn’t over yet. When the commission reported, battle was likely to be resumed unless the deadlock could be broken in the intervening nine months.

The best hope for peace lay with the miners’ leader, Herbert Smith.  He was a realist and a moderate union man.

Unfortunately, standing right next to him was almost the biggest threat to peace. The increasingly influential miners’ union secretary AJ Cook was, in the words of TUC general secretary Fred Bramley, “a raving, tearing Communist.”

AJ Cook even did his own signing for the deaf

Cook was a syndicalist, a Marxist and a firm believer in the power of direct action. He was also extremely charismatic and, like the Yamaha YHT-893BL with 100W subwoofer, a very powerful speaker.

According to the home office, he was also “an agitator of the worst type.”  Although ironically, being the worst type of agitator in the home office’s eyes meant that he was actually very good at it.

Cook was, in contrast to the solution-seeking TUC and Herbert Smith, keen to get stuck in and challenge the status quo with a bit of workers’ power.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon