Macmillan asked me if I would like to review their book by John Shepherd and Keith Laybourn on “Britain’s First Labour Government”. I agreed to as I suspected it would prove very topical, and so it proved.
For 287 days in 1924 the UK experienced a Labour government for the first time. It was a minority government which relied on Liberal votes to keep it in office. The Conservatives under Baldwin called an early General Election in December 1923, wrongly anticipating a win. The result produced 258 Conservative MPs, 191 Labour and 158 Liberals. Baldwin decided to carry on as Prime Minister despite his clear defeat. Shortly afterwards he lost a vote of No confidence in the Commons and the King rightly called on Labour to see if it could form an administration. Labour was able to govern for almost a year driving through some reforms they wanted, despite the lack of a majority.
The authors capture the suspicion of the Establishment over asking Labour to form a government, and over its people and attitudes. They point out that many of the Labour Cabinet members had little formal education, and were not used to being part of the UK governing clique. They were, however, schooled in Labour and Trade Union politics and administration, and supported by defectors from the Liberal party, which was in those days much more used to government office. Some like John Wheatley rose to the challenge of office as Housing Minister and made a lasting impact on UK society.
They chronicle the twists and turns of the relationship with the Unions. Then as now, this was to prove pivotal in Labour politics. Labour MPs owed much to the Unions that had sponsored them or supported their party on its way to office. The leading figures, especially the Prime Minister, felt they had to show independence from the Unions to justify their position in government and to woo people to the idea that Labour might govern in the interest of the many, not just of the Unionised workers. The air was full of accusations of treachery as Labour withstood strikes or tried to bargain with their argumentative sometime supporters.
I have some sympathy myself for Ramsay Macdonald, the first Labour Prime Minister. Maybe it was inevitable that he ended up disliked by his own party for the compromises he felt government and power forced upon him later in his career. My own sympathy comes from his brave and widely unpopular decision to oppose the Great War in 1914-18. Whilst I do not share the pacifism of part of the Labour movement that was more common in the early twentieth century, I do think we have fought too many wars.
Sometimes, as with the Falklands or Kuwait, recourse to arms is necessary to restore international order. It is more difficult to see why most politicians thought fighting the 1914 war could conceivably be in the UK’s interest. They were led to war by a collective outburst of patriotism without proper thought for what the peace might look like or how many deaths might occur before victory. The gross tragedy of that war, with slaughter on an industrial scale, was made worse by the knowledge we now have that the subsequent victory and peace with Germany did not settle the German question but led to a even greater but necessary war to deal with Nazism. Churchill himself was impatient with the establishment for risking too many lives in attacks by men running across No man’s land, and not turning more to machines to settle the impasse of the trenches. Men who opposed the war risked accusations of cowardice. It was one of those most bitter conflicts, where the higher the casualties the more the impulse to revenge and the desire for victory.
The main achievement of the Labour government was to establish the idea of Council housing as another means to try to complete the popular promise of homes fit for heroes. Whether you agree with Council housing or not, it was an idea that became an important part of twentieth century UK reality. Less progress was made with pr0moting female equality and with the need for more and better education. That was to come later, and not just from Labour.
The General election that followed Labour’s period in government was overwhelmed by the Zinoviev Red letter implying Labour’s links with communist Russia made it an unreliable party for government. It fed a prejudice of the day that was not accurate, and left Labour in opposition with more time to try to reconcile the continuing central struggle – how much power over policy should the Unions expect in return for all the support they gave the party? This timely work reminds us of other periods when no party had a majority, and how they handled that situation in a lively Commons. It is a good read for those who wish to understand more of Labour’s origins and of the role of the Commons when no party is in charge.