Labour history uncut: Labour plays itself into government and then throws away its wicket

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

Labour took office in 1924 and there was a lot to do.

Unemployment was stuck above 10%, public debt was out of control and the economy barely seemed to have a pulse.

So the first order of business? Working out what to wear when meeting the king.

Regal tradition dictated that government ministers wore court dress in their regular audiences with the monarch. On the other hand, for some reason, Labour supporters had never really taken to the regency dandy look.

In the absence of a Trotsky and Susannah to advise Labour what not to wear, the new cabinet engaged in delicate negotiations first with itself, and then the palace on the weighty matters of wardrobe.

George V did everything he could to support Britain’s gold braid industry

The problem was indicative of Labour’s broader challenge: how to achieve respectability in office (and help win over the millions of voters who still viewed Labour as communists in flat caps) without sacrificing the radicalism that distinguished the party.

The solution steered through by Macdonald was equally indicative of his personal thinking. An alternative to court dress of white tie was introduced for the more rebellious Labour men, but Macdonald himself and his close circle donned their stockings and endured the sniggers emanating from the mines and factories of Great Britain.

George Lansbury MP was one of many doubters, wondering if “the Labour party fulfils its mission by proving how adaptable we are and how nicely we can dress and behave when we are in official, royal or upper class circles.”  Then again he may have just been jealous because he didn’t look as good in tights. The only thing worse than capitalism is cankles.

Macdonald’s preference for respectability over radicalism was soon evident in the first months of the Labour government.

For anyone worried about a union takeover, Labour proved it could be every bit as intolerant of striking workers as any other government that finds itself in power with a need to get things done.

When the dockers were contemplating strike in February 1923, Labour didn’t hesitate to threaten them with the use of the government’s emergency powers. And it wasn’t a one-off. Just a month later, they did it again, this time to stop planned action by the TGWU, which must have left both of those unions wondering quite what had happened to the party they set up to represent them.

On the economy, former ILP firebrand, Philip Snowden went even further down the road of orthodoxy. He cut tariffs and taxation and set in his sights on a return to the gold standard – all measures designed to please the economists and commentators. If there had been ratings agencies around at the time, Snowden would surely have earned Britain a triple AAA rating, which would have proved every bit as reliable back then as it is today.

Flying the flag for true Labour radicalism was John Wheatley, red Clydesider and Secretary of State for Health.

Liberal colleague C. F. G. Masterman recalled John Wheatley as  ” the former revolutionary member for Glasgow, now Minister of Health…. A short, squat, middle-aged man, with a chubby face beaming behind large spectacles,” making him sound like a socialist Christopher Biggins

But there was more to Wheatley than just being someone you are surprised to see in the background of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

John Wheatley on his political philosophy: “It’s just a jump to the left…”

At the ministry of health, Wheatley introduced the Housing act. This offered a subsidy to local authorities building new housing – finally, the heroes might get those homes they’d been promised.

Through this measure, John Wheatley was responsible for the building of 52,000 new homes and would go down in history as the one Labour cabinet minister in the first administration who actually did something substantial.

Labour’s radical instincts were expressed a little more freely in foreign affairs and with some success; doubtless leading Macdonald to congratulate himself on his wise choice of foreign minister – himself.

In his dual role, Macdonald managed to negotiate a reduction in the reparations that were causing much strife in Germany. He also assiduously improved relations with the Soviet Union, much to the annoyance of the king who was still cross about the whole ‘massacre of his royal relatives’ thing.

The prime minister’s cautious approach to government might not have instantly transformed the nation but steadily Labour was establishing itself in office. The world hadn’t ended when Macdonald entered Downing street and by summer 1924, Buckingham palace still remained resolutely un-stormed.

Slowly hopes began to stir within the party that more progressive policies might be forthcoming as Labour became more confident in government.


On 25th July the communist paper Workers Weekly published an article which included the words “Let it be known that neither in class war nor in military war will you turn your guns on your fellow workers.” It also contained the even more establishment-frightening, “”Turn your weapons on your oppressors!” It could only really have made the revolutionary scare worse if it had included a hammer-and-sickle knitting pattern.

This was all too seditious for the powers-that-be.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Archibald Bodkin – a real person and not a character from Sleepy Hollow – complained to the Attorney General Sir Patrick Hastings who declared on 6th August that he would have to prosecute the editor of this sedition under the Incitement to Mutiny Act.

