Better 1983 than 1931

The defeat of Labour in the 1983 General Election has clearly entered into folklore for many in the party, and simplistic, mono-causal explanations are common. It is an interesting phenomenon, and not one confined to the Labour Party, that historical events of great complexity are shoehorned into the confines of contemporary, factional disputes.

But let us look at the argument advanced by many Progress supporters, and others on the centre right of the party, that we need to win elections from the centre ground, and then move the centre ground once in office.

Firstly, the whole concept of a “centre ground” implies a managerial approach to government where there is an incremental gradation between left and right. There can be no stable “centre ground” when two incompatible political or economic theories are being contested.

Much is said of the way that both Attlee and Thatcher created a paradigm shift that resulted in a new political consensus. However, those political sea-changes were a result of both changes in the actually existing political-economy, and the consequence of shifting intellectual debate outside of the small world of electoral politics, and neither Attlee nor Thatcher won from the centre ground.

It is surely incontrovertible that the greatest Labour government was that resulting from Clement Attlee’s general election victory of 1945. But the prelude to 1945 was the long recovery from the melt down of the  second Labour government in 1931.

Those of us who grew up in traditional Labour supporting families in the 1960s and 1970s will have been immersed in the folkloric betrayal by MacDonald and Snowden in 1931. In the face of the Great Depression they proposed cutting unemployment benefit and reducing public sector wages.

Neither of them were bad men, nor were they on the political right. MacDonald was a former Marxist who had opposed the First World War. Snowden, who had been an inspiring speaker about the future socialist utopia, afterwards became a Keynesian and abandoned his support for MacDonald. They did however consider themselves at the time to be prisoners of political moderation and economic orthodoxy. The Labour Party’s own economic theory in the 1920s had been based upon an underconsumptionist model that failed to account for the 1929 crash, and they were under massive political and establishment pressure to maintain a balanced budget to stay on the gold standard. This was a position of such overwhelming orthodoxy, and with such massive public support, that for the Labour government to defy the expectation would put themselves outside the pale of establishment opinion.

The opponents of MacDonald and Snowden in 1931 were hardly firebrand impossibilists. JR Clynes and Arthur Henderson were both former leaders of the Labour Party. Clynes was a former senior official in the GMWU (now GMB), and Henderson an official of the Iron Founders Union, who advocated social partnership. They had the impeccable “moderate” credentials: both had supported Britain’s involvement in the First World War, and Clynes as Home Secretary had refused permission for Leon Trotsky to enter the UK.

However, they did know the difference between right and wrong. They did know that a Labour Party that aspired to build a fairer and more equal society had to side with the victims of an unjust and exploitative economic system, and not simply accept the self-serving economic orthodoxy of the rich. Their instinctive solidarity with the poor was informed by their own personal experience. They had become MPs not as part of a career plan, but because they had arisen out of the working class as able fighters for their fellow workers, their neighbours, families and communities.

The 1930s were difficult times for the Labour Party, and Labour were punished in the 1931 General Election, before recovering in 1935. However, had it not been for the strength and courage of the MPs, and their trade union backers, who refused to vote for cuts to unemployment benefit in 1931, then the Labour Party would have ceased to exist.

In circumstances far more difficult than today, the Labour Party carried out a moral and intellectual rearmament during the 1930s, embedding itself in communities as the centre of opposition to ruthless Conservatism, and developing practical but radical policies that would transform Britain. It was this process which meant that Labour was ready to return to government in 1940 and to win an outright election victory in 1945.

I hadn’t seen Ann Pettifor’s article on a similar theme when I wrote this. You can see Ann’s article here

14 comments on “Better 1983 than 1931

  1. George Hallam on said:

    The 1930s were difficult times for the Labour Party, and Labour were punished in the 1932 General Election

    The 1932 General Election?

  2. Adam Buick on said:

    Ramsay MacDonald was never a Marxist and never claimed to be one. In fact before WWI he wrote books and pamphlets criticising Marx. To his credit he did oppose that war but on Liberal, pacifist grounds.

  3. Adam Buick: Ramsay MacDonald was never a Marxist and never claimed to be one

    MacDonald was a former member of the avowedly Marxist SDF in Bristol in the 1880s. At that time in his youth he was indeed a Marxist.

    The fact that some 30 years later at the time of the first world war he was no longer a marxist does not change that fact.

    Of course there were Marxists and former Marxists, on both sides of that argument, and for example Will Thorne supported the war.

