Rock Bottom: What Can Labour Learn From Its Worst Defeat?

By Scott Cresswell

Like every democratic political party around the globe, there are victories, and then there are defeats. Labour has had its fair share of the latter.

There are some years of electoral disaster that Labour must never cease to remind itself of. 1983 and 2019 both spring to mind. None of them, however, should take seniority over the dreaded 1931.

It’s been ninety years, on 27th October, that the country went to the polls yet again. It had been the fifth election in ten years. The land was switching between David Lloyd George liberalism, Stanley Baldwin conservatism, and Ramsay MacDonald socialism. Yet, on that fateful day in 1931, the public delivered one of the most damning electoral judgements in the United Kingdom’s long history.

Established as the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, Labour had been founded by Keir Hardie and other trade unionists as a united force for democratic socialism. Previously, several Labour organisations like the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Social Democratic Federation, none of which were united for success. Labour was founded as a vehicle for the government to change the lives of working people and radically improve their living standards. It took time, but by the 1920s, with the aid of a split Liberal Party, Labour became one of the two leading contenders for the government. Although it only lasted less than a year, the first Labour government was created in January 1924, with Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister. The second followed five years later.

When MacDonald formed his second minority Labour government in 1929, it was five months before the Wall Street Crash. However, the months after October 1929 until August 1931 were challenging times for the government and the public, and the poorest in society as unemployment rose to over 20%. Politicians like Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, and James Callaghan were forged in the harsh days of the 1930s, and it explains their use of Keynesian economics in the ministries of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, something Thatcher disapproved of. Regardless, the Labour government fell prey to the economic difficulties of the time.

The government’s collapse didn’t come from an embarrassing defeat of no-confidence, nor even a general election. In August 1931, MacDonald and his Chancellor Phillip Snowden faced a revolt over the government’s plan to cut unemployment benefits. Aneurin Bevan, a relatively new MP elected two years prior, became a harsh critic of MacDonald’s government and was one of many elected who disagreed with the government’s policies. In short, with the government deeply divided and the country facing unprecedented economic troubles, MacDonald was forced to resign. However, as is familiar with British politics, there was a twist.

Historian Robert Waller rightly notes in the excellent Iain Dale’s The Prime Minister (and its respective podcast) that the opinion of King George V was crucial:

“MacDonald’s diary suggests that on 23rd August (1931) he expected to leave office the next day. However, the intervention of King George V may well have been critical. On the morning of 24th August he implored MacDonald to stay on for the benefit of the country in the grave economic emergency.”

It was the last time the Monarch had any natural effect on British politics (excluding the abdication five years later). Nevertheless, MacDonald was a man of duty and, as a monarchist, he agreed to form a temporary National Government comprised of Tories, Liberals, and, theoretically, Labour MPs. Unfortunately, that is where MacDonald got it wrong. He believed that his party would accept the National Government and Labour’s participation within it. However, except for just 15 “National” Labourites (including MacDonald and Snowden), over 250 Labour MPs remained independent of the government, and MacDonald was expelled from his party for treason. Trade unionist Arthur Henderson became Labour leader unopposed shortly afterwards.

The National Government’s formation soon proved to be more than just a temporary measure. According to the Conservative/National manifesto of October 1931, they “expected that the co-operation then secured would last only a few weeks, but recent events have rendered it necessary, in my (Stanley Baldwin’s) view, that the period of this co-operation should be extended”. With the mountainous problems the country was facing, a National Government could hardly last just a few months. Either way, temporary or otherwise, the damage had been done to Labour.

When general elections come around, the public rarely decides them by some inane political detail or a bizarre political event, such as the Prime Minister hiding in a fridge to avoid accountability. It’s always down to their living standards and whether it had increased or decreased since the previous poll. In the case of 1931, the people overwhelmingly voiced the latter. The result couldn’t be described as a close-run thing. On the contrary, it was a humiliation for Labour, and they left with, excluding unendorsed and independent socialists, just 46 MPs.

On the other hand, the National Government won 554 seats (470 MPs were Conservatives) and a whopping 67% of the vote. 1983 and 2019 look like subtle defeats compared to the monolithic 1931. It remains Labour’s worst-ever election result as even the party’s leader, Arthur Henderson, was defeated in Burnley. The result made MacDonald one of the most hated figures in Labour history.

Some general elections are, in the long term, important. These elections occur once in a generation or two. Some prominent examples would be 1945, 1979, 1997, and maybe even 2019. 1931 is arguably the most important of them all, not so much on domestic politics, but on Labour itself.

Although most of the Labour Party stayed independent from the National Government from 1931 until the rise of Winston Churchill’s Wartime Coalition, the party’s direction moved firmly to the left. George Lansbury (a known pacifist) became leader, and a consensus emerged in the party that Ramsay MacDonald would go down in history as the great betrayer of socialism. It was one of the few areas during the rocky thirties where members of the left, like Lansbury, and members of the right, like Attlee, agreed.