Archibald Bodkin – willing to turn his guns on his fellow workers, should the opportunity arise

This outraged many in Labour ranks, with Jimmy Maxton announcing that it was no more nor less than his own feelings on the matter, before hastily adding, “this is all covered by Parliamentary privilege, right?”

Then, just seven days later, Hastings, decided he didn’t want to prosecute after all.

It was all rather fishy. Suspicious glances naturally turned to Ramsay Macdonald who discovered that no amount of strolling and whistling would quell suspicions that his government had pressured the supposedly independent legal system to drop the case.

Macdonald made matters even worse when questions were asked in the house. His reply of, “er, well, um, so, er, I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation,” was desperately unconvincing to even the most casual observer and both the Liberals and the Tories saw an opportunity to strike.

The Tories tabled a motion of censure which, if passed, would have been curtains for Macdonald’s government.

Although the Liberals weren’t much impressed by Macdonald’s behaviour in this matter either, they did at least offer Labour a way out. They proposed a motion for a committee of inquiry to take place instead.

The episode could have been gently been run into the sand with the Liberal’s inquiry, but inexplicably Ramsay Macdonald lost the plot.

Whether he misjudged things and felt the split between parties meant neither vote would go through, or was just tired and fed up of the whole, difficult business of government (compounded by taking on not one but two of the top jobs himself), he made a decision that would call time his government.

Macdonald declared that he would take the passing of the Liberal motion as a vote of no confidence, meaning the end of his government if the vote on October 8, 1923 passed.

The Tories knew an opportunity when they saw one. They promptly voted against their own motion and backed the Liberals instead, giving it an easy win 364 to 198.

And so the first parliament to see Labour in power was over just 9 months after it had begun, its reputation for respectability shredded in a partially self-inflicted red scare and with precious little progressive legislation on the statute books.

What better position from which to fight another election?

Pete and Atul are not historians

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7 Responses to “Labour history uncut: Labour plays itself into government and then throws away its wicket”

  1. Nick says:

    The problem was that Labour played the people of the UK in the mess.

    You took their money they were forced to hand over for their pensions.

    Now you have a 5,300 bn pension debt.

    It’s never going to be paid, so they are going to be destitute.

  2. david walsh says:

    I’m sorry but I feel the writers have slipped into the conventional thinking on Labour’s first administration which sees it as a simply weak and timid government – with the exception of John Wheatley. True, it worried about kow-towing to things like dress convention, but despite knowing it could be blown out of the water at any time when the Tories and the Liberals were to combine again, it actually did a lot of good. Take Welfare Benefits and Education (and I confess to pasting in wiki to save my wrist).

    “Various improvements were also made in benefits for pensioners and the unemployed. More generous provision for the unemployed was provided, with increases in both children’s allowances and in unemployment benefits for both men and women. Unemployment benefit payments were increased from 15 to 18 shillings a week for men, and from 12 to 15 shillings for women, while the children’s allowance was doubled to two shillings. A “genuinely seeking work” clause for claiming unemployment benefits was abolished, while the “gap” between periods of benefit under the unemployment insurance scheme was also abolished. In addition, eligibility for benefits was extended, while the household means test for the long-term unemployed was removed, more people were made eligible for unemployment benefits, and uncovenanted benefits (beyond those covered by insurance) were made a statutory right.

    For pensioners, increases were made in both the state old-age pensions and the pensions of ex-servicemen and of their widows and children. Improvements were made in the condition of old-age pensioners by allowing small incomes from savings to be disregarded in calculating the pension due. As a result of this change, 60,000 elderly people whose meagre savings had previously reduced their pension entitlement received the full state pension. Eligibility for the state pension was also extended so that it covered 70% of the over-seventies, and 150,000 elderly people who had never received a pension before were now entitled to them. In addition, changes were made which allowed for pensions to be transferred to a surviving parent of a dependant who had a pension. An Old Age Pensions Act was also passed which guaranteed a weekly pension of 50p to people over the age of seventy who earned under 75p a week.