  4. David Hillman on said:

    Callaghan’s speech referred to in Anne’s article is better than I remember but the biggest counterfactual is that the social contract while defusing militancy did protect the poor. What actually led to the winter of discontent was the face that wage restraint affected more than anyone the poorest members of society.

  5. Adam Buick on said:

    Andy Newman: MacDonald was a former member of the avowedly Marxist SDF in Bristol in the 1880s. At that time in his youth he was indeed a Marxist.

    Interesting but I don’t think that in 1881 the Democratic Federation (as it then would have been) could be described as “Marxist” or even claimed to be nor that MacDonald would have regarded himself as one. Before WWI he was a prolific writer of books and pamphlets all of them critical of Marx. But I suppose that in the interwar period Labour Party leaders having been a member of the SDF (eg Herbert Morrison, George Lansbury, Ernest Bevin) was like having once been a Trotskyist these days.

  6. Andy Newman on said:

    Adam Buick,

    no. Macdonald joined the SDF in 1885, not 1881, by which time the SDF had become explicitly Marxist. Surely the name change on 1884 itself adopted a term “social democratic” which at the time was a synonym for Marxist.

  7. #7 Of course to complicate matters those who it could be argued were the true Marxists split to form the Socialist League in the same year.

    Life of Brian anyone? 🙂

  8. Andy Newman on said:

    Adam Buick,

    I also dispute the caracature that opposition to the war by leading Labour figures like Macdonald and Hardy was “liberal and pacifist”.

    This strand of opinion in the party was informed by the economist Hobson, who had an analysis of imperialism not dissimilar to Hilferding’s. But which believed that war could be prevented by the development of transnational institutions, socialist governments and the outlawing of secret diplomacy.

    These views also had currency in the parts of the party supporting the war, which explains why Arthur Henderson resigned from the war cabinet in 1917 when he was prevented by HM Government from attending the Stockholm conference of socialist parties from all beligerent countries organised by the Kerensky govt to seek terms for peace

  9. BigTam on said:

    Surprised that Adam Buick should have fallen into the trap of denying MacDonald’s ‘Marxist period’ but, in fairness it was, like the man himself, even more insubstantial than that of hundreds of others for whom a visit to SDF membership was a rite of passage. He did join in 1985 but decamped the following year with the Bristol Socialist Union. Whether that made him a ‘Marxist’ is as questionable as whether signing up for the SWP at a petition stall would do so nowadays. It certainly makes not a tosser of difference to the curious framework of debate which Andy offers – whether MacDonald and the egregious “Coom to Jesus” Snowden were or were not “bad men”.

    It’s also difficult to see why Andy introduces Keir Hardie into his attempt to enhance MacDonald’s anti-war stance. Whilst claims that the war broke Hardie’s heart may be over-dramatic, his opposition certainly hastened his demise and isolated him within the Labour Party and his constituency of Merthyr Tydfil. MacDonald’s sleekit positioning, on the other hand, has been well characterised by Manny Shinwell, who heard “a man who loathed past wars, regarded future wars with abhorrence, but carefully evaded giving his opinion on the basic question of the current one.”. MacDonald could have honoured Hardie’s memory by espousing his position: instead, as ever, he temporised; the rest we know.

  10. #11 It’s easy to forget how far rightwards the political centre of gravity has moved.

    My MP, Gerald Kaufman, has moved to the left just by standing still.

  11. john Grimshaw on said:

    The fact that some 30 years later at the time of the first world war he was no longer a marxist does not change that fact.

    Which would presumably make him ineligible to be a supporter/member of today’s LP?

  12. john Grimshaw: Which would presumably make him ineligible to be a supporter/member of today’s LP?

    The fact he is dead would probably count more against him.

    But his past membership of SDF would have been no problem in the current rules, I suspect. But his standing against official Labour candidates in the 1931 and 1935 elections, and joining a coalition government with the Tories without the approval of the Labour NEC, would mean that as an expelled member, he would have had to reappy to the NEC,, who would have to consider his case on its merits.

    The most interesting turbulent political career in the party’s history must be John Strachey, unambiguously a Marxist in the 1930s, and Oswald Mosley’s PPS when Mosley was a Labour cabinet minister. Strachey left Labour with MOsley to join the proto-facsist New Party, and then became an anti-fascist, helped found the Left Book Club, was supported by the CP as an independent parliamentary candidate, and was readmitted to the Labour Party, being reelected as an MP in 1945, and contimued as a Labour MP until 1963.