Posts Tagged ‘great unrest’

Labour history uncut: Labour sets a new record for by-election losses

09/01/2013, 12:21:31 AM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

“Do something!”

This was the message to Ramsay Macdonald from the unhappy troops in his the party. Having become leader in 1911, Macdonald had arrived to find the workers of the nation ready for a Millwall wave of industrial unrest rippling across dockers, miners and rail-workers. This was like a Mexican wave, but with less cheering and more broken noses.

It left Macdonald in a tricky position as, at the same time as being the representatives of the working man, he was determined to establish Labour as a “respectable” party (as opposed to a Respect party, which is something different). Consequently, he was less than keen to be seen to be on the side of rioters and militant strikers.

As part of his plan to establish Labour, Macdonald had operated an informal electoral pact with the Liberals since 1903, each giving the other a clear run at the Tories. For Labour it had helped build the parliamentary party to 42 seats.

With the Liberals now in government, it also meant Labour could get scraps of their legislation through in return for continued support.

While this did rather make them the dog at the Liberal party banquet, that was of more practical benefit than being the starving man outside, watching everybody else eat.

But on the other hand, who wants to be a dog, aside from people with a burning desire to lick their own genitals? Certainly not the party rank and file, who quite reasonably felt that being on the side of the workers sort of came with the job description for Labour – the clue is in the name after all.

If all Labour was doing was backing the Liberals, what was the point of setting up a different party in the first place?

So Macdonald subtly shifted strategy. He didn’t turn his full rhetorical fire on the government, but he did change the approach on by-elections. After 1911, Labour’s leadership exercised a little more willingness to run candidates where a Liberal was standing.

Partially Macdonald’s hand was forced by pressure from within the party, but there was also merit in gauging Labour’s strength. Even if they didn’t beat the Liberals, a strong electoral showing might strengthen his hand when negotiating with the government – after all the Liberals weren’t even the largest party.

So, between 1911 and summer 1914, out of 50 by-elections in Liberal seats, Labour contested an unprecedented 14 seats.

“Say ‘cheese’? Whilst workers are starving? Never.” ’William Cornforth Robinson, Labour candidate in the 1911 Oldham by-election


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Labour history uncut: no strikes please, we’re Labour

01/01/2013, 09:06:01 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

New year, new leader. That was Labour’s motto at the start of 1911 as it set about electing its fourth leader in four years. This time, the lucky front-runner (also middle runner, and back runner – he was standing unopposed) was Ramsay Macdonald.

An able organiser and pragmatic strategist, he also had a background with the socialist Independent Labour party (ILP), so the left approved. For now.

Macdonald was to be supported by Arthur Henderson who would take over his old job as party secretary and de facto deputy where he could help look after the low politics of Westminster.

If it wasn’t quite the dream ticket, it was certainly closer than the dog-eared bus tickets of previous leaderships.

On the 6th of February 1911, the new leadership team were confirmed in their roles and hit the ground running. The dynamic duo set to work tackling the number one priority facing the country: MPs’ pay.

More than unemployment or Irish home rule, a government-funded salary for members of parliament was the burning issue of the day. Well, it was for Labour MPs anyway, and not in an “expenses” way either.

Before 1911, MPs had to be supported by their party, by a union or, for the Tories, whichever chunk of Shropshire they managed to inherit. For Labour, thanks to the Osborne judgement which prohibited unions from funding the party, finding a way to maintain the £200 per year stipend was increasingly difficult.

So Ramsay Macdonald used MPs’ wages as his chief demand for continued support of the Liberal government. In 1911 provision for a state-funded payment of £400 per year was agreed and inserted into the parliament act limiting the Lords powers. This was a victory for Macdonald, although it can’t have been that hard to convince Liberal MPs to vote for more money for MPs.

Critics suggested this document was a fair summation of the parliamentary Labour party’s socialism

Macdonald was a hero to the parliamentary party. Doubling their wages and freeing union resources to spend on party campaigns meant he commanded a united and supportive parliamentary party.

Unfortunately, outside the gilded corridors of Westminster, pay rises for everyone was not the order of the day.


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