    The government also endeavoured to extend educational opportunities. Local authorities were empowered, where they wished, to raise the school-leaving age to 15, the adult education grant was tripled, maintenance allowances for young people in secondary schools were increased, state scholarships (which had previously been in suspense) were restored, the proportion of free places in secondary schools was increased, approval was given to forty new secondary schools, a survey was carried out to provide for the replacement of as many of the more insanitary or obsolete schools as possible,and forty was set as the maximum class size in elementary school. Restrictions on education spending imposed by the previous government were removed, while local authorities were encouraged to increase the number of free secondary school places. In addition, an Education Act was passed which created an English secondary school system between the ages of 11-14. The restriction on maintenance allowances given by Local Authorities was removed, with the previous rule being that 20% of the expenditure was given as grant by the Board to the Local Authorities, but this was raised to 50%. In addition, restrictions on grants for providing meals for children were removed. Spending on adult education was increased, with the grant-in-aid increased from £20,600 to £30,500”

    I somehow doubt that Liam Byrne and Stephen Twigg will be putting forward a contemporary version of this, for fear of what the Daily Mail or the Times will say….

  3. Alex Harvey says:

    Triple AAA rating? So an AAAAAAAAA rating? Christ, we’d be able to borrow at negative interest!

  4. swatantra says:

    What happened to the Zinoviev Letter?

  5. david walsh says:

    The answer lies with the then Chief Historian of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Gill Bennett, who fossicked in 1999 through the archives of the Foreign Office as well as those of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), MI5, and MI6. She also visited Moscow in the course of her research, working in the archives of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and the Comintern archive of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Despite her extensive research, she concluded “it is impossible to say who wrote the Zinoviev Letter” though her best guess was that it was commissioned by White Russian intelligence circles from forgers in Berlin or the Baltic states, most likely in Riga. A man called Vladimir Orlov was seen as the possible author, so it was done by a Meercat.

    Fascinating if in 2015 we have a ‘Castro tweet”

  6. Rich Greenhill says:

    The date of the vote should, I think, be October 8, 1924, not 1923.

    Ramsay MacDonald seems initially to have given an impressively categorical parliamentary denial of interfering in the abandonmenment of the Workers’ Weekly prosecution:

    > Sir K. WOOD (by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether any directions were given by him, or with his sanction, to the Director of Public Prosecutions to withdraw the proceedings against Mr. Campbell, the editor of the “Workers’ Weekly,” and whether he received any intimation that he would be personally required to give evidence on behalf of the defendant at the hearing?

    > The PRIME MINISTER: “I was not consulted regarding either the institution or the subsequent withdrawal of these proceedings. The first notice of the prosecution which came to my knowledge was in the Press. I never advised its withdrawal, but left the whole matter to the discretion of the Law Officers, where that discretion properly rests. I never received any intimation, nor even a hint, that I should be asked to give evidence. That also came to my attention when the falsehood appeared in the Press.”

    But eight days later MacDonald returned to make a personal statement to the House:

    > The PRIME MINISTER: “I rise to ask the indulgence of the House to make an explanation of a word that I wrongly used in replying to a question put to me on the 30th of last month. The hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) put the question, which ended with these words: and whether he has received any intimation that he would be personally required to give evidence on behalf of the defendant at the hearing? It refers, of course, to the case we are going to debate to-day. The form and the suggestion of the question concentrated the whole of my mind upon myself and upon my own personal and separate part in this affair. I have been accused in certain papers of having known that I was going to be summoned, and with that knowledge, and because of that knowledge, of personally interfering. I have felt that very warmly. It was absolutely untrue. The accusation was one of those things that made one feel most resentful, and in concentrating my ideas about a personal approach, on account of personal reasons, I used an expression which, when my attention was drawn to it two days afterwards, I had to admit went a little further than I ought to have gone, because it implied not merely that I, as a person, was either approached by the Attorney-General or approached the Attorney-General for personal reasons—a thing I had repudiated hotly—but it also implied that I had no cognisance of what was going on. I am very sorry. I did not mean to imply that. It was simply the concentration of my personal resentment at that gross imputation which made me for a moment forget that officially, and in conjunction with colleagues, the matter was talked about when no personal considerations were in our minds at all. If I have misled any hon. Members, I apologise for having done so.”

    Hansard dutifully records the statement and ensuing responses under the heading “PRIME MINISTER’S CORRECTION”. Not tHe sort of billing which any PM wants immediately before the start of a no-confidence debate!

  7. Pete G says:

    Thanks Rich, that is excellent stuff.

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