Were it not for the Second World War; Labour may have remained in opposition for two decades; the National Government showed no signs of unpopularity before 1939. But, as ever, the war changed everything. Attlee’s Labour government deserves the praise it gets for forming the NHS and expanding the welfare state, but he became the first of five Labour Prime Ministers to be accused of betrayal. Although today’s left regard Attlee as a hero (as they should), they indeed weren’t kind to him. A. J. P Taylor, a democratic socialist historian, regarded Britain’s finest leader as too cautious and careful, while Harold Laski, chairman of Labour from 1945 to 1946, believed Attlee was a dull leader that needed to resign as Labour leader as soon as possible.

A Sheep in Sheep's Clothing | Origins: Current Events in Historical  Perspective

Thirteen years after Labour lost power in 1951, Harold Wilson became the country’s youngest Prime Minister since Lord Rosebery by riding the two battle-worn horses of Gaitskellites and Bevanites. It would be a severe understatement to claim that, by 1976, both sides disliked Wilson. He stood in a bizarre centre where the left believed him to be a turncoat (he was once a staunch ally of Bevan), and the right thought that he allowed Labour to slip from the greasy hands of social democrats into the palms of Bennite socialists. When a dog-tired Wilson did resign, he pointed out that his most outstanding achievement was “to keep the Labour Party together”. In retrospect, it was far more than an achievement. It was a miracle.

James Callaghan’s Labour government from 1976 to 1979 was the last of an era. It was before Thatcher’s full embracement of monetarism, but many on the left, most notably Benn himself, blamed Callaghan’s government for beginning the change in government economics. The IMF crisis (when the currency collapsed and was forced to seek a loan) early in Callaghan’s premiership was a sign of things to come. Despite Callaghan being the last true enabler of Cabinet government (which led to incredibly lengthy but often united discussions on policy), Benn used the track record of the government years later in opposition to rally the angry left around him.

During the 1980 Labour conference, Benn did his utmost to trash the history of the government, to the dismay of Callaghan (as Labour – The Wilderness Years – Cast into the Wilderness documents here at 4:21). During the eighties, Militant Tendency blamed Callaghan for the Winter of Discontent and the government’s response to the sterling crisis. On the night of the 1983 election, three years after Callaghan resigned the leadership to the more left-wing Michael Foot, he was asked if the left would blame him for the election loss. “Possibly, but if they do they’ll be hiding their heads in the sand”, Sunny Jim said with a characteristic smile.

With accusations from the left of betrayal thrown at the feet of Attlee, Wilson, and Callaghan, is there any point discussing Tony Blair and Gordon Brown? Benn once said:

“He (Blair) set up a new political party, New Labour.”

New Labour is a term that dare not speak its name, even in today’s Labour. It isn’t just the 2003 Invasion of Iraq that infuriates the left, but also the continuation of Margaret Thatcher’s neo-liberal economics. In many ways, Blair is more of a betrayer than MacDonald to Bennites and allies of the Socialist Campaign Group. Although Blair didn’t form a national government, he moved the party away from economic socialism and towards not conservatism but liberalism and social democracy. Also, unlike MacDonald, Blair committed the heinous crime of winning three general elections, two of which by unprecedented Labour landslides. Often to the Labour left, winning power is the greatest crime of all. His successor and Chancellor, Gordon Brown, may not have won an election, but he was the face of New Labour’s economics and, therefore, ranks highly as another betrayer. The fact that New Labour secured power for thirteen consecutive years from 1997 to 2010 is moot.

Since Labour usurped the Liberals into becoming one of the two major parties in Britain in 1922, eighteen prime ministers have been. Only six represent Labour. If the party loses the next election in 2024, then only one leader would have been elected in fifty years. Labour has a fascination with unfairly depicting their leaders as betrayers. MacDonald’s ghost looms large over the reputations of Attlee, Wilson, Callaghan, Blair, and Brown. The same will happen if Keir Starmer wins the premiership. It may have even happened to Corbyn.

1931 has many lessons for Labour, but two are key to understanding its impact.

Firstly, Labour has never succeeded as a sectarian group. Whether you agree with what MacDonald did or not, his move was fuelled by patriotism and putting the country first. Second, Labour is successful when it unites people. In 1945, after the woes of war, the working classes and the middle classes joined. Britain was not going to return to the famine of the thirties. In 1964, Wilson exuded the mood of the swinging sixties and united many with his dream of a “Britain forged in the white heat of technological revolution”. In 1997, after nearly two decades of divisive Tory rule, Blair harnessed the centre-ground and united the country in ensuring that Britain would prosper and modernise as a new millennium began to dawn over Britain.

Secondly, in an ironic twist of fate, 1931 can give Labour hope. In 1983, newly elected leader Neil Kinnock said of the 1983 result:

“Remember how you felt on that dreadful morning of 10th June. Just remember how you felt then, and think to yourselves: 9th June, 1983, never ever again will we experience that”

As we all know, 2019 was just as disastrous. But in 1931, Labour had just 46 MPs, over 150 less than they currently hold. Fourteen years later, Labour won the 1945 election with a massive landslide and achieved one of the most significant electoral swings ever recorded. Today, Labour can win the next election. Keir Starmer can be the next Prime Minister. He needs to seize the moment, just as Attlee, Wilson, and Blair did.